‘Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank’ review: An unusual snapshot of iconic photographer

Robert Frank in "Leaving Home, Coming Home," which was shot in 2004. 
Robert Frank in "Leaving Home, Coming Home," which was shot in 2004.  Photo Credit: © Martha Cooper

‘Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank’

Documentary directed by Gerald Fox

Playing at Film Forum

“Why are they filming you, are you famous?” a family at the Coney Island Boardwalk asks. “I took some pictures here 50 years ago.”

So responds Robert Frank, whose book “The Americans,” many art historians agree, is among the most influential collection of photographs of the 20th century.

“Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank,” is an unusual documentary for many reasons. Anything about a photographer will emphasize frozen moments in time. Director Gerald Fox shot this in 2004; note the bus ads for Tom Cruise in “Collateral.” It ran with a retrospective at London’s Tate Gallery and aired on British television, but Frank, who owns the rights to his images, asked it not screen in cinemas. Fox believes he got too personal with the then-80 year old.

Now, with Frank still alive at 94, it will show at Manhattan’s Film Forum.

It’s quite the New York document. Swiss-born Frank (his father was a German Jew fleeing Nazism) came here in his early 20s. He isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy. “This city costs a lot, and I don’t just mean money,” he grumbles, noting “yuppie” changes of his East Village neighborhood. (Naturally, watching in 2019, the 2004 corner of Bowery and Bleecker looks positively quaint!)

When Fox’s crew needs him to repeat something, he refuses. “This is all theater!” he spits during a back-and-forth with his second wife, the sculptor June Leaf. Perhaps in not getting the right footage, they got the truest footage.

If Frank has an irritable disposition, there may be a reason. For every career triumph, like the Beat Generation short film “Pull My Daisy” narrated by Jack Kerouac, there was a setback, like the notorious Rolling Stones tour film “[Expletive] Blues” that Mick Jagger watched, paid for, then decided should never be released.

More important are Frank’s personal tragedies. His daughter died at age 20 in a plane crash. His son’s mental health grew worse over decades before he died at the age of 44. Frank recorded it all in moving and still images.

“Leaving Home, Coming Home” is tricky, in that it reveals much but also keeps things hidden. There is hardly any mention of Frank’s first wife and mother of his children, artist Mary Frank. Weirdly, Fox shows images adjacent to Frank’s most famous picture (“Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955”) but not the classic shot itself. There’s a strange feeling that this film isn’t being completely frank.