In 1955 and ’56, Swiss émigré Robert Frank took a series of photographs of small-towners and city-dwellers, using their caught-on-the-fly poses to comment on despair, decay, and patriotism for a collection published in 1959 as The Americans. In the documentary An American Journey, French journalist Philippe Séclier traces Frank’s steps, looking for the places and people he photographed, as well as those who worked closely with him. Séclier stops in the Montana hotel where Frank snapped a grim picture of downtown Butte, and the small Arkansas town where Frank was imprisoned for half a day under suspicion of espionage. He even locates the little boy Frank photographed at a town picnic, and discovers he’s now a late-middle-aged man who had no idea he’d become so iconic.
An American Journey is short and scattered, and doesn’t follow through often enough on its “catching up with The Americans 50 years later” premise. The best parts of the movie deal with the impact of the book itself, from its original hostile reception to the way it helped popularize the “snapshot aesthetic” that later became common in art photography. None other than Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to The Americans, but while Frank’s sense of immediacy made him seem like a fellow traveler to the “first thought, best thought” Beats, An American Journey emphasizes how much effort and planning went into Frank’s spontaneity.
The problem is that Séclier himself is no Frank, and whenever he tries to make An American Journey into his own version of The Americans—by training his camera on the blur of the rolling highway, or by lingering on a fiery street evangelist—he renders prosaic what Frank made indelible. An American Journey concludes well, with the striking image of a cowboy-hatted Chinese woman taking in a local exhibit of Frank’s work, thus receiving a vision of America though multiple filters. But too much of the movie treats as gospel one critic’s assertion that “it takes an outsider to show us” the real America. Frank made the familiar seem exotic because he had the eye and soul of an artist. When Séclier tries it, he just comes off as myopic.