Features | Songs Sung Blue: The Films of Michael Robinson

By Michael Sicinski

We’d been to paradise, but we’d never been to Me

After the grand phenomenological projects of Stan Brakhage and Gregory Markopoulos, the encyclopedic conceptualism of Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton, and the grand syntagmatiques of Yvonne Rainer and mid-to-late Jean-Luc Godard, the going line in experimental film and video criticism was that intelligent artists keen on avoiding glib postmodern ironies and rigid identity politics would most likely be found tending to small, rather manageable gardens.

Tom Gunning’s “minor cinema” thesis has been misconstrued in all sorts of ways, but he did in fact hit upon a vital aspect of the Zeitgeist. After modernism, and after postmodernism, many experimental filmmakers avoided making bold, far-ranging cinematic statements, big works confident in the validity of their emotions and their right to command the room. Modesty in aim, tenor, and execution was considered to be only good manners. (I actually recall arguments during my undergraduate days as to whether “masterpiece” was an imperialist category, not to mention a sexist concept. Ah, youth.)

Every now and then I fall apart

Luckily, the tide has shifted. It’s not just that filmmakers are heedlessly producing masterworks again, although there have indeed been a scandalously high number of them lately. But one thing that unites many of these exemplary but otherwise disparate films and videos—Nathaniel Dorsky’s Song and Solitude, Ken Jacobs’ Capitalism: Child Labor (both 2006) David Gatten’s What the Water Said, nos. 4-6, Jeanne Liotta’s Observando El Cielo, Phil Solomon’s In MemoriamMark LaPore series (all 2007)—is their willingness to engage in rather direct, even sweeping emotional effects. These films exist along an affective spectrum as vibrant and variegated as anything in the recent work of Wong Kar-wai, Gus Van Sant, Claire Denis, or Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Nothing “minor” here.

Michael Robinson’s work is at the heart of this new shift. In fact, the development of his film work could be seen as a response to this precise problem: How can experimental cinema retain its connection to history, remaining cognizant of the various crises of representation, without lapsing into nihilism? Or, for that matter, how is it possible to harness filmic effects in order to produce feelings of dread, longing, or even spontaneous release, without veering into ridiculousness or self-importance? How can we accept the failure (for now) of the grand designs of modernity and still operate on a plane of sincerity, commitment, and belief?

And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”

Robinson’s early works, such as Tidal (2001) and Chiquitita and the Soft Eclipse (2003), show a filmmaker still finding his voice, although the progression in just two years is nothing short of remarkable. Tidal, completed while Robinson was a student at Ithaca College (where he studied with David Gatten), is in many respects a traditional landscape film, moving with alternating velocity through the bucolic surroundings of what appears to be a farmhouse. With Chiquitita, a film in two parts, we begin to see Robinson’s struggle with modernist procedures. The first half consists of a series of relatively quick vertical tracking shots which describe various interior features in close-up: a doorframe, a windowpane, the edge of a beam of light, etc. Robinson’s precise editing and camera movement link the individual shots into a single line of ascension, higher and higher out of the frame but never achieving actual escape. In the second half, these clean procedures give way to the bustle of human activity and a considerably more porous treatment of the film frame. At a few points there are echoes of the vertical stripe amidst the layers of staccato superimposition, but the damage is done: the clamour of actually-existing life will undermine most any formal parameter, given the chance.

This interruption, in its most basic form, is the subject of Robinson’s subsequent film, Birds of North America (2004). It may be Robinson’s simplest work, and at first glance his most atypical. The film consists of nine single takes of similar landscape compositions: grassy meadow, rolling hill in the background, blue sky, sun, clouds occupying approximately the top third of the frame. During the camera role, a performer enters the frame, picks up another performer, and carries him or her out of frame in long shot. The piece hints at Robinson’s interest in unconventional explorations of cinematic space, and his treatment of landscape will never again be this straightforward.

Why make yourself so anxious? You’ll give yourself an ulcer

you don’t bring me flowers (2005) is the film that first garnered substantial attention for Robinson, and with good reason. It combines a refreshingly wry commentary on suburban America’s fascination with “the exotic” with a perverse misreading of landscape cinema, while at the same time comically invoking visual modernism’s push/pull dialectic between surface and depth. Robinson begins and ends the film with hazy images of a photographer fiddling with his tripod out in the yard. Although this footage is material Robinson shot himself, the warmth of its Kodachrome hues paradoxically puts it in the past, steeping it in false nostalgia like a found-object home movie from the ‘70s. The bulk of the film, however, consists of a slideshow-like presentation of two-page spreads from National Geographic, all depicting some outdoor location either at home or (mostly) abroad. Robinson gives us about four seconds with each vista, which serves all the more to emphasize the magazine’s reduction of this world to consumable tourism. (The titular Diamond/Streisand number perhaps hints at a long-promised tropical vacation intended to reignite flames of passion in a moribund marriage.) Only piercing-orange end flares (and an unexpected sonic drop-in from Frank Sinatra) disrupt this flattening-out of the world.

It’s not the way that you dance, and it’s not the evening sky

If flowers was the appearance of a significant new voice, Robinson’s next film, And We All Shine On (2006), represents the breakthrough. As Robinson notes below, it was at this point that he began moving away from the avant garde’s canonical image- and sound-bank, boldly incorporating more contemporary sources into the mix. And We All Shine On is book-ended with underexposed night shots of trees, images produced in such low light conditions that depth and motion are frequently almost impossible to perceive. Instead, the infinite expanse of sky is a cobalt blue Yves Klein canvas, festooned with iridescent green or gold leaf. The middle portion of the film, however, is even more striking. Robinson takes us down a lengthy left-to-right composite tracking shot comprised of segments of a very low-tech, Atari-era video game. We see desolate checkerboard landscapes of glaring blues and greens, chintzy pyramids or totem poles in the background, and game figures weaving in and out of this ill-defined geometrical space. The terms of landscape in cinema are hereby reversed: nature promises us the indexical image but it stops time and immobilizes the spectator, and the lateral unfolding of movement across time and space comes only at the expense of any verisimilitude or concrete history, any “space” at all. Robinson orchestrates this ontological conundrum with the A-B-A structure of a song, and brings its emotional toll crashing in with a karaoke breakbeat. Although the title is lifted from John Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” Robinson’s actual soundtrack choice is Prince (by way of Sinead O’Connor)—“Nothing Compares 2 U.” Given that this song entered the pantheon by way of a performer now infamous for her ill-fated attempt to publicly cleave charlatanry from the spiritual realm, Robinson’s choice is particularly inspired.

But that’s where the hornet stung me

The emotive power of popular music, explored to such potent effect in Shine, achieves an apotheosis in Robinson’s other film from 2006, The General Returns From One Place to Another. More than any other work of Robinson’s, The General Returns achieves something heady, ethereal, altogether mysterious and nearly impossible to define. This was my introduction to Robinson, and the immediate reaction was a mixture of seduction and befuddlement, the sense that an audio-visual world for which I had no available vocabulary or affective framework had just opened up before my eyes. Although later works are in some senses more accomplished, I still consider The General Returns to be Robinson’s defining film. Subsequent dips into its perfumed pool naturally reveal some of its secrets: a group of loosely related elements are suspended in proximity and allowed to hover, forming a kind of conceptual cloud. The film takes its title from a one-act Frank O’Hara play in which a Douglas MacArthur-like character expounds his views on poetry and politics. Robinson provides fragments of the text as subtitles beneath two distinct but related classes of sylvan imagery. We see fragmented close-ups of leaves, branches, and piercing light, all in sumptuously hazy focus, followed by slow, balletic pans that encircle our putative protagonist, a woman in a blue knit cap and wool sweater staring off into the distance. She stands at the bank of a stream, a man beckoning her to follow. The general tells us that flowers decay and that this is their value. Her gazes fade out and other, slightly altered gazes fade in. Cue The Hollies: Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe and to love you.

The stars look very different today

A hard act to follow, to be sure. But 2007 has found Robinson in a playful, even sci-fi kind of mood, expanding his concern with landscape and exoticism in unexpected directions. Light Is Waiting turns an episode of TV’s Full House into a comic/existential nightmare, the clan trapped in ‘70s video artwork complete with axial symmetry, violent strobing, and a tacit inquiry into the hidden geopolitics of TV tourism when ABC’s Friday night line-up takes a Polynesian vacation. Most recently, Victory Over the Sun, Robinson’s most complex work, surveys the abandoned grounds of various World’s Fairs in order to pay homage to their architectural remains. These ruins are all that remain not only of a particular strain of modernism (Le Corbusier, Buckminster Fuller), but of a particular way of conceiving of the future as an intentional creation. At first, I read Victory as a mournful valediction to utopian thinking. But when further research revealed that the space-people are chanting lines from Ayn Rand’s Anthem, I realized that Robinson may in fact be pointing to a key irony. The World’s Fairs, like the Guns N’ Roses song that accompanies the film’s emotional crescendo, are dreams cut to the measure of capital. This, of course, makes them no less potent, the needs they invoke no less genuine.

Michael Robinson and I discussed his work via email over three days of cold November rain.

Cinema Scope: One of the most impressive aspects of your films is the fact that they aren’t easy to parse or pin down in terms of a set of techniques. The closest I’ve come to articulating what it is you seem to do is that instead of combining found or disparate elements in some dialectical manner, the way found footage films tend to do, you often assemble a host of ingredients and allow them to hover, in a kind of open field, forming relationships but retaining their distance. Would you say this is off base?

Michael Robinson: Not at all. I consider my films as taking the surface of various things, as in the surface connotation of a given landscape, text, song, etc., and forcing these surfaces into proximity with one another so as to create some kind of new resonance between them. In a sense, none of the films are “about” the different elements they contain, but are more concerned with the distance and movement between sources, and with how to forge a narrative arc out of essentially non-narrative materials.

Scope: This makes sense, because that distance tends to leave the elements largely intact. I’d guess this might be a sticking point for some viewers, since a certain tradition in experimental film and video insists on critiquing or ironizing its sources. To my eyes, only Light Is Waiting comes close to this approach, and even then you don’t mock the Full House footage by any means, even as you allow some of its sillier aspects to come through. But a film like Victory Over the Sun creates a space for Guns N’ Roses to be taken with complete seriousness and treated as a poignant expression of loss.

Robinson: The appropriation in Light Is Waiting is a bit different, in that while I’m not necessarily mocking Full House, I am underlining its problems and letting it speak for itself. My other recent films are less interested in antagonizing their source materials so much as reconfiguring them, harnessing them as psychological or emotional triggers within broader compositions. In other words, I don’t have an agenda against Guns N’ Roses, National Geographic, or Frank O’Hara. And in regards to silliness, I’ve become intent on letting my work have some humour to it, adding a little levity to what seems like pretty dark territory. Although I guess it goes both ways, as I do feel my films have gotten concurrently more apocalyptic and funnier.

Scope: I agree. And that issue of apocalypse certainly seems vital to your two most recent films, Light Is Waiting and especially Victory Over the Sun. It seems to me that lots of films over the past several decades have tackled the so-called failure of modernism in the aesthetic realm, and in particular within avant-garde film. The anguish over Icarus’ crash, as it were—that modernism perhaps promised and could not deliver victory over the sun—is more than a cinematic matter in your work. It’s about shattered dreams of intentional community, of a future that held space for envisioning in any way, shape or form. Victory and The General Returns From One Place to Another for that matter strike me as works saturated with mourning.

Robinson: While it seems to be common knowledge that we’re on the fast track to doom, the memory of progress is not entirely dead. And while it may seem like a joke at this point, the possibility of learning from the past remains, even if that means starting over in some sense (the spaceship escapes at the end of Victory Over the Sun, shimmering beauty survives the collapse of text and music in The General Returns, the fall of America might not be such a bad thing for humanity, etc.). The work I was making six years ago was actually much more mournful, claustrophobically so in my opinion. I think of my recent films as addressing mourning, but using their engagement with loss and sorrow to get somewhere a bit more optimistic, or at least point in that direction. The vacant landscapes in Victory Over the Sun are, in a sense, more cynical than the film itself, in that the sci-fi bombast of the film’s other elements deliver it to an altogether ridiculous and open space. And it’s in this leap from formal “looking” to transparent operatics that I aim to spin these films towards hopefulness, as there’s a freedom to be gained in that freefall.

Scope: This is really enlightening, and casts your recent work in a very different light. But with a film like And We All Shine On, I can start to see what you’re talking about. At first, I suppose the disjuncture of the forest imagery and the video game footage implied a degradation of our faculties, getting further and further removed from some Eden. But why should that be the case? The nature shots also imply some timeless space removed from history, which is a lie, one which the totem poles and pyramids in the video game dispel. And by invoking Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” as the emotional glue of the film, you hit that operatic keynote. A theoretical or historical problem (in both politics and the history of avant-garde film) becomes a plangent, affectively urgent one…So I must ask, how do these films come together for you? Do you start with one element that captures your imagination and build from there, or is it relational from the outset?

Robinson: It’s a bit different for each piece, but I usually allow myself to work in a largely intuitive manner when shooting or collecting things, trusting that I’ll sort out my interests in the editing. The two different types of imagery in And We All Shine On were shot around the same time, but I had no certainty that they would be part of the same piece, or part of any piece at all. Likewise, with The General Returns I spent a long time shooting the panning landscape material without any clear plan of what I would use it for. I make a lot of lists and drawings of what I think might work in terms of structures or combinations, but the films only ever take shape through the actual editing. Once I’d gathered all the potential materials, The General Returns fell into place really quickly, which was a bit frightening for me, as the film seemed to know more about what I was thinking and feeling than I did. On the other hand, Victory Over the Sun seemed to take forever, and I had to make three or four unique versions before it did what I wanted it to do. With each film I tend to figure out the “climax” first, and work backwards from there, shifting things around until the film exudes its own internal logic, and I myself feel surprised.

Scope: Perhaps that’s one reason Light Is Waiting feels a bit different than your other recent works. In a sense, it climaxes early on, and spends the rest of the running time exploring permutations that stem from those initial procedures. And actually, that seems like it’s more in keeping with a classically modernist orientation, right up through minimalism: stake out a set of decisions, and see them through. Whereas what you’re describing with And We All Shine On, The General Returns, and Victory Over the Sun would seem to indicate that you’re pursuing certain kinds of direct emotional engagement. This is striking, because the films deliver that affect while retaining enough distance to allow for an intellectual inquiry into the conditions for affective response. (Without that distance, we get stuff like Wes Anderson mix-tape cinema.) So is part of the process trying to find elements that won’t cohere too neatly?

Robinson: Within experimental cinema there seems to be an established comfort zone of materials suitable for appropriation (home movies, Classical Hollywood, educational filmstrips, etc.) and much less use of anything with origins beyond the ‘70s, particularly pop music. After making you don’t bring me flowers, whose elements fit very neatly into a hazy ‘60s/’70s aesthetic, I pushed myself to start pulling from more awkward sources, things still on the cusp of being culturally embraced as nostalgic. And for me, that has meant using material from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which speaks to my own formative years, and has thus offered me a more productive approach to reconfiguration. In terms of how the elements are combined, I’m less interested in creating discord than in arranging the distances between things to let them harmonize in new and convincing ways, allowing for emotionally manipulative experiences that concurrently point to their own contrivance.

Scope: This relates to the issue of landscape. It seems to be a concern at work through nearly all of your films. Tidal, very early on, treats the rural landscape in somewhat conventional ways, but soon after that things get weird. The dark static shots that bookend And We All Shine On, for example, block the trees out like a slab of time rather than moving us across them. And the gorgeous nature studies that form the bulk of The General Returns keep trying to move, as landscape films are wont to do, but that movement is stymied. These shallow-focus images track just a tad to the left, stop, and blend into the next small bit. Point being, the movement we’ve come to associate with landscape cinema is something your films actively disrupt.

Robinson: Historically, there are a ton of both structural and lyrical landscape films that I completely adore and feel very influenced by. Adopting the formal skins of these works has been a way for me to conjure a familiar cinematic vocabulary as a point to push off from, without actually committing myself to a pre-established mode of working (i.e., making imposter Dorsky films). Romanticism’s linking of the natural world to spiritual exchange and transformation has become of increasing interest to me, as have the various connotations of landscape in horror and science-fiction films. My most recently completed piece, All Through the Night, is actually the most landscape-free thing I’ve made in a while, blending heavily manipulated material from a Soviet version of The Snow Queen and the 2004 blockbuster, The Day After Tomorrow. That said, I’m currently beginning work on a new film which will absolutely involve a heavy proportion of landscape, and for lack of greater clarity could perhaps be described as “cooking show/forest fire/Elton John.”