Michael Robinson made his first short film – a home-movie take on Poltergeist (1982) – at the age of 11 and has since worked with film, video and photography exploring the poetics of loss and the dangers of growing up in a mediated world, while riding the fine lines between humour and terror, nostalgia and contempt, ecstasy and hysteria.
In January 2010, Close-Up hosted a screening of eight films by Robinson. Two years later, in June 2012, the filmmaker returned to London to show his latest works. On both occasions, Robinson joined the audience for a Q&A to discuss his work and following is a compilation of these two conversations.
Question: I am interested in your working process. Do you collaborate with anybody?
Michael Robinson: I do it all myself, collecting, shooting, editing, sound... Normally the image comes first, whether it's my own or appropriated. The sound comes in when I've got some sense of what I'm doing with the image. I think more and more that sound is the most important element when deciding what the films are about; what kind of emotional tone they have. A lot of the imagery is otherwise open-ended.
Q: You often use pop songs for the soundtrack of your films but there are other sounds in the texture. Where do they come from?
MR: A lot of it is found material even if it's not necessarily music. Things that end up sounding like keyboards or melodies, or just tonal, things that I've found and played with until they reach a certain quality I'm looking for. I don't necessarily remember what I started with, especially a lot of the densely layered stuff. I generally edit the films digitally first and go back and match them to the negatives. The sound editing is much more complicated.
Q: The pop music you pick has a real emotional resonance. Can you tell us about your choices of music?
MR: Over the past five years the inclusion of pop music has become a central motif to what I'm doing. I don't know exactly how that happened other than the more I did it, the more I enjoyed working with it and felt it was getting to the heart of what I wanted to do. The music is meant to be both a little cringe-worthy and also hit you in the heart. Pop music has a massive effect on society; millions of people can have the same relationship or experience to these cheesy, familiar songs. I'm interested in the artifice and the undeniable power of this music.
Q: How do you use material you've found and kept? Do you set out to film specifically before each project?
MR: Normally when I film my own stuff I have a more concrete idea of what I'm doing with it. I often shoot way too much for one piece, or I shoot certain things that I don't end up dealing with, but I don't usually go back to stuff that I've shot myself – I’m not constantly shooting and I don't have an archive. It's more the found footage that I sit with for a long time and I go back to things I thought I wasn't interested in and figure out something to do with it.
Q: Where do you find your footage?
MR: The TV shows are often pulled right from DVD. For Light Is Waiting (2007) I knew which season of Full House (1987-95) I wanted to use so I got the DVD and looked through the episodes. In the same way I'm not constantly shooting, I'm not constantly scavenging for stuff. When I have a specific piece I'll go out looking. Or if I'm in a place that seems like somewhere to pay attention, I’ll look. A lot comes from thrift store VHS tapes. In Victory Over The Sun (2009), all the flying through space, blinky stuff was from a self-hypnosis VHS tape that I found at the Salvation Army. And the other layer of that film, the Star Warsy flying barge, was from a VHS tape that I had growing up called Captain Power (1987), which is like you're playing laser tag with the screen. Often the found material – music, images and text – comes from things I've been interested in since I was a kid, or I've been interested in for my pretend adulthood.
Q: I’m not familiar with Full House, which wasn’t on TV in the UK, or the film used in The General Returns From One Place To Another (2006), yet there's still something familiar in them which opens up the films’ complex, obscure themes.
MR: Especially with the found materials, I hope you wouldn't need to recognise what they are to have an interesting experience of the films, because I hope they’re self-evident. A lot of the material I use ends up being particularly American. I guess the culture that’s force-fed in the UK is not necessarily that different than in the States, but I'm sure there are subtle differences, like sitcoms or certain songs that get overplayed. I'm always interested to see what people from outside the US think.
Q: How do you see your work evolving with new technologies?
MR: I hope I'll just stay open to them. I haven't worked with HD at all but I'd like to. I’ve gotten comfortable with both 16mm and DV, but both of these are on the way out... 16mm has been on the way out for 30 years and DV is now getting somewhat pushed aside too. But I'm not opposed to working in different ways.
Q: The reason I ask is when you talked about sourcing videos, you didn't mention the internet, and obviously there's that relationship with archive VHS films which people are putting online; is that a resource you might tap into in future?
MR: I got a lot of sound off the Internet, and like most people I spend a lot of time figuring things out on the Internet, but in terms of moving image I feel the quality still isn't there. Once, for this small invitational show, I tried to make a piece out of YouTube clips, I had this corny idea... and I just hated it. It just looked like YouTube and the piece wasn't necessarily supposed to be about YouTube. But, at the rate it's going, Internet video quality will improve, so I'm not opposed to that.
Q: How do you get clearance for your found materials?
MR: I have really good lawyers... No, I kind of don't worry about it; I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. Different people have told me that, specifically with imagery, if I'm not trying to present my work as a copy of the original then I'm OK. In video art there's been so much appropriation over the past 50 to 60 years, I feel pretty safe. Also I don't necessarily make any money from this so what are they going to do?
Q: Your last screening here was in 2010. Can you talk a bit about what you’ve been up to in the past couple of years? Obviously, you have made two new films in between...
MR: I think the screening I did here two years ago was in January, so I guess a little more than two years ago, and I remember feeling really guilty, because I was here for about two months, and I was really trying to get a lot of work done but nothing was happening. [These Hammers Don't Hurt Us, 2010] the Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson piece began, initially, before Michael Jackson died. I got really obsessed with looking at as much of his whole spiel as I could on YouTube and just got really drawn into focusing on his early nineties presence, when he seemed to be shifting from the superstar, who could do no wrong, into the kind of tragic figure he became. I was just playing around with the ‘Remember the Time’ music video, and then he died and I thought, well, I can’t make this piece anymore, this is over. But then looking at how the public reacted to his passing, I kind of got re-inspired to think about it a little more, about how his life seemed so un-human and how it was almost weird that he was alive in the first place, kind of gravitating towards the people in his life that allegedly played the roles of his confidants and friends. That way, I came to Liz Taylor. I’d never seen Cleopatra (1963), but I guess doing a little Googling and what-not, I was always hit with the image of her as Cleopatra, one of the many images of her looking amazing in Cleopatra, so I watched it and just got struck by the connections between that early nineties music video of his, and her 1963 epic film. I guess I was thinking of him kind of styling himself off of her performance in that film, and also, just thinking about portrayals of ancient Egypt in those kinds of things. Cleopatra was the most expensive movie ever made in 1963, and then in 1991 or '92 ‘Remember the Time’ was the most expensive music video ever made, both in the service of these celebrities who were already basically gods in their own right. So I finished it maybe six months before she passed away.
Then I finished Line Describing Your Mom, the most recent piece, in the fall (2011). I made it in a way to make something short and direct after finishing These Hammers Don't Hurt Us, which is still relatively short for a film, but I tend to work really slowly, and I spent the better part of a year and a half figuring out what that was. With Line Describing Your Mom, some of the materials... the blinking and the blurred out people moving in and out of formation, and the woman kind of speaking in garbled voice... I think I wanted that one to feel a little bit more opaque and fast and quick in some ways. It’s a little bit less emotionally open than a lot of the other films, and I think that was a reaction to making These Hammers Don't Hurt Us, which felt like a loaded, sad thing.
Q: Where do the images in Line Describing Your Mom come from?
MR: Yeah, The boat on fire, and the kind of pulsing hallway, and all the stuff with the telephone come from Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985), which I think was also called Creepers, but maybe only for the US release. It was Jennifer Connolly’s kind of first big film... I never really mind telling where things come from, I also sort of don’t really care if you know or not? I mean, in terms of what I want my audiences to experience, I never want people to struggle with where things come from, because it’s my hope that taking the essence of things, that it could be one of many things, especially with music, that it’s more a type, than it is a specific history or whatever.
The blurred out imagery of people in robes comes from Dancing for Hidden Ministries, which is an online Christian improvised choreography video: you could download videos to teach your church group how to improvise certain kinds of dance and I guess I came to that through finding a VHS tape from the same organisation from the 1990s, which wasn’t quite as colourful or interesting, and then just coming across the website. And then the voice, this woman’s YouTube page, I got obsessed with that. I guess that was just after I let my Michael Jackson obsession go, so I got re-obsessed with this woman on YouTube from southern US... this whole world of people that just talk at the camera and record, ending up making hours of video each week, just talking about their lives. I was really fascinated with that as a phenomenon and then grew attached to her in particular. I never contacted her, but there was this one video, where she woke up in the middle of the night, recounting her nightmare. That’s where all of this audio comes from... and the sound, the music, is a Gloria Estefan instrumental track. I think that’s just about everything that’s in there.
Q: Do you still work with 16mm or have you given up?
MR: No, I do. The last piece I showed, Victory Over The Sun, I finished that in 2007 and that’s the last 16mm print I made, so that’s the last time I shot film, and finished on film. I made a film in 2009, which we didn’t include in this programme. I shot on film, but transcribed to video. And the film I’m working on now, which I’m hoping to finish in the fall, was shot on Super 16 but finished on HD. So I’m still attached to film in a certain way, I feel like when most of this body of work came about, that's when I got used to working digitally in terms of sound and editing too. I feel like the fourth piece I showed, The General Returns from One Place to Another, which has the text, and the sort of scrolling landscapes, that actually finished – I mean it’s all shot on film – as a print that I edited first to video then digital version. I went through all this rigmarole in my mind to get the print made, and when it came back, I actually preferred the digital version, because of the sound and just the emotional temperature of it that seemed more in line with what I was going for... so I’m not letting it go per se and it seems like it’ll be around for a while, even if there’s threats that it’s about to disappear; I feel like there’s still several years left. I have very little experience shooting videos, the work I’m shooting myself is normally on film, because it’s how I know to work... I actually really like working between the two, or shooting in one medium and then on another, the question is how to retain the emotion core of one and pick up things from the other. I think in terms of mixing mediums... both different video formats, film formats, I like them to be kind of a blur, kind of a collage of things. Some of the sounds feel more mechanical, others might feel more processed and digital.
Q: In the final film, Victory Over The Sun, one might think that those images are archive images, but they’re images you shot, I suppose partly because of the format being 16mm, they look kind of aged. What are these buildings and landscapes that we’re looking at in this film?
MR: There’s sort of three sections, each sort of remnants of the world’s fairgrounds from the 1960s, so the first was Montreal, which – I don’t know if I can remember the years of the fairs – was maybe 1967or '69? And the middle section is Seattle, which I think was early 1960s, ’63 maybe. Then the end is Queens, New York, which was 1965. I found a collection of slides my grandfather had shot at all these world’s fairs, a lot of them had my parents posing in them as a sort of young, beautiful couple on these Kodachrome slides and it all seemed very nostalgic and gorgeous. I was thinking about the world’s fair, at least the world’s fairs from the 1960s and 1970s... something that we don’t have an equivalent of now, the sort of internationalism and optimism of it, that seems something like the Olympics tries to shoot for, but it’s not really the same thing. And the world’s fair now seems to be not really on the cultural map the way it was, but then doing a little research, I found out that they were always very corporate, moneyed events, and I wanted to think about how I reached this point of being a young person having such nostalgia for this thing I had nothing to do with... basically big monstrous trade shows... and then looking at the architecture as sort of futurist failures... spaces totally overgrown. Although the middle section in Seattle Park, it’s really well kept-up... the Jimi Hendrix something museum and other stuff; there’s actually a lot of people there, so shooting that was kind of a treat, having all the happy people together, so it didn’t look sad. But the other two parts... Queens is pretty abandoned, and all the pools are empty. Same with Montreal, it’s very overgrown.
Q: I wonder whether you’re critical of these things or whether it’s just a visceral experience for the audience.
MR: I feel that I want my criticalness to come through, but I wouldn’t want these films to feel essayistic. I’d like you to go through the same process that I go through... letting these things speak for themselves.
Q: Except that you combine them in a certain way for us to read them.
MR: Yeah it’s true. I think the collage aspect of what’s going on in the films... often with the sound design it’s hard not to feel really damning or overwhelming. I still want the pieces to do their own thing. You have been kind of beaten over the head with it, but you can still take this on, the sounds or the images, for what they are.
Q: I didn’t take the images for what they are. You see that they are from something else and what you do with them changes. They get read as something different. I couldn’t quite grasp what they were about and I wonder if that would bother you or not.
MR: No, not at all, I feel like... I don’t know what they’re about! I know what I want them to feel like, and I know what they mean to me... I know what I’m interested in, but as a given piece, I’d want it open to interpretation. Even though they’re sort of channelled in a certain way to be overwhelming or sentimental or explosive; I want each audience member to bring their own experience. If that amounts to people being baffled or a little bit disoriented, that’s fine with me. Sometimes I want things to feel like dreams, in that there are parts that kind of jump to the surface and have a certain clarity, and there are other parts that might come back to you later, but ultimately it’s more about a sense of feeling and atmosphere than it is about a sensible narrative, or connecting the dots.
Q: I think one of the interesting things is the way that you use found footage and music. You often use sentimental songs, but they’re not presented in an ironic way. I don’t feel any irony, and I think that helps with people having their own interpretation, or bringing their own feelings regarding the music or regarding the image.
MR: I have mixed feelings about a lot of these things, like the 1990s sitcom Full House, that is in the fifth piece shown... It’s not like I’m exulting that show or wanting to celebrate it necessarily, but I do think that, in terms of formulaicness, there’s something to be... not necessarily celebrated... but I’m not just pointing fun at it, I don't want these to feel ironic, even though there are comical moments and kind of cheesier things going on or being looked at. I kind of want to get to the emotional core of what’s, I guess, repeated a lot in the material I am pulling from
Q: In Victory Over The Sun are you using images of computer games?
MR: It’s a VHS laser tag game that you play on TV with a gun, like playing laser tag with yourself and the TV. It looks like a kind of Star Wars video game. I spent a lot of my childhood playing video games, and a lot of the rest of it watching TV or movies and listening to the radio, so I feel like our home, our inundation with media spurs a lot of this, but in terms of video games specifically, I do think there’s something really basic... 8-bit Nintendo games, being really engrossed with the narratives of them, which you know go from left to right, and go through the whole "save the person who’s in trouble", and that’s it. When you spend hours and hours staring at it you project so much onto it that it takes on a lot of stakes. And ultimately through a really abstract form; if you step back and think about what actually is going on with it, a computer game, ultimately it’s pretty abstract... I guess I’ve used video games in one or two pieces inexplicitly.
Q: It’s funny, because the way it comes across is like a big vortex that sucks you in.
MR: In a way that was my experience, in that vortex from age nine to fourteen.
Q: No way out!
MR: Well, yeah, I guess not!
Q: Could you tell us something about the sound design? It’s really remarkable...
MR: It’s probably the most central part for me. I often start with a kind of hazy idea of what I want my films to feel like, and I usually have some image before I have the sound, but I definitely work between the two, I don’t set the image and then fill in the sound by any means. They both inform each other as the pieces come together. I mean especially for the works based on found footage, where there’s a need on my part to twist things and arrive somewhere different than where I began with the materials. I think the sound design is ultimately the guiding force in terms of telling the audience what to do with this collage of stuff. It’s also the part that takes me longest – I think I’m pretty good at it – but it takes me forever... I usually mix everything myself, for better, for worse. And it's also why it takes me a long time to arrive at the right spot. I often want both sound and image to feel on the edge of falling apart. The ingredients are brought together and they’re almost not making any cohesive sense, but having the sound design just right is the way for me to feel like they do.
Q: I always find it impressive when artists work with sound in a way that is potentially quite abrasive: several of your films might have two songs playing at once or you might have all kinds of audio coming from different places, but then to synthesise that, it has some warmth, somehow it brings you in.
MR: I do think all of these pieces in my mind have a narrative arc, where they build towards something and kind of dissipate after that. But even though there’s a lot of abrasive moments, and loud moments, I wouldn’t see myself making something that’s just loud, guttural sound from beginning to end, because, ultimately, it means a lot more if you can understand what it was. I guess that goes for things other than sound too, but for abrasiveness in general...
Q: You said you have an idea of how you’d like your film to feel like, rather than look like. Can you expand on that?
MR: It’s a little different for each one and it’s something I probably forget, but I’ll make notes of things like – it’s embarrassing if I actually can remember these – stuff that if you saw it, it would probably look more like poetry or simple descriptions of things that I extrapolate on and let them snowball and then start thinking about how that might take a bigger shape and what-not. That’s not a very good answer, but... I don’t know, I do feel like it takes me a while to arrive at a time where I can concretely articulate what I’m doing. Even though I feel like I could paint it in my head a little bit before that time. So yeah, even if I could recall the language I was using to start off with, it probably wouldn’t make much sense.
Q: Mostly you’ve been making short films. Do you have any plans to make a longer piece?
MR: Yeah, the piece I’m working on now is looking to land somewhere between the awkward range of 40 to 50 minutes, so a featurette maybe, or a very long short! It’s part of a two part project, and the second part I’m thinking of as a proper feature, with a narrative... probably more narrative than anything I’ve done. I think it would still fit pretty squarely with this kind of work. But I’m not exactly sure why I wanted to make a longer piece. Right now it’s sort of in three parts. Until now thirteen minutes was the longest, so this feels three times longer than anything I’ve done before, with a little bit of padding at the beginning and end. But I’m definitely out of my comfort zone for the time being. I’m excited so far, and I think it’ll turn out OK, but I definitely did realise seven to thirteen minutes is kind of the length, the duration that I feel I know how to sculpt an arc, that makes sense as something you watch. It’s been harder for me to figure out how anything longer will work, but I think I’m getting there.
Q: I don’t mean to press you on unfinished material, but how similar would it be? Is it all archive footage?
MR: No it’s all original footage, there’s seven actors in it who speak a tiny bit, and it’s shot in Super 16, finished on video... there’s no flicker, there’s no music... there might be tiny bits of flicker in parts. Once I decide I hate it, it’ll all be flickering! It’s vague, it’s narrative, but it’s sort of experimental narrative. It’s more atmosphere-driven like my other films are... vaguely set in the future, near-future, the Second US Civil War, following prisoners on a beach, and they’re sort of overseeing soldiers, and two groups are interacting and playing tricks on each other. I think it’s funny, and I’m excited with how nice it looks, because I’ve never worked on HD and the colour transfer I got was nice, so I feel like that made it look better than it should.
Q: When can we expect to see that?
MR: I’m hoping it’ll be ready for me to start showing to people in about a month, in the fall , but that’ll depend on whether I feel one hundred per cent about it. I can see the end in sight for the first time, but then again, I do take forever tweaking things and finishing them up, so we’ll see.