MICHAEL ROBINSON with Z. W. Lewis
Michael Robinson’s newest video work, Onward Lossless Follows (2017), takes a trip over desert landscapes to the great digital future unknown. Along the way, stock videos show women celebrating in front of their laptops, horses fly, and an unsettling meet-up burgeons into a relationship full of love and loss. It’s par for the course for Robinson’s remixing of footage that’s plenty “off” all on its own, but, under Robinson’s control, points to just how weird our collective culture can be. His Light Is Waiting (2007) damned Full House through a kaleidoscopic Tartarus, and his These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us (2010) took Michael Jackson to heaven (or somewhere nicer) by way of Liz Taylor. However, his career as visual cultural critic is at its most disturbing in this latest work as he implements internet culture: stock videos, text chat, and other digital artifacts that feel sharp and hyper-real compared to his usual fuzzy, nostalgic outlook. I talked with Michael Robinson after Onward Lossless Follows’s U.S. premiere at the 55th New York Film Festival.
W. Lewis (Rail): A few of your films have been gaining awareness outside the usual experimental film crowd. What has the experience of "going viral" been for you?
Michael Robinson: Oh, have I gone viral? I don't know. I feel like the work that I've had online that's gotten significant play hasn't broken through into actual internet fame or anything. I did share a clip from The Dark, Krystle on Instagram that then got turned into a meme briefly. That was maybe getting millions of views, but there was nothing attaching that to me or to the film or anything. It was just like an “Alexis is drinking, TGIF!” kind of thing. That felt pretty weird because I was like, “What the hell, can't I get something out of this?” But the nature of making this kind of work is that it’s not really going to make any profits. I don't want to spend time thinking about how to make the most out of something like that. I feel like it would be great to go viral with videos, but I still feel like the headaches that might come with that are significant.
Rail: Why do you think people gravitate toward Light is Waiting in particular? That’s the one with the most views on your Vimeo page.
Robinson: Yeah. I think maybe the way that the beginning moments of that film are unaltered is pretty easy to get into. I mean, you are essentially just watching TV for two minutes before [an aggressive flicker effect] kicks in, and I think the sort of joke of it is so easy and obvious. You know, just the kind of pulling apart of the dumb sitcom is accessible enough. But I also think people's relationship to that show, whether they know it well or not, is kind of specific. It’s a pretty satisfying thing for people to experience—seeing something that squeaky clean and aggressively banal turned on its head. I mean a lot of people seem to think of that as a pretty psychedelic druggy film or something? The joke of Full House becoming an acid trip is appealing in some way. I don’t think the psychedelia in my films is all that related to drugs at all, but I think just in terms of the pairing of that material with that treatment is a joke that people get. Also, that was on Artforum’s website, and I know it gets a lot of use there still, so it’s just a matter of when I put things online and what stuck and what didn’t.
Rail: You come from the MFA program at the University of Illinois. Was that a big formative experience for you?
Robinson: Yeah, totally. That was great. It’s a really intense two-year program. I wanted to go somewhere where I could mostly work on video, but within the context of a broader arts community. I loved it. I worked with Deborah Stratman as my advisor. She was super influential and taught me a lot about sound. I always gravitated towards the same kind of subtle motifs, and she really opened up my work in that way.
Rail: There’s a very specific way those early videos look—especially All Through the Night (2008) and We All Shine On (2006). There’s a texture like having the camera too close to a CRT television, and so you get those scan lines. Is that a particular texture that you want to come back to?
Robinson: I guess the experience of being close to a TV like that usually would mean you’re obsessing over something or have recorded something off the TV, or are trying to find something in an image that I think can lend a level of urgency or maybe perversion to film. I spent a lot of those years staring at a TV, playing video games, or watching the same movies over and over again on degrading VHS tapes. In some ways the aesthetics of older TVs maybe does feel kind of emotional in some way.
Rail: Your films are also very musical. The films themselves kind of follow the rhythm of a song, and they usually have some sort of crescendo. Do you have this sort of rhythm in mind when you’re starting a project, or does it naturally fall into place with your material?
Robinson: I think that falls into place as I edit. I often start with more of a feeling that I want to encircle than a rhythm. Something like These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us which has lots of little pieces coming out of darkness and a sort of more open moaning on the soundtrack. That came about where I had many chunks and versions and slowly moved things together to see what created a kind of forward momentum. And something like in the new film Onward Lossless Follows, which also has a lot of distinct sections, but they’re longer and allowed to be themselves.
Rail: Can you speak about narration and the wild stories in your most recent work? I’m thinking about Mad Ladders (2015), Line Describing Your Mom (2011), If There Be Thorns (2009), and Onward Lossless Follows.
Robinson: I tend to think of the work as narrative from the get-go. I feel like the emotional build of the film only happens through having enough sense of narrative that there’s something at stake. I get a lot of inspiration and satisfaction from narrative, and that seeps into my work pretty directly. I like the idea of having the semblance of a narrative without actual characters or plot that carves out the feeling and the emotional thrust of storytelling. It comes out of editing and gravitating towards specific moments or specific lines of voice or text. The ghost of a narrative happens in the films through the process of figuring out the image and the sounds, too. I knew I wanted These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us to feel like Liz Taylor taking Michael Jackson into the afterlife, but I didn’t know how that would come about.
Rail: I just revisited your longer non-appropriated film Circle in the Sand (2012). Is that kind of work something you’re interested in returning to? I know you’re currently working on I’ll Be Thunder, which is going to be a feature project, right?
Robinson: It’s coming. I’ll Be Thunder was originally conceived as a second half to Circle in the Sand. Not exactly a sequel but more of a twin film that could maybe be shown alongside it. But, by the time I had finished Circle in the Sand my ideas for I’ll Be Thunder had somewhat shifted. Making [Circle in the Sand] also taught me that if I were to make another longer narrative like that, I want to do it with a real script and less of a spacey improvisational approach. I’ll Be Thunder will be a much more accessible character-based narrative.
Rail: I particularly like the moments in Circle in the Sand when the characters are almost miniature Michael Robinsons piecing together little bits of culture they find and trying to make sense of it.
Robinson: If there was a script for Circle in the Sand, it would be mostly lists and drawings of those moments of the characters dealing with junk and details of culture. I think making a film of that length and with that level of narrative, the editing was actually really challenging to figure out. I love that film. I think I'm going to put that on Vimeo this week. I broke it down into five chapters, so it can look a little better. Somehow it seems like watching a 45-minute film is a drag. People will watch a little and then get up to go do something else. The pieces work well. I feel like showing segments of it, or chapters, along with my other films has actually been pretty satisfying.
Rail: Onward Lossless Follows is a strange title. Would explaining it take away part of the mystery here?
Robinson: I mean, I started with the title, which is often the case. A title will arrive from wherever, and I'll sit on it for a while until a given film kind of feels like it belongs. I guess there's two ways in which you can read it. There's “onward lossless will follow” meaning that I can keep going because the future will be better. There's also “onward lossless follows” where “follows” is more in the social media sense—sort of submitting to the present as a way to get out of it. That's probably the more accurate interpretation.
Rail: What's the source of all the astrology talk in the beginning? Where'd you find that?
Robinson: The preacher? That I found online—I can't remember his name. He was like a radio, a preacher out of a church in LA in the 70s and 80s and his sermons are all archived online, but I had heard that one in particular while I was driving across country. I think I was in Tennessee and was just totally struck by how strange the mix of religious anger and all this talk of Venus and what felt pretty anti-science and anti-astrology. I listened to a couple of hours of various sermons, but none of them had anything that really spoke to me in that way, so I just used this one and edited out most of the religious details.
Rail: I remember that “Stranger Danger” clip that you used very well. The text conversation that comes after makes it both so disturbing and hilarious.
Robinson: Yeah, I mean, it's obviously not funny subject matter but the combination of cheap production value and non-professional actors is so charming and strange and kind of overrides whatever is happening. I can remember watching those types of films as a kid, too, and I mostly gravitated toward how weird the whole thing felt.
Rail: You used the flicker effect to a particularly violent degree here, but not as one of your crescendos, like whenever it's used in Light is Waiting. What's your relationship to the flicker here? Why institute it in this film?
Robinson: Generally, I feel like it's a way to add a level of overwhelmingness and chaos to a part of the film. Often that does occur as more of a crescendo, but it sort of arranges various parts of the storylines in Onward Lossless Follows. I like the way it starts with the flicker and then returns halfway through for a while and shows up a little bit at the end. It felt more like one of the many pieces that pops in and out and slowly forms a relationship with what's around it. I don't have an exact "the flicker means this” kind of definition.
Rail: I like to imagine Onward Lossless Follows as almost a Western. You have a lot of desert traveling shots, the horse at the very end, a couple of guys doing manual labor, and America's “Horse with No Name.”
Robinson: I like that. I've been living in LA for a few years now, so I feel like I have spent a fair amount of time going out to the desert. The spirit of the love story that takes place, that kind of spacey Western feeling, and the preacher talking about drought and outer space also feels like a Western.
Rail: I'm kind of surprised this is your first time using stock video footage in a film. That seems like something you would gravitate towards, and here it's used to a cheesy end, like to show a cartoonish version of celebration. People ecstatically staring at their laptops and clapping.
Robinson: I wasn't aware you could browse so much stock video online. I was instantly amazed at how much there was of this specific thing, particularly women at computers ecstatically celebrating. I mean it is a pretty gendered thing, there are definitely lots of businessmen doing similar, but it's not the same throw-hands-up-in-the-air celebration. With them, it's way more fist pump: “Yo bro, I did it!” It felt like a weirdly dark and commercial ceremonial thing. Usually these are geared towards the idea of business success, or money coming in, or getting the deal in some way. That combination of person-computer financial success felt really dark to me. I imagined them as the choir or the audience of the preacher's sermon.
Rail: Have you seen any good movies recently?
Robinson: I saw a lot at the New York Film Festival. I love Flores, Jorge Jácome's film. I loved Jesse McLean's new film. And I should probably not mention too many because then I won't mention others. I did really enjoy mother! which I know is getting trashed as the worst thing ever. And it really is a horrible movie, but I got a lot out of how horrible it is. I don't think he knows what he's doing, but somehow I really enjoyed the whole thing. I feel like I saw a lot of movies this summer that I expected to enjoy and sort of just snoozed through. This definitely wasn't a snooze; it was something I'll remember.
ContributorZ. W. Lewis
Z. W. LEWIS is a writer and teacher who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the editor-in-chief of the film and politics journal Year Zero.