Michael Robinson at PS1’s Greater New York: Sturm und Drang und Irony

06/10/2010 1:28 PM |

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“I don’t really know what they’re about,” my friend remarked, “I just know I really, really like them.” She was voicing a not uncommon reaction to the films and videos of Michael Robinson, which will be playing at 3pm, June 10 thru 14, at PS1, as part of their Greater New York exhibition (a post-screening discussion with the artist is scheduled for June 12).

Describing Robinson’s work is difficult; in addition to admiration, his movies often inspire a kind of incredulousness—“Am I really feeling this way?” “How did he do that?” “Is this really happening?” Of course, nothing much actually happens in Robinson’s movies; some leaves blow in the wind, some people walk around the forest, pop songs are played, televisions break, video games hum along. But, through means that even now remain opaque to me, Robinson turns this material into something intensely involving and, though the word sounds somewhat dated, magical.

Robinson has said, “I tend to think of my films as narratives created though non-narrative materials.” In and of itself, this is nothing new; in a way, it’s what certain of the so-called Structural Filmmakers of the later 1960s and 70s attempted. (Robinson has lovingly referred to Structural Film as “like the math rock of film in the 60s and 70s”—a remark that has the effect of collapsing many of the strict boundaries of taste and status along which discussions of “experimental” and “avant-garde” art often break down.) As their moniker implies, Structural Filmmakers would often subject their work to strict pre-determined structures, so that their films became sort of like games; you would have to figure out what principles were guiding their construction. This gave the films a definite “shape,” and so watching them became, in a bare sense, similar to watching a narrative unfold—everything logically followed what preceded it. Robinson’s films don’t adhere to rigorously schematic principles, but they do have a “shape.” In a very real way, they’re organized around what Hollywood screenwriter-types like Robert McKee like to call “beats,” small shifts in emotional energy that cue viewers into the development and progression of a dramatic arc. His movies shift, build, coalesce, and almost always “climax,” often in unexpected and ecstatic ways. They just do all of this without having “stories”—his most recent film, If There Be Thorns, may be a little different in this regard: it even has “characters,” albeit ones without dialogue or discernible qualities.

Robinson’s movies stir up emotions that are, to a contemporary sensibility, frankly inadmissible: bald sentiment, Romantic feelings of pantheistic fervor, the feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime. The movies then undercut these feelings with an ironic skepticism. After effectively stimulating an emotional response, they ask: aren’t you actually ashamed of those feelings? This poses some interesting questions—namely, how can our feelings and our thoughts about those feelings be so incredibly out of synch? This problem is what T.S. Eliot referred to as the “dissociation of sensibility.” For Eliot, this was one of the major illnesses of modern society—I’ve never heard Robinson hold forth on the matter, but he feverishly enacts a “dissociation of sensibility” with every new work, in a way that renders it problematic and open to discussion, perhaps open to change.

It’s possible that irony is, to contemporary culture, what despair was to those who were alive in the wake of World War I: our automatic emotional response to the world around us, one we see no reason defend, but simply embrace, taking it to be second-nature. The war in Iraq isn’t seen as a tragedy, but a travesty; it isn’t horrific, it’s ridiculous. And irony is to Robinson’s work what despair was to Eliot’s; he uses it, preying on our most deeply rooted disposition and twisting it around, transforming it into something that could potentially give birth to some new outlook. His work is perpetually begging the question of whether thought and feeling, belief and action, could find some sort of happy resolution. A utopian question which finds its counterpoint in the frequently apocalyptic tone of both Eliot’s poetry and Robinson’s movies.