WAKE UP AND SMELL A NEW MILLENNIUM
Cleveland filmmaker Robert Banks doesn’t speak for Cleveland, or his neighborhood, or the history of films he collects, or for women: he observes, honors, and celebrates them.
The year 2021 may go down as the actual start of the twenty-first century—if not predicated by the coronavirus, then by the reckoning that came when the Capitol was breached January 6 by white supremacists so confident in their privilege that they believed themselves to be heroes. In the aftermath of all of it, the resilient among us are the real superheroes, doing and creating amid crisis, finding beauty in discontent. Robert Banks is one of those. He has been making sense out of the millennia and its histories since the early 1980s, mainly through the image and mostly from here: Cleveland, Ohio, USA.
Banks is a humble art hero whose generosity, curiosity, and collaborative spirit overshadow his cultural credentials as a bona fide film innovator and a resource, in this city and beyond, for film. This is true both for the making of it and for the material itself—as in 35mm film on reels, run through a two-reel projector. In 1993, Banks’ short films were screened in London at the BBC Short Film Festival. His work has been shown at Sundance, and seven years after the London screening, he was honored as Filmmaker of the Year at the Midwest Filmmaker Conference.
Last year, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis bought a print of Banks’ 1997 film, Motion Picture Genocide. In April, WAC screened a compilation of films Banks curated—Cleveland Free Cinema: The Films of Robert Banks and Bruce Checefsky—which were made by the artists individually, and in collaboration.
The two filmmakers worked together on Doctor Hypnosin, or the Technique of Living, an experimental work inspired by a 1923 scenario written by Serbian poet Salomon Monny de Boully. The film conjures the ethos of intuition that surrealist de Boully wrote of in the publication Hypos. A celluloid and sound reference to a film de Boully wrote, but never produced, this work in WAC’s Cleveland Free Cinema is a nod to Banks’ realization of another artist’s vision, who through NeoHypo films in the 1990s and, contemporarily, Cinehypo Films, captures the technique of living that de Boully only imagined in the nascent art-film realm of 1923. Directed by Checefsky with Banks as cinematographer, the female body and its connection to the creative powers of the planet, the forever-presence of Lake Erie’s waves crashing at the breakwater, the performance of heterosexual dating/mating rituals, and the ubiquity of modernity are visually poetic, but nonetheless tedious tropes. The panoply of black and white scenes and images are woven around a musical score composed and performed by Tad Mike; the music he creates underscores the feeling—and resentments—of surrealists of the day, who recognized that music could best capture the beautiful chaos and banality of modern life.
While the codex to [that film] may lie in the infamous 1923 surrealist scenario, the texture of Banks’ works, including the complexities of his narratives, generally comes from his community—firmly rooted, as Banks is, in the historic Hough neighborhood of Cleveland, and the visual culture of the age. A GenXer born in 1966—or, as he says, “the day before the first Star Trek series premiered,” Banks spent his childhood days with his parents and siblings, attending the elementary school around the corner, where he looked for the seat closest to the window in an effort to hear the lake on hot days when the windows were open, or maybe to catch a glimpse of it—the light, fog, that clean, flat line between Lake Erie and sky.
Just down the hill, Banks would stand at the spot where Erie waves smash hypnotically on the concrete breakwater at East 72nd Street. The recipe for making Banks the artist he is, is in this confluence of Lake Erie rules, the mutual love between family members, and the nuanced diverse array of heroes and villains weaving their post-World War II apocalyptic anxieties onscreen, after school and on Saturdays. He took those in via Cleveland’s analog television channels, WUAB-TV 43, and UHF-Channel 61. The Japanese series Ultraman and Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, for instance, featured heroes dependent upon technology to defeat the monsters and demons plaguing them, while the campy 1960s Batman, Adam West, poked deliciously-campy fun at “men in tights,” in general. A collector of vintage films and television series, including the Japanese science fiction series mentioned above, one of his favorite summer activities is projecting cartoons, sci-fi films, and feature films on the outside wall of the Tower Press Building.
Banks is a walking film encyclopedia; his interest in film was fostered by his father Robert C. Banks’ own love of the camera. It is because of his father that Robert Junior took an early interest in learning about photography and filmmaking. After high school and some college, Banks did a stint in the military in 1986-88, training in Texas and Mississippi, before serving abroad in South Korea and at RAF Bentwaters in England. His military career ended shortly after his father died in 1987. Robert Banks, Jr., was honorably discharged in 1988, returning home to the same house in Hough, but to a different family, absent his father. He became even closer to his mother, Nellie D. Goolsby Banks, now age 95.
Steeped in 35mm film technologies, techniques, the intersections of avant-garde film and music, Banks is global resource. Six years ago, when Alaskan artist Michael Walsh was in Cleveland for Zygote Press’s Rasmuson Artist Residency, he was looking for a projector to screen the 35mm works he made while in town. Like Banks, Walsh alters the film, “manipulating the physicality of the medium.” At Zygote, this meant printing ink on the film. Scene quoted Walsh in a piece on his culminating event: “If I can get my hands on a 35mm projector before the screening, I will show an excerpt of what I’ve been doing while at Zygote” (clevescene.com/scene-and-heard/archives/2015/07/07/zygotes-alaskan-artist-in-residence-to-discuss-creative-process with slightly reserved optimism, accessed April 9, 2021). Banks showed up with the projector and threaded that messy, printed film through the machine.
The recent WAC purchase of his 1997 Motion Picture Genocide and the online exhibition of his and Checefsky’s films together signal a deserved interest in artists who remain committed to film as physical object, and a technology to make moving images with light on screen. Banks’ works from the 1990s, especially MPG and the 1992 critique of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, titled X: The Baby Cinema, are meta-analyses of film narratives about Black men onscreen, using the historical tropes and images that are collaged together on transparent 35mm. The earliest works are moving collage-punk-bricolage.
At the start of the new millennium, Robert Banks was making the short film, Embryonic, which was screened at the 2000 Cleveland International Film Festival. This film, which featured at least a dozen actors, signaled a shift to making scenes, props, and characters as intensely colorful and chaotically poetic as films of the previous decades. As actor in scenes by Lake Erie, I learned that the artist’s process also reflects the ethos of intuition that surrealist de Boully wrote of in Hypnos: one blue-sky night in the summer of ‘99 we met at Upper Edgewater Park; I got dressed in my car, donning the 1960s sea-blue dress and silver pumps that we costumed at a vintage shop earlier in the week. In one scene I perch on a rock (the green-blue water behind me backlit by sunset over Lake Erie), curiously, then treacherously, examining an ostrich egg. In a second scene, I stand offering the enormous egg to the viewer, as if to say to him: “You want this responsibility? Have at it.” Other women smash eggs with clunky punk rock shoes, roll them against the ground under placenta-like netting, move like defiant strutting hens, and birth clean white eggs from their mouths. His vision: an agitated homage to female reproductive power in its creative and destructive forms. Robert Banks doesn’t speak for the feminine, he observes, honors, and celebrates it. Like many queers and other feminists in Cleveland, I modeled for Robert because he models for life drawing students. He knows the roles of both subject and object; as female actor, I was subject, not object, not objectified.
Robert honors the mother, the planet, his mother. It is she that he references through the ubiquitous female and/or feminine bodies, particularly those from the first ten years of his career. The character-tropes are complicated and always evolving. Robert Banks sees himself in all of them—the white women, the black men, the rowdy kids, Lake Erie, the light from sunsets, which he still celebrates as often as possible at the same breakwater at East 72nd Street. Banks’ new life began in the wake of mourning. His films have subsequently centered on amplifying the power and what is unseen in the mundane amid the magic: a city where liquid-gold water meets concrete block, rusty steel.
Robert’s films have a fluidity about them that reflects our Lake Erie and, simultaneously, the decay Cleveland knows just as well. Changeable, powerful, vulnerable—his subjects, the characters in his stories, are universally human. Likewise, the stark reality of our physical environment–where deer roam overgrown industrial lots 55 blocks east of downtown–is always overshadowed by Lake Erie and its wildlife, lake effect snow, wind, and surf. Cleveland is resilient; we find beauty in grit.
–DRB (PGP: They/them)
HIGHLIGHTING THE TRANSCENDENT: PAPER SHADOWS Review by Gabriel X. Bly
Robert Banks’ most recent work, Paper Shadows, which premiered at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in November 2020, is the filmmaker’s first feature. The film, shot almost entirely on 35mm film, save for one scene shot digitally—the director refuses to reveal which scene—captures the pre-gentrified Cleveland and explores the difficulty of “making it” as an artist amidst a dreary landscape. While somewhat cynical about Cleveland, the film is also nostalgic for the city before it was littered with condos and sports bars. The industrial landscape of the film is reminiscent of Ohio-born director Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 work, Stranger Than Paradise, in which a character asks: “Does Cleveland look like Budapest?” Indeed, this environment is universally site-less and specific.
While the film is imbued with hypnotic stillness and ghostly tracking shots—think Béla Tarr meets Tsai Ming-liang—Banks utilizes dialectic montage to correlate the arts with a blue-collar ethic. The beginning of the film juxtaposes shots of painting with mopping, illustrating a mop as a kind of brush, showing an unrecognized—perhaps shared—energy between the arts and blue-collar labor.
The film’s high contrast black and white, sometimes purposely overexposed, is an expression of the world in which the characters live, and it illustrates the aforementioned shared energy-space around artist and janitor. At times, fractals of light cut across the proscenium in almost Wellsian fashion, lending a haloed luminescence to the characters. Banks is clearly highlighting the transcendent qualities of his protagonist’s vocations: both art and work are spiritual to the director.
Banks explains that he did not take cues from other directors or films while making Paper Shadows; however, the film is laden with connections to genre films. While disjointed, the film contains a film noir-esque subplot concerning espionage, or crime, or the FBI—the subplot is unclear—which is crucial to the genre when thinking of Howard Hawks’ incomprehensible noir The Big Sleep. In forcing us to recall this genre, Banks is allowing us to accept the non-narrative, dream-logic aspects to the film.
Paper Shadows is not just rich in its dreamy visual aesthetic: sound is equally important in the fabric of the film. Banks stated that it was crucial to capture the sounds of the city that he heard growing up and that much of the film’s sound was recorded on location, as opposed to in a studio. The adherence to a sonic realism grounds the film steeped in an abstract dream-logic.
Banks is still working on what he terms “final-final” edits of the film with plans to screen it by year’s end.
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