“Is This my Life?” Part Two: Discovering Anne Charlotte Robertson through the Harvard Film Archive

Brett Kashmere continues his riveting account of the life and work of Anne Charlotte Robertson.  Part One summarised the results of his retrospective study, the character of the person and the work.  Now, in Part Two, he considers further the steps involved in retrospective archival work and the challenges facing exhibition of fragile material. Finally, he reflects on the way in which historical study can demand revised perspectives on established theoretical or methodological frameworks.

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Figures 3 and 4. Anne Charlotte Robertson, cover and first page of school report titled, “Is This my Life?” From Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University, box CC 13R24, “Papers – Diary 1961-1968.” Photos: Brett Kashmere.

In 2012, following Robertson’s passing, the artist’s films, audiotapes, photographs, and some papers, including the rights, were bequeathed to Harvard Film Archive (HFA). The gift was arranged through the help of Robertson’s friend and small gauge film preservationist Toni Treadway, of Brodsky & Treadway.[i] This donation has numerous relevancies to media historians. For one, Robertson’s films are not available through any other source. Nor are they very well known. Given the brittleness and camera-original singularity of Super 8 reversal, and the multi-reel, multi-system nature of Robertson’s projects, which combined sound-on-film, sound-on-tape, and live improvised narration, these films present an unusual set of complications for programmers, which has contributed to their disappearance from public view. Fortunately, the HFA is currently undertaking a project to preserve the entirety of Robertson’s work to both 16mm film and digital formats. Approximately half of her most renowned (if only read about or partially seen) film, Five Year Diary has now been digitized but work remains to be done with the accompanying audio for some reels. According to Harvard’s Film Conservator Liz Coffey, these films should be ready by May 2018. The date of completion for the remainder of the Diary’s restoration is not yet known. Most of Robertson’s standalone shorter works, numbering more than 30, have been digitized at this point. Many of these films and parts of the Diary have begun screening again, including at the 2015 Viennale, 2015 Rotterdam, and 2017 Toronto International Film Festivals, and Documenta 14.

A unique part of HFA’s Robertson collection is the extensive written materials contained within, including hand- and typewritten diaries that trace back to Robertson’s childhood.[ii] The diaries, organized chronologically into binders by the artist, provide countless new avenues and potential insights into Robertson’s development and process as a writer, photographer, and filmmaker; and map her transition from (private) diary writing to (public) personal documentary filmmaking. What new understandings might arise about Robertson’s transition from writing into filmmaking and the development of her unique diary film style, as well as the social and cultural forces and discourses that helped shape it, through a careful reading of these and other papers? Although the question exceeds the scope of this article my hope is that it animates future research.

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Figure 5. Handmade MassArt screening flier. From Harvard Film Archive, Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection.

Drawing Conclusions

Considering the Diary’s cultural formation, its modes of authorship and performance, and its expanded multi-media configuration in relation to its exhibition and reception, my analysis repositions Robertson’s work as an essential contribution to the histories of feminist media and experimental film. It is one that interrogates and can still trouble traditional gender conventions and mainstream representations of femininity and is thus inextricable from the greater movement of challenge enacted by second wave feminism. Her story is missing from this history. Similarly, her daily filmmaking practice provided a bold revision of the diary form. Her work is missing from this history as well.

To better recognize and appreciate Robertson’s unique contributions, I propose a more permeable, interdisciplinary framework. Five Year Diary’s forms and content, for instance, suggest relationships to the psychological, sexually charged animation of Mary Beams, Lisa Crafts, and Suzan Pitt,[iii] all of whom worked at Harvard in the 1970s, rather than with male personal documentarists like Ed Pincus and Ross McElwee. The fact that Robertson hasn’t been addressed alongside any of them in histories of experimental media and first-person cinema reveals a lack of imagination in thinking across categories. Bracketing animation from live action film, video, and performance, or separating avant-garde from documentary, siloes and thereby diminishes the thematic and conceptual cross-genre resonances between these different modes of coterminous creative practice. This was especially harmful for those working outside the major centers at the time, where critical attention was more limited.

Finally, with respect to exhibition: Robertson preferred that Diary be presented in a continuous marathon fashion, accompanied by improvised narration, performance, sound on tape, and furniture and other items from her home, such as photo albums and favorite books. As the project grew in length this created obvious logistical challenges; limiting the venues it could be screened at. “Complete” versions have rarely been shown and early video transfers of select reels were of lackluster quality. Balancing access and screening opportunities against care for her fragile camera original material, and without the financial means to create prints or pristine transfers made distribution challenging and was a barrier to art world acceptance. Throughout her lifetime, Robertson self-distributed her films out of necessity, which partially explains why her work hasn’t been collected by museums. The nature of her chosen medium in combination with environmental considerations and requirements limited how and how often Robertson’s work would be seen. When you consider the content – “super-confrontational Super 8 psychodramas… borderline funny…” – the material hurdles made it easier for cultural influencers like curators and critics to bypass the work entirely.

Robertson’s exclusion from a book focused on and around personal documentary and ethnographic filmmaking in Boston and Cambridge, near to where she grew up, studied, and worked for most of her life, is symbolic of how small-gauge, women, and feminist filmmakers are regularly neglected or footnoted. The paucity of writing on Robertson’s work provokes many questions, not least a failure to find a context due to its multi-faceted quality: feminist, avant-garde and personal. Did it fail to satisfy ‘purist’ perspectives of each category? And what are the consequences of her omission from conventional film histories? Robertson’s own description of her Super 8 opus elucidates some of the factors that have dictated its absence while at the same time identifying the lack it potentially fulfills:

I am a 50-year-old woman, single, with a vow to poverty. The title Five Year Diary refers to the little blank books with locks and keys, that allow only a few lines to each day’s notation; the audience is invited to be my brother and sister, and see what a life can yield. My present and future hope is to leave a full record of a woman in the 20th century.[iv]

This is Part Two of Brett Kashmere’s contribution on Anne Charlotte Robertson: Part One can be found here. 

Brett Kashmere is a media artist, historian, and curator living in Oakland, California. His writing on experimental cinema, moving image art, and alternative film exhibition has appeared in Millennium Film Journal, MIRAJ, The Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Senses of Cinema, The Brooklyn Rail, The Films of Jack Chambers, and Carolee Schneemann: Unforgivable. Kashmere is currently a doctoral student in Film + Digital Media at University of California, Santa Cruz. He is also the founding editor of INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media.

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Jeremy Rossen for his assistance in researching this article, and to Yulia Gilichinskaya, Rona Murray, Elana Santana, Dorothy R. Santos, and Shelley Stamp for their helpful comments and suggestions.

[i]  A few of the films, by stipulation of Robertson’s will, are not available for viewing until 2023.

[ii] Although the papers have not been processed yet, they’re currently available to Harvard faculty, students, and outside researchers for on-site consultation. The papers and photographs constitute 19 boxes of material.

[iii] Thanks to Herb Shellenberger for bringing this point to my attention.

[iv] Anne Charlotte Robertson, “Five Year Diary,” artistic statement, in The Five Year Diary: Anne Charlotte Robertson, edited by Benjamin Cook and Barbara Rodriguez-Munoz (London: LUX, 2014), 18.

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‘Is This my Life?’: Part One: Public Intimacy in the Work of Anne Charlotte Robertson

In this blog, Brett Kashmere shares his research regarding a neglected figure of 1970s and 1980s filmmaking, Anne Charlotte Robertson.  Drawing directly on the archive of her work and personal papers now housed at Harvard University, this piece gives an insight into the unique quality of her work and examines the issues that arise in undertaking retrospective study.  This is Part One of a two-part piece, with Part Two due for publication in mid-March.

 

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Figure 1. Frame enlargements from Five Year Diary. From Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University.

Anne Charlotte Robertson (b. March 27, 1949; d. September 15, 2012) was a small-gauge American filmmaker whose intensely intimate, serialized Super 8 diaries have been neglected in conventional histories of both feminist filmmaking and experimental filmmaking – including feminist histories and critiques of experimental film and video. Robertson’s 38-hour Five Year Diary (‘Diary’) (1981-1997)[i], self-shot on a near-daily basis across two decades, gave image and voice to what had largely gone unseen and unheard in dominant culture: a methodical, unromanticized chronicle of domestic life, in sympathy if not in direct contact with 1970s feminist art or film projects.  Driven by an impulse to create a record of her own life for public display, Robertson developed her filmmaking out of her intensely personal diary writing. ‘When I began the diary, I bought five rolls of film. I thought I’d film myself, one scene every day, moving around my apartment. […] Five rolls of film – it wasn’t enough.’[ii]  Shot mainly in the home, this monumental oeuvre detailed private thoughts and desires. Like many feminist artists of this period, Robertson rigorously turned her lens (and audio recorder) on herself and transformed the individualized routines and practices of daily life (gardening, cooking, eating, exercising, watching TV, talking on the phone, and so on) into an epic, open-ended personal, psychical drama. However, Robertson’s testimony contains aspects unique to her and her experience.

‘All of life is sufficing.’

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Figure 2. Anne Charlotte Robertson, diary note, circa 1967. From Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University, box CC 13R24, “Papers – Diary 1961-1968.” Photo: Brett Kashmere.

As her written diaries make clear, Robertson’s artistic voice first found expression through a committed, inwardly-focused writing practice that she later adapted and transposed to a prolific, long-form, performative Super 8 mode. Reviewing these papers, held at Harvard University, one immediately discovers an avid and precocious diarist-poet. The earliest entry, from December 1960, is an autobiographical narrative titled ‘Is This my Life?,’ composed when Robertson was 11 years old. The inventive, self-analytical, ambidextrous writing, encompassing T.V. scripts, poetry, lists, plays, reports, and annotated ephemera, in addition to daily personal diary keeping, represents a major, complex creative endeavor in parallel to her more publicly-facing film production.

In between, she studied still photography and self-portraiture while achieving a BA in Art and Psychology from University of Massachusetts, Boston. At the encouragement of the Boston filmmaker, activist, and professor Saul Levine, Robertson turned to Super 8 film in 1976. Under Levine’s tutelage, she completed an MFA in Filmmaking from the Massachusetts College of Art in 1979. Over the course of her life, Robertson produced an enormous body of work in the Super 8 and Super 8 sound formats, constituting one of the major achievements of both small gauge cinema and personal documentary. The irony is that her choice of medium – Super 8 reversal, which was cheaper and less burdensome than 16mm and more immediate, was also more precarious because of the prohibitive duplication costs, which has made the work difficult to access and show in the era of digital projection. This fact of format has not, however, prevented other 8mm filmmakers from receiving acclaim, attention, and ample screening opportunities, including Robertson’s former professor, Levine, their Boston contemporaries Joe Gibbons and Luther Price, Stan Brakhage (for his Songs (1964-9)) and many others. Even this so-called “home movie” format, which was heavily marketed to female consumers, remained a masculine prerogative within the domain of artistic production.

As a female Super 8 diarist toiling away in small-town Framington, Massachusetts in the mid-1970s and ‘80s, Robertson belonged to no contemporary flashpoint or avant-garde zeitgeist. Her Diary was distinct from the more critical and polemic feminist video art that was being made at the time by Martha Rosler, Eleanor Antin, Joan Jonas, and others; as well as the more formally poetic and tightly crafted 16mm work of Carolee Schneemann,[iii]  Shirley Clarke, Marjorie Keller, and Marie Menken, and the conceptually distilled films of Joyce Wieland. Nor did Robertson’s work have a punk edge or transgressive flair common amongst small-gauge underground filmmakers like Vivienne Dick and Beth B. In contrast, Robertson’s films were direct, observational, self-absorbed, and minimally worked upon past the point of shooting. She performed all of the roles: cinematography, lighting, editing, sound recording, and was the primary on-screen subject. As Robertson explained about her process: ‘I just do assembly editing. Everything I take [shoot] is in the film.’ A summary of Reel 3, for instance, involved the cooking of tempeh and meal prep, the cleaning of dishes, a long phone call, an in-camera edited montage of grocery store produce, and a stop-motion sequence of Robertson weaving on a loom. “I thought that with the diary it would be great if everything was included, if I left overexposed or underexposed film in.”[iv]

Diary’s domestic nature, its extensive performance of “women’s work” and Robertson’s quest for a husband perhaps made the project easy to dismiss at a time when transforming social attitudes towards gender roles and breaking the glass ceiling were major points of focus. My work to date suggests a reading of Robertson’s Diary as not quite feminist enough (in the context of 70s gender politics), or formally adventurous enough (in the realm of avant-garde film). Overall, her work existed at the interstice of feminist politics and feminist art but went unclaimed by either. Another aspect of Robertson’s work that has played a role in its being overlooked or deliberately ignored is the way in which it simultaneously foregrounds the sexist attitudes, gender policing, and dominant heterosexual norms of its time. Many of these attitudes and conventions are deeply internalized in her pre-film writing. Body image, in particular being thin, is an ongoing concern throughout her diaries, which is later externalized and reproduced in Five Year Diary and other projects. Blurring the lines between art and life, private and public, fiction and documentary, Robertson’s films evince a multi-layered autobiographical portrait that is deeply interlaced with the concerns of second wave feminism while also bowing at times to certain gender expectations and social norms. Much of her diary practice (both film and writing) dealt directly and painfully with issues related to diet, mental health (including clinical depression and bipolar disorder), sexual desire and frustration, and self-worth. In the late-1990s she described her films diaries as

[…] a materialization of the present, which is a storehouse. I used to think of them in terms of showing them to a man who would say to me, ‘What have you been doing all your life’ and then I’d show them to him. It would be like a trousseau you know, like a home movie made up ahead of time. So, in other words, I represent myself with them. They’re my ‘true-so.’[v]

At its very earliest stages, Diary appears shaped by Robertson’s desire to please her father by working on film in a narrative form. As she explains: “Sometime in late November, 1981, my father told me to tell a story. I didn’t really have a story to tell, except to expand on my day-to-day life inside my apartment.”[vi] What emerges is the way that her project appears continuously governed by a desire to please a male viewer, whether it be her father, or a future (imagined) husband. Several chapters of the project are devoted to her celebrity crush with the British film and TV actor Tom Baker, who played the title character of the BBC series Doctor Who for seven years.[vii] Robertson’s obsession seems largely motivated by the idea of an imagined male viewer.

Robertson: Missing from Scholarship

Remarkably, Robertson’s work has also been omitted from scholarship on autobiographical documentary and auto-ethnographic filmmaking. A 2013 publication on ethnographic cinema and personal documentary in the Cambridge and Boston areas determined that Robertson, despite being a dedicated observer of lived experience from the specific area covered by the book, fell outside its parameters because her work was avant-garde. As the author Scott MacDonald writes: ‘with one important exception [Alfred Guzzetti], I say almost nothing about avant-garde cinema… even when filmmakers have had some connection with Cambridge, including, for example Radcliffe graduate Abigail Child” and “prolific diarist, Anne Charlotte Robertson.’[viii]  Yet her work is seldom referenced in those studies and periodicals devoted to experimental film history and criticism either.

Why has Robertson been excepted from these intersecting histories? Her films screened routinely (if infrequently in their original format) during her lifetime, in venues ranging from universities and festivals dedicated to Super 8 all the way to New York’s Museum of the Moving Image (in 1988’s Independent America: New Film, 1978-1988) and the Museum of Modern Art (in 1998’s Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films). She was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in Filmmaking in 2001. Her name remains familiar, echoing through many traditions of practice, including Super 8, feminist, diary, and first-person cinemas. Yet she is almost nowhere to be found in the film literature. It is tempting to speculate on a root cause related to gender bias; the work being deemed too quotidian, too ordinary; its format too domestic and lacking a theoretical perspective. However, Diary’s critical reception also provides a window onto wider, contextual concerns. For example, how feminist art and film were being defined and appraised during the latter stages of the second wave feminist era in America; the marginalized status of Super 8 as a creative medium; and the representability of mental illness in the media cultures of that time. Robertson’s psychological breakdowns are detailed throughout the work, including her numerous hospitalizations, and she often described her filmmaking as a form of self-therapy. “When I got to the five-year mark in 1986,” she noted, ‘I kept going because, basically, I didn’t have a happy ending for my movie.’[ix]

This is Part One of Brett Kashmere’s contribution on Anne Charlotte Robertson: Part Two will follow as our next publication. 

Brett Kashmere is a media artist, historian, and curator living in Oakland, California. His writing on experimental cinema, moving image art, and alternative film exhibition has appeared in Millennium Film Journal, MIRAJ, The Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Senses of Cinema, The Brooklyn Rail, The Films of Jack Chambers, and Carolee Schneemann: Unforgivable. Kashmere is currently a doctoral student in Film + Digital Media at University of California, Santa Cruz. He is also the founding editor of INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media.

[i] Robertson began filming Five Year Diary on November 3, 1981. The final version consists of 84 reels, each approximately 27 minutes in length.
[ii] Quoted in Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 208.
[iii] Schneemann’s autobiographical, mutable double-projection Super 8 film Kitch’s Last Meal (1973-76, with sound on cassette) is a notable exception, and was cited by Robertson as an inspiration for the Five Year Diary.
[iv] Quoted in Scott McDonald, A Critical Cinema 2, 213.
[v] Quoted in Donna Cameron, “Pieces of Eight: Interviews with 8mm Filmmakers,” in Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films (New York and San Francisco: Museum of Modern Art and San Francisco Cinematheque, 1998), 67.
[vi] Quoted in Scott McDonald, A Critical Cinema 2, 208.
[vii] Including reels 33 (“A Crush on Doctor Who,” 1982), 34 (“Doctor Who Convention,” 1983), 61 (“More Doctor Who,” 1988), 67 (“So Much Doctor Who” (1989), 68 (“Plenty of Doctor Who,” 1989), and 69 (“Guess Who and Breakdowns,” 1989).
[viii] Scott MacDonald, American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 15. Every chapter in MacDonald’s book is centered around a white male filmmaker (with one about a mother-son team and another about “other approaches,” which is also nearly all white male filmmakers). MacDonald has written about Robertson’s work elsewhere, but his decision to exclude Robertson from a consideration of personal documentary because of its avant-gardism is still confounding.

[ix] Quoted in Glen Collins, “Slices of Life in a ‘Five Year Diary,’” The New York Times, October 20, 1988.