"When you're young and you don't know anything, that's when you're most attentive toward something that you like," says Banks, who will screen Rage Against the Dying of the Light, a retrospective of his career, this weekend at the Cleveland Cinematheque. "The fact that you can take a bunch of images, put them together, add sound to it, and project it, and all of a sudden it becomes this entity. Film is like an alchemy -- it's magic."
As Banks got older, he discovered in the medium a way to vent feelings over the issues he encountered growing up in the East 55th and Superior neighborhood: economic struggles, racism, sexism, "right-wing America taking over." His films -- most well under 10 minutes -- contain jarring images shot in unique ways and manipulated right down to coloring and scratching the celluloid itself. They don't tell stories so much as offer glimpses into Banks's thoughts.
"The stuff that I do is pretty much theme-based," he explains. "They don't have any narrative structure. I do art, basically, and I use film as a medium. A lot of people have a problem with that."
John Ewing, the director of the Cinematheque, agrees on both counts. "Robert is working in another tradition of filmmaking" from traditional storytelling, Ewing says, "which is films that really play with the form of the film medium and try to expand its possibilities. Robert's films are less like novels and more like poems, and if people can just not get bent out of shape that there is no plot, they can find them really quite beautiful."
For the better part of the last decade, Banks has created his films in relative obscurity, working around Cleveland as a cameraman on other people's shoots and screening his shorts at clubs. But this year, his film Outlet screened at both America's Sundance Film Festival and the Rotterdam International Film Festival in the Netherlands, and he was invited to lecture at the BBC Short Film Festival in London.
"Things are happening for him, and it's really gratifying to see it," Ewing says. "Robert is a true filmmaker."
But Banks's main concern is still that childish glee. "There is still a magic to it -- and a fun kind of magic," he says. "But people want to isolate film as being mind candy for the masses. I get so angry when people think Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino are god figures of cinema."
"Robert is very conscious of the look of his films," Ewing says. "He gets a lot of points in my book. He has a lot of integrity."