Broke Banks' Mountain

Meet the internationally acclaimed filmmaker who can't afford toilet paper.

Cleveland's annual Oscar Night party was to take place at the tony lakeside Clifton Club. Filmmaker Robert Banks had spent weeks planning the event with his partners. It would be a blowout affair, black tie with hard-to-pronounce food, local film and TV impresarios strolling down the red carpet.

For Banks -- a man with more contacts than most political fund-raisers -- this would be a time to flourish. He'd been promoting the event all week.

But as 9 p.m. rolled around, there was no sign of Banks.

He wasn't there at 10 either.

At 11, people began to worry. Where was Robert Banks?

He never showed.

His car had run out of gas and brake fluid. He didn't really trust those brakes anyway and couldn't remember the last time they'd been checked. Maybe the '90s?

His glasses, banded together with electrical tape, nicely accessorized the point. "I dropped them the other day at the Cinematheque," he says. "I didn't have the money or the time to get them fixed yet."

Though you wouldn't know by looking at him, Robert Banks may be the most celebrated filmmaker in Cleveland. His poppy, experimental movies have been shown at Sundance. In 2001, he was declared Filmmaker of the Year at the Midwest Filmmakers Conference. New York's Museum of Modern Art has profiled his work, and he's been honored as a guest artist at the BBC British Short Film Festival.

But Banks isn't living the good life in Pepper Pike. In fact, he barely gets by, some days having to choose between toilet paper and gas. His mother has threatened (only half-jokingly) to take him to The People's Court for the thousands he owes her. To pay the rent, he's worked as a janitor, posed nude for art classes, and washed dishes at $50-a-plate restaurants.

This week, Banks is scheduled to give a speech about making it as a professional artist in Cleveland. The irony's not lost on him.

It's just that Banks is so wedded to the notion of artistic purity that he can't bring himself to make films most people want to see.

He refuses to cross over to more commercially viable movies and harbors only contempt for those who have. In his mind, Robert Rodriguez is a "hack who was once respectable." David Lynch's Inland Empire was "hard to sit through, because the quality was just so bad."

Still, Banks admits he's grown sick of scrubbing toilets. He's declared 2007 his make-or-break year. Everything is riding on it.

On a winter's morn, Banks putzes around his one-room studio in the Tower Press Building downtown. The place looks as if it's been ravaged by a bull.

His pullout sofa bed is heaped with clothes. A rack of musty costume dresses is pushed against the wall. His TV and VCR are covered with a layer of dust, and the room is crowded with file cabinets, old film reels, and the broken cameras Banks can't bear to toss. His toilet hasn't worked in a week. "Not quite the studio you were expecting, huh?"

Yet it's a step up from his mother's attic in Hough.

Though Banks isn't in the monied league of Michael Mann and Steven Spielberg, he's a big name in art films. "Robert has shown in a lot of really big venues," says Ed Halter, film critic for The Village Voice. "In the circles I move through, he is very likely the most well-known experimental filmmaker in Cleveland. He is Cleveland to a lot of people we know."

Banks' films are poppy and explosive, the visual equivalent of shaking a soda bottle, then having it explode in your face. Usually only a few minutes long, they're fast-moving pieces without dialogue or chronological narrative. To watch is to feel as if your body's turning upside down on a Tilt-a-Whirl. They're so disorienting, he warns epileptics against seeing them.

"Robert's films are electrifying," says John Ewing, director of the Cinematheque, Cleveland's reigning art house. "They pulsate with passion and anger."

Banks lives by the philosophy that a picture is worth a thousand words. In one film about the lengths women go for beauty, an actress vigorously flosses her teeth until her gums ooze blood. In another, about the exploitation of blacks and women in film, the screen fills with piles of amputees' hands.

To the experimental film community, he's an artist and innovator, his movies more collages than portraits. In My First Drug: The Idiot Box, the picture is chaotic and jumpy, as if to mimic the effect of television on the eyes and brain.

"Robert keeps going with the notion that film is an art form as well as a form of communication," says Cleveland State professor Kimberly Neuendorf. "He makes these films because he has a message to convey."

But such filmmakers aren't paid well for their opinions. One man's art, after all, is another man's junk. No conventional cinema will show his work. No casual moviegoer will pay $10 for a few minutes of abstract weirdness.

"There's almost no chance of ever making a commercial dime off of the films Robert makes," says Dave Filipi, head of the Wexner Center, an art and film gallery in Columbus.

Banks, however, can't bring himself to change. He doesn't have the money to make feature films. And even if he did, it's not his thing.

"There's no need to make an hour-and-a-half-minute movie, when you can get the same message out in four," he says. "Life is too short to dabble in hour-and-a-half self-indulgences" -- even if they generate enough money to fix your brakes.

His most acclaimed movie to date is X: The Baby Cinema, a four-and-a-half-minute commentary on the commercializing of Malcolm X.

The movie was shown at the New York Underground Film Festival in 1994, where it received attention from both The New York Times and The Village Voice. It was later included in a best-of compilation by directors Todd Philips and Andrew Gurland.

Banks thought he was on the short road to fame.

His next big venture was four short films packaged as Goldfish and Sunflowers, a Jackson Pollock-like spectacle that featured women stomping on eggs and toothpaste containers while wearing three-inch heels. Banks wanted the movie, which took five years to make, to tell the story of feminism from a male perspective.

He considered it his greatest accomplishment.

In the fall of 2000, Banks submitted the movie to Sundance. Outlet, one of the four shorts in the series, was accepted. "I thought the spark had finally caught," he says.

Sundance took place in January, but Banks didn't attend. He was broke, not into "that scene." Yet people at the festival kept calling to say how much they'd enjoyed it.

So he waited for the suits to call as well, the ones who'd tell him they were ready with financing and distribution. Months later, he was still waiting. The phone call never came. Banks realized it never would.

"Short films aren't as big at these things as long films," he sighs. "But crazy as the film was, it probably would have gotten an Oscar if Julia Roberts or Julianne Moore had been in it."

To pay off his debts, he found work as a dishwasher, nude model, professor, and part-time janitor. The lawyers at the downtown firm where he scrubbed toilets had no idea he was a nationally known artist. And though he's tried every year since 2001 to make Sundance again, that call hasn't come either.

"Was I bitter?" he asks. "Yes, I still am."

On a recent afternoon at Artefino, a coffee shop in his building, Robert Banks orders a bottle of apple juice, then stops to chat with a clerk. The girl, skinny and ponytailed, looks like she belongs in a Fall Out Boy video. She'd be perfect for my next film, Banks thinks.

But he says nothing of this, instead asking, "Why don't you stop by my studio after work?"

"For what?"

Banks rolls his eyes. "To get naked. What do you think?" he says, not understanding that a bedraggled "filmmaker" without a business card may seem a bit suspicious in certain circles.

A few minutes later, he receives an angry phone call. His landlord had overheard the exchange and found Banks' behavior sleazy and appalling. It takes three rounds of calls before the situation is resolved.

Banks doesn't understand what he did wrong. "Everyone's so sensitive."

The problem, friends say, is that Banks isn't quite attuned to social graces. He spends so much time observing people from behind the camera that he's forgotten how to interact normally. It's as if everyone's a potential movie character; he's already creating relationships that don't yet exist. Twice, he's been threatened by guys who thought he'd solicited their girlfriends for pornos.

"I think he's misunderstood," says photographer Karen St. John-Vincent, who met Banks when he accosted her in the parking lot of a photo lab. "He's sincere in his approach to people. The disadvantage is, he's a guy. When he approaches people, he doesn't know they take it as a come-on."

It's almost as if Banks is a character in A Night at the Roxbury: always approaching the most beautiful women, never understanding why he's been rejected. He's oblivious to why the lay public doesn't take to his movies and equally incognizant about how he appears to others. Recently, the filmmaker showed up uninvited at a neighbor's party, not noticing that, at age 40, he was the only old man in the crowd, or that the hostess was shooting daggers at him. He asked for a plate of food before he left.

Banks dates his awkwardness back to childhood. He can still recount bad middle-school experiences with the vitriol and detail of a diary entry written that morning.

His father, a reformed dope peddler and hustler, didn't want his son on the streets. So Banks became a mama's boy. His only solace was film; his best friends were movie characters.

When he was six, Dad brought home an 8 mm camera. Banks spent hours filming neighbors playing, his mom cooking pie. When the lens broke, he kept filming pretend scenes.

His work began getting recognition in the late '80s, after it showed at the Cinematheque and the now-defunct Aquillon club. He spent so much time at the Cinematheque that the middle front seat was christened "Robert's spot."

Unfortunately, his social skills remain subjugated to his work. He earnestly tells a female reporter that "girls only want to date guys with BMWs." Perhaps that's why he landed his first real girlfriend just last year.

Hidden on a dark street in North Collinwood, the Immanuel Presbyterian Church is hard to find. The choir sings praises to Jesus, young girls in flowery attire practice their dance moves, and a fifth grader, accompanied by her adoring parents, fumbles through a sheet of music.

It's talent night at Immanuel. The social committee is selling Styrofoam cups of coffee, homemade brownies, and cupcakes, while dads hold camcorders. Banks is the guest artist tonight.

The lights dim and X: The Baby Cinema starts to roll. Neon words like "fear" and "anger" and "consumerism" flash like broken traffic signals as the images whirl by at warp speed. Pictures of teenagers in baggy jeans and "X" T-shirts are juxtaposed next to grainy shots of Malcolm X as a young protester. "Remember the man," the narrator screams. The audience flinches.

When it's over, attendees blink as though adjusting to early morning light. One mother removes her hands from her young child's eyes. The audience claps politely. "Interesting," they say. "Interesting."

Cleveland, of course, isn't exactly peppered with art houses. So Banks must screen his films whenever and wherever he can. Audiences, like the church crowd, aren't always appreciative.

"Cleveland doesn't know what they have," says Neuendorf sadly.

Village Voice critic Ed Halter is blunter: "I sometimes want to grab Robert and have him come to New York."

But Banks insists on staying in Cleveland, where the rent is cheap and he can pop by Mom's house every day. "I want to prove that it's possible to succeed here," he says stubbornly.

This presents something of a quandary. Though he prides himself on being an outsider, he can't understand why he isn't universally acknowledged and praised. He resents the Cleveland Film Commission for spending most of its resources wooing name productions like Spider-Man and Welcome to Collinwood instead of backing local artists.

"Everybody stops what they're doing to kiss up to these out-of-towners," Banks says. "But what about the artists who are living and working here daily?"

Yet the commission's job is to bring work to Cleveland, not shed grants, says chief Chris Carmody. "We're not an arts organization. We're an economic-development organization."

So Banks lives life as a martyr. There's a problem with this: Martyrs aren't usually celebrated till after death. The interim can be pretty damn hard.

And Banks insists on making his hard life harder. He refuses to go digital, preferring the dying mediums of 16 and 35 mm film. It costs $18-$20 to shoot two minutes on 35 mm film, yet $12 will buy two hours on digital. That, however, would amount to embracing a tool of the enemy -- i.e., "non-authentic" filmmakers.

Film requires directors to carefully prep each shot, making sure the lighting, the frame -- everything -- is perfect. "Anyone can shoot in digital," he says. Only true artists shoot on film.

Soon, theaters won't even be able to show Banks' films. They too are switching over to DVD projection. Yet fans insist his day is coming.

"If your work is good, it's going to be recognized," says John Malm Jr., a local music producer who's worked with Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor. "When you're as good as Robert, you've got to just keep going forward and believe that gas will appear, somehow gas will appear."

On a Thursday afternoon, Banks dims the lights in his apartment, stands behind his video projector, and begins to roll his newest film.

A slim brunette in skyscraper heels and scarlet lipstick circles a plate of pancakes with her fingertips, caressing it as if it were a man's chest. For the next two minutes, she continues to stare longingly and desperately at the plate, but refuses to indulge.

In another scene, an actress sits on the railing of a deserted highway, shoving handfuls of pancakes into her mouth.

The polarizing images are both disturbing and moving. It feels as if you're flipping through a visual diary of their emotions. Banks says he modeled the film after the infamous "Pancake Murder" series, where photographer Les Krims placed a plate of pancakes in each shot of a simulated murder scene.

"But I cheat," Banks deadpans. "I also include eggs and bacon in some shots."

He shows another movie, not yet finished, about a murder gone horribly awry, the frames so luscious they could be hung in a museum.

On these two films Banks' career hinges. He's giving himself a year to finally score. "I've been doing this for 20 years. It shouldn't have taken me this long to make it."

So he's decided it's time to shed some artistic vanity, going to places he's never gone before. Like the internet. And friends' backyards. "I've decided I have to stop being so snobby about where my films are shown. The goal is exposure."

Though Banks is disdainful of YouTube -- "Have you seen the garbage on there?" -- he's dipping his feet into online film distribution. Though a computer screen doesn't provide the same visual roller coaster, Banks "might be OK with that," he allows.

He's also researching grants. New York's Rockefeller Foundation awards $35,000 to experimental filmmakers each year. Banks has been a finalist four times, but says he never put much effort into the application. This year he's going to spend days on it.

Last fall, his short film A.W.O.L. was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Curators loved it. "We've been following his work for many years," says Sally Berger. "We find them of great interest."

Now there's talk of having a Banks retrospective at the museum.

He'll also take a shot at the more popular film festivals -- South by Southwest, Cannes, and Sundance. If he gets in this year, he promises he'll do things differently -- like actually showing up. Despite his natural prejudices, he's trying a little harder to join the establishment.

And if that fails, Banks has a backup plan. "I guess I can always do bat mitzvah videos," he says, cringing.