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Robert Todd looks for the poetry of life

'Robert Todd's Cinema of Discovery,' at REDCAT, records hidden beauty and meaning in the filmmaker's surroundings.

March 28, 2009|Reed Johnson

It might be tempting to describe Robert Todd as an analog guy in a digital world. After all, the Boston-based experimental filmmaker still wields a Bolex 16-millimeter camera and edits his painterly, poetic compositions on a Steenbeck, a piece of equipment that's rapidly becoming as archaic as a harpsichord.

But it's evident from his relentlessly adventuresome short films and rapid-fire conversation that the 45-year-old Todd works from a cutting-edge sensibility that's constantly being driven by new ideas and his own shifting modes of perception. His artistry will be on display Monday at REDCAT in a program of short films curated by California Institute of the Arts instructor Rebecca Baron.

Frequently using everyday elements from the world around him -- office furniture, his backyard, flowers adorning the alleyways around his Jamaica Plain, Mass., home -- Todd, a professor at Emerson College, crafts movies imbued with what he describes as "a ringing, glowing sense of atmosphere."

"There's a beauty in life that, I just feel, when that beauty sings out, people are moved. I know I am," says Todd, speaking by phone from the Ann Arbor Film Festival in Michigan, one of several venues that have honored and showcased his work through the years.

Trained as a painter, Todd utilizes a labor-intensive, highly gestural filmmaking process. Dispensing with conventional narrative strategies, his delicately layered imagery alludes to states of mind, or to what Todd, sounding appropriately Emersonian, prefers to call "modes of being." He turns mundane objects into mysterious phantasms, their shapes silhouetted in strange light, their identities suddenly transformed or, to use Todd's term, "transmuted."

His work invites viewers to ponder rippling patterns and savor the tension between the structure of his concepts and the free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness nature of his visual style.

"These environments have stories to tell, and he kind of finds them," Baron says. "He's asking us to listen harder and look harder, and not just let them go by. I think there's an improvisational quality to some of the work, so improvisational music comes to mind."

In "Office Suite" (2007), a 15-minute short that will be shown at REDCAT, Todd turns the clutter of his personal work space into an abstract study in the mute elegance and emotive power of seemingly ordinary things. As his camera plays with alternating bands of shadows and light, the room appears to be dissolving into another kind of space. In a sequence near the end of the film, fluorescent lights lining a hall seem to beam their energy all the way to the floor, like an apparition.

This ambiguous shape-shifting and the search for what he calls "haunting resonances" are characteristic of Todd's protean work.

"You can discover a shape-language that can get associated with other forms," he says. "Like you can look at the sheets on your bed at night and they're rumpled, and there's a hog's head in there."

In the 18-minute "Riverbed" (2008), part of a series called "Invisible River," Todd's camera becomes an explorer in search of the remains of an all-but-vanished ghost stream that was culverted by the city of Boston in the 1850s. The journey past (and under) railroad yards, warehouses, a church, sewer grates, chain-link fences and sundry urban voids turns into an imaginative ramble through the fissures between substance and ephemerality, the interplay between public and private spaces, and the flow between conscious and subconscious thought.

For Todd, this alchemical style of moviemaking is directly linked to his lifelong preference for shooting in film rather than in video or digitally.

"With video, you're looking on the flat screen, and it basically is the image. There's no mystery," he says. Todd considers the happy accidents that take place in the film laboratory to be an intrinsic part of his artistic process. He recalls one film in which "about two-fifths of the movie were things that, they came back from the laboratory and I said, 'Wow!' "

A popular college instructor, Todd says that many of his students "are fully immersed in digital culture, in a desire to post things on YouTube and beyond." While he acknowledges that he makes his films mostly to please himself, he relishes the experience of having them projected before an audience. "I really get something back."

Poised, like his films, between contemplative calm and restless mental energy, Todd sounds ready for his next voyage out, wherever it leads.

"Finding a process is never a complete activity," he says. "There's always going to be something challenging you to change a facet."


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