Anne Charlotte Robertson (1949–2012)

Anne Charlotte Robertson, Spirit of ’76 (1976), Super-8 transferred to digital video, film stills, Courtesy Harvard Film Archive

Anne Charlotte Robertson, born in 1949, was a Massachusetts-based filmmaker who used her Super-8 camera and acute self-awareness to forge a radically intimate mode of first-person cinema. Although she was celebrated as an artist in her lifetime, only today is Robertson finally being acknowledged as an influential pioneer of the first-person diary cinema that has long flourished in the Boston-Cambridge area, perhaps best known in the work of Ed Pincus and Ross McElwee. Gripped by mental illness, Robertson discovered a vital form of self-therapy in the diaristic filmmaking practice invented and refined across her magnum opus, Five Year Diary (1981­–1997), whose eighty-one individual chapters, or “reels,” meld bold formal experimentation, self-depreciatory humor, and raw emotion into a charged yet lyrical chronicle of an often painfully difficult life. Cathartic and devastating, rough-edged and poignantly delicate, disarmingly funny and meditative, Robertson’s Five Year Diary offers a remarkably frank and revealing self-portrait of an artist and woman struggling to understand the overwhelming desires and dark shadows that defined her world. Despite its extreme length and intensity, the work remains wonderfully accessible and engaging, buoyed by the strength and beauty of Robertson’s imagery. Especially striking in Five Year Diary is its innovative and performative voice-over narration, with Robertson frequently recording a live second narration during public screenings to produce an intense, almost musical, multiplicity of voice that embodies the unceasing inner dialogue and exhibitionism that are important constants of Robertson’s cinema.

Anne Charlotte Robertson, Reel 80: May 14—September 26, 1994: Emily Died, from Five Year Diary (1981­–1997), SD video transferred to digital video, film stills, Courtesy Harvard Film Archive

The unique vision and commitment of Robertson’s independent—in the truest, starkest sense—cinema is immediately apparent in the first works she made even before enrolling in the Massachusetts College of Art, where she would receive her MFA in 1985. Already in early works such as Spirit of ’76, the sharp self-scrutiny, off-beat humor, and obsessive attention to details and textures that come to be important signatures of her subsequent films are crystallized. In MassArt’s unabashedly avant-garde Film/Video program, Robertson found an important mentor in faculty member Saul Levine, a Super-8 diarist and activist whose rapid-fire montage style and fascination with light exerted clear influence on Robertson’s filmmaking. Through her MassArt experience Robertson was able to deepen her boldly experimental and artisanal cinema by engaging in a spirited and important dialogue with the work of diverse contemporary and avant-garde filmmakers. Indeed, Robertson’s embrace of stop-motion animation and a kind of performative self as “star” should be considered in context with the work of Marie Menken, Andy Warhol and fellow MassArt alumni Luther Price.

—Haden Guest, director, Harvard Film Archive

Anne Charlotte Robertson, Reel 23: September 1–December 13, 1982: A Breakdown (And) After The Mental Hospital, from Five Year Diary (1981­–1997), Super-8 transferred to digital video, film stills, Courtesy Harvard Film Archive

Posted in Notes on 05.12.2017
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Tribute to Anne Charlotte Robertson

with Haden Guest

Anne Charlotte Robertson (1949–2012) was a Massachusetts-based filmmaker who used her Super-8 camera and acute self-awareness to forge a radically intimate mode of first-person cinema. Although she was…

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