February 6, 2014  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Film
Finding The Robot

Recently I was watching a 35mm print of a new film acquisition called Vincere (2009), directed by Marco Bellocchio. Vincere tells the story of the rise of Benito Mussolini and Ida Dalser, the woman he kept as his secret lover for decades. At one point in the film, Mussolini pays a visit to the Milan headquarters of the Futurists to view a multimedia art exhibition. The Futurists, a group of Italian artists whose founder, Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944), published “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” on February 20, 1909, in Le Figaro, called for a mass cultural movement that would reject the sober and genteel conventions of the bourgeois world and embrace the speed, technology, and dynamism of the early 20th century. In Vincere, Mussolini tours the exhibition accompanied by a cadre of Futurists dressed in colorful clothing that looked somewhat jester-like. All this reminded me of a film exhibition I curated in 2009, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto, called Nuts and Bolts: Machine Made Man in Films from the Collection.

Nuts and Bolts presented films from MoMA’s collection that reflected Marinetti’s vision of the mechanical being in the machine age: endlessly energetic, productive in the factory, free from sentimentality, immune to disease and death, and yet somehow reflective of the human condition. Certain films, such as Len Lye’s 1936 short The Birth of the Robot, A Clever Dummy, from 1917, and Woody Allen’s wonderful Sleeper, from 1973, were all immediately on my short list. When preparing these kinds of thesis exhibitions, I like to poke around in the collection and look at films I have not seen before that may be related to the theme. Sometimes I turn up an interesting, though not usable, work, and sometimes I find a gem. While searching for collection films for Nuts and Bolts, I found an unknown treasure.

poster for a screening Frank and Joan Gardner's short films

This poster for a screening Frank and Joan Gardner’s short films, signed by Frank Gardner, hangs on the wall of my office at MoMA.

I had a stack of films to screen and was working with projectionist Greg Singer to go through them all. Some were films I knew and I was checking print condition, while others were unknown to me. In particular, I was eager to screen a 16mm print labeled “NBC-The Mickey Rooney Show-The Robot.” I wasn’t too hopeful that this apparent television short would work for my program, but since I am always interested to know what the collection holds, Greg threaded the print into the projector for me. Up came images of a snowy village of miniature chalets sitting under a decorated Christmas tree. The houses were sparkly and had that icy blue color that we associate with the quintessential Winter Wonderland of song and story. Soon a wind-up mechanical robot, towering over the alpine village with his massive steel body, crushes the town as he ambles through! He is The Robot. Greg came out of the booth to ask me what we were looking at. I had no idea, but I knew it was not a Mickey Rooney TV show. This 16mm stop-motion animated short was a true gem; an undiscovered and mis-cataloged treasure in MoMA’s collection. At the head of the film, pages turn with the title The Robot, “By Frank Gardner,” and another page noting “and Joan Gardner.” Who were Frank and Joan Gardner, and where did this film come from? There were no clues in the acquisition files, no correspondence to lead me to the Gardners. I Googled their names and came across Frank Gardner and his wife Joan living in Connecticut.

Once I contacted Frank, he revealed their substantial treasure trove of amateur films, made mainly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Living and working near Yale University, Frank and Joan gathered their friends together on weekends to make their experimental and often cheeky, humorous films. With titles like The Guest (1968), Times Eight (1968), Everybody and a Chicken (1970), and Jig Jag (1972), I wanted to know more about these handmade films and their makers. Frank and Joan were not shy about showing their films in a public forum. In a 2010 letter to me, Frank wrote, “I started making 16mm films in 1968 when independent filmmaking had become enormously popular with film festivals across the country. I had such success with short films at the Yale Festival in 1968 that I made more films and entered all the major festivals for the next five years.” The films were screened across the United States—at the Ann Arbor Festival, the Monterey Film Festival, and others—and won several awards.

By the time I contacted Frank and Joan, both were well into their 80s and in delicate health. Nonetheless, Frank’s recollections of his filmmaking activities were sharp and his memory was unflagging when it came to the film materials he owned. He was quite adamant about this collection of films going to an institution—as a whole package—that would conserve and exhibit his understated yet key contribution to amateur filmmaking. With the assistance of friends, much in the way they made their films, the Gardners packed the reels of 16mm film into boxes and shipped them to The Museum of Modern Art. In October 2011 MoMA purchased the Gardner film collection, and these unique materials are currently stored in the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center in Hamlin, Pennsylvania.

I’m not sure when we’ll next exhibit The Robot, or any of the other Gardner films now in the collection, but their current home in long-term preservation storage ensures their longevity. Also, writing about my experience uncovering The Robot can at least introduce readers to a pair of filmmakers who enjoyed the vibrant cinematic process with their like-minded friends, and contributed to the tradition of amateur filmmaking. Even though Frank and Joan did not reject the conventions of the bourgeois world with their stylish and graceful films, I would hazard to guess The Futurists would have found their independent and playful initiatives appealing.