Tomorrow night at 7 PM the Nightingale will present a program of works by Joe Gibbons, who’s been making experimental films and videos since the mid-1970s. Over the course of his four-decade career, the Whitney Biennial has included his work on four separate occasions, and he’s been a mainstay of underground film festivals across the country. Gibbons has taught at Bard College and at MIT, and in 2001 he was honored with a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. Yet he’s never gotten more media attention than he has in the past two months, since he was arrested on New Year’s Eve for robbing $1,002 from a bank in New York’s Chinatown.
The New York Post ran two stories on the episode in January, and the news spread quickly, resurfacing in such unlikely outlets as People magazine. Many of these reports frame the story as a “News of the Weird”-style curio, painting Gibbons as a nut and raising incredulity about his claim to have robbed a bank (albeit without a weapon) so he could shoot the event for a film he was making. Tomorrow’s screening continues a wave of Gibbons tributes taking place all over North America, which aim to rehabilitate his reputation.
Is Gibbons a radical artist or just plain crazy? You might not be able to tell by looking at his movies, as many of them play on this very ambiguity. Since the early 80s, Gibbons has been the star, but not necessarily the subject, of his work, often playing a deranged version of himself. Many of his filmmaking strategies suggest an unstable mind behind the camera as well. Gibbons tends to frame himself in extreme close-ups that seem to shut out the rest of the world, and his nonlinear, deliberately haphazard editing evokes the thought process of someone going mad. Several of his 90s works—among them a series that features Gibbons staging unnerving psychodramas with Barbie dolls—were shot on a Fisher-Price children’s camcorder. The centerpiece of tomorrow’s program, a miniature epic compiled from roughly 25 years of Super-8 and video footage, is called Confessions of a Sociopath (2002).
“I was making these autobiographical films, but I got tired of that and suspicious of the implied sincerity of that form, because it was always a persona I was using,” Gibbons explained in a 2006 interview. “So what I’ve been doing more and more is fictionalizing the documentary aspect—either through the persona or actually fictionalizing the events I’m filming.” In other words, Gibbons doesn’t want viewers to question his sanity so much as the documentary form, a creative mission of such late-60s and early-70s experimental films as David Holzman’s Diary and William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. Yet Gibbons has acknowledged that his diaristic pieces draw on actual experience, which makes it particularly difficult for viewers to determine what’s staged and what isn’t. And since the footage we see was clearly shot over a long period of time—Gibbons has been filming himself since the start of his moviemaking career, typically when he gets an idea to stage something outlandish or illicit—the movie really looks like the record of a life.
In Confessions, for instance, the scenes of Gibbons talking to a psychiatrist are actual psychiatric sessions. The medical reports that appear onscreen are genuine records of Gibbons’s stay at the McLean Hospital in the 1980s. The most outlandish story Gibbons recounts in the film—about walking out of the Oakland Museum with a painting tucked under his shirt in 1978—is verified by clips from TV news broadcasts reporting the incident. Gibbons has admitted to periods of drug addiction (“I just worried if I had enough problems within me that I could exploit; so when I ran out of my own, I started creating them”), but it’s uncertain whether the scenes of heroin use in Confessions are real.
The film would be harrowing if it weren’t for Gibbons’s sense of humor, which is apparent in most of his work. The filmmaker’s onscreen persona throughout Confessions is deadpan and knowingly sick, at times suggesting a highbrow version of cult comedian and onetime Saturday Night Live writer Michael O’Donoghue. When Gibbons reads his own psychiatric records over a compelling montage, the effect is unexpectedly comic, playing like a spoof of other autobiographical avant-garde films. Talking to Spalding Gray in some short interview segments, he makes the established actor his straight man by turning the conversation into a impromptu vaudeville routine. In the movie’s funniest segment, a thirtysomething Gibbons decides to give up experimental filmmaking and get a job—the first wanted ads he answers are openings for a donut chef and a flight instructor.
Gibbons’s most recent prank seems to have backfired, however: as of this writing, he’s being held at Riker’s Island (his court date isn’t until April 14). And chances are that Gibbons won’t be able to use the footage he shot of his bank robbery in a future project, now that it’s being used as evidence in a criminal trial. These events continue a bleak period in the filmmaker’s life. Gibbons hasn’t held a job since 2010, which was also when he separated from his longtime partner, artist Louise Bourque. For the past few years he’s had no fixed address, depending on friends for financial support. When asked what inspired him to rob a bank, he cited “the desperation of not having any money and not having a place to stay.” The profits from tomorrow’s screening (and the others like it) will go towards Gibbons’s legal defense and his costs of daily living once he’s released from jail.