Films by Robert Breer

Rating **** Masterpiece

By Fred Camper

In Robert Breer’s animated films his hand can occasionally be seen intruding on the drawings–a common animation “mistake” that for this artist represents an intentional shift, a way of stepping outside prior imagery. “In all my work,” Breer said in a 1971 interview, “I tried to amaze myself with something, and the only way you can amaze yourself is to create a situation in which an accident can happen.” The surprise generated by his constant insertions of new imagery and new rhythms presupposes the viewer’s active attention to each frame–a willingness to regard each moment as essential that our mass media actively discourages. Even the rapid cutting of rock videos is largely decorative, rarely repaying close attention, and while the TV commercial does aim to capture the viewer at every instant, the instants are arranged hierarchically to lead to the shot of the beer bottle at the end. In Breer’s far more egalitarian approach, a tiny dot can be as important as a landscape. His cinema offers a true alternative to the dominant ethos: rather than fetishizing objects or particular notions of human identity, it argues for an active reenvisioning of the seen world, with all its parts equally capable of inspiring wonder.

The 11 films showing at Chicago Filmmakers this Sunday reveal that Breer has kept on finding ways to amaze; though he’s had retrospectives throughout the world, in Chicago his films are most often seen in group shows, so a one-person program is a treat. Traditional animated films that tell stories are built out of separate “scenes,” actions in particular locales. Many experimental animators, by contrast, will stay with a particular shape for a while, making a flower smoothly morph into a person. But Breer builds sequences out of tiny bits of intercut imagery–mostly only a few frames long, some abstract and some representational–to produce a flicker that both reflects the rhythm of film projection and keeps the viewer on edge. At the very moment you think you understand the organizing principles of a sequence, Breer will introduce a live-action shot of, say, a toy telephone prancing across the floor on little plastic feet. Sound connected with one object will continue over other images, producing another kind of displacement.

Breer’s short films are surprisingly varied in feeling and tempo, moving from energized, almost electric movement to brief meditative silences, from intimations of sadness to humor–a humor that allows Breer to confront doubt and loss without ever becoming portentous. One might say of any of his films: “Here’s a whole new way of seeing the world–but why do I find myself chuckling?” Breer’s humor is a natural correlate of the mental gasps produced by his shifts of imagery and rhythm: viewers are likely to smile at the way a forest of black lines in A Man and His Dog Out for Air (1957) finally congeals into the eponymous subjects.

Born in Detroit in 1926 to an inventor father who was also an automotive engineer, Breer was an obsessive cartoonist in childhood. As a Stanford student he saw a Mondrian exhibit that impressed him as “the most radical case of abstraction I’d come across,” he told me. “It really drove home the idea that this kind of stripped-down imagery could contain a universe and be just as expressive as anything.” By 1949 he was in Paris, hanging out with Mondrian’s successors and exhibiting his own abstract paintings, but after finishing his first film, in 1952, he gradually gave up painting. And almost from the beginning his films represented an implicit argument against much abstraction of the time. The spiritual ethos underlying that abstraction produced a quest for shapes as the expression of an inner ideal; Mondrian, for example, saw his forms as representations of a hidden order in the universe. The abstract shapes in Breer’s 66 (1966) would be at home in most abstract paintings, but by constantly inserting flash frames of other shapes, which produce diverting afterimages, he prevents his forms from becoming static. They can hardly suggest an absolute ideal if they’re constantly being interrupted!

Breer returned to the United States in 1959, settling in the New York area, where he still lives. For more than a decade his films were mostly abstract, but the 1972 Gulls and Buoys introduced a significant shift: Breer began to use rotoscoping, which involves tracing drawings from live-action footage a frame at a time, a technique devised by commercial animators to produce more realistic movements. Breer put it to a very different use. He didn’t aim for naturalistic movement or detail, making his drawings with the same broad markers he’d always used. But the hint of naturalistic rhythm connects Breer’s abstract forms with everyday seeing. And the tension between objects as a photograph might render them and as abstract possibilities–objects as pure shape and color–is what gives his later work a purpose quite different from Mondrian’s. Fuji (1974), which begins with a home-movie image of a woman on a train in Japan, rapidly alternates snippets of photographed images with shapes drawn from them, suggesting ways in which the mind’s eye might reinvent the world: at one point the snowcap of Mount Fuji becomes an abstract triangle migrating across the frame. When the home-movie image finally reappears at the end it’s been transformed, because Fuji has offered us a way of remaking the quotidian present.

Breer has long considered the “threshold” as key to his work; he writes of “the fusion of stills into flowing motion and then back again” and of the “transition from 2D to 3D…. the edge between 3 dimensional illusion and 3D reality.” And indeed, each of his films is organized around unresolvable tensions between illusionism and abstraction. Shapes are rotated to produce depth effects, then become flat again. Representational shapes become areas of pure color; colors congeal into shapes. Breer’s rotoscoping and other animation techniques are rarely used to create realistic illusions; instead he makes you feel the stop-start rhythms of animation itself, as a succession of still images becomes cinema. Indeed, over the years Breer has made a number of mutoscopes–precinema devices in which one cranks a kind of flip book–as well as kinetic sculptures that move so slowly one can barely detect their motion.

Breer’s exploration of the threshold indicates a modernist interest in “revealing the artifices instead of concealing them,” as he wrote in 1970, but for me they have another, profounder effect. Without reference to any spiritual order or even to Mondrian-like idealism, Breer makes a cinema in which everything seems alive. His focus on the threshold meshes perfectly with his use of surprise to heighten the viewer’s experience of the seen world, which he presents not as a series of fixed images but as a field in which depth and shape and color and movement are utterly malleable, susceptible to endless reinvention.

The knife in Swiss Army Knife With Rats and Pigeons (1981) is an apt metaphor for the inclusive “kitchen sink” approach of Breer’s later films, with their wildly diverse mixes of imagery and techniques. We see the famously versatile knife in profile; we see it rotating, blade extended. The red handle in a live action photograph suddenly becomes an oblong red oval that bounces up and down while the drawn outline of the knife remains at the center of the frame. Breer’s film is not an academic argument for abstraction, however, but a literal representation of how one can look at a red knife as pure shape, and how a shape can take on a life of its own. The film also includes drawings of Mondrian paintings that move up within the frame, a wry joke on the absoluteness of Mondrian’s designs. At one point a Mondrian turns into a large blue rectangle, which rotates to become a three-dimensional table. Mondrian did not see his shapes in terms of everyday things, but Breer, under the guise of having a bit of fun, links abstraction to the individual’s experience of the daily world, a creative reenvisioning whose optimism recalls the writings of Emerson.

In the film’s final section, the knife is given a reflexive suggestiveness. We see pseudoimpressionist drawings of a landscape–like most of Breer’s images, animated from marker drawings on four-by-six-inch cards–that look rotoscoped but are not: they’re simply highly manipulated, synthetic renderings of an ordinary scene. Intercut with these are shots of the knife in various positions–apparently a metaphor for the artist’s own manipulations. And indeed a whole panoply of man-made devices appears throughout Breer’s films, from bicycles to airplanes to a rubber-cement bottle to a roll of Scotch tape, all of which can be seen both as parallels to the devices of cinema (the camera’s moving rollers, the film projector, the cutting and pasting of editing) and as references to the ways an artist alters reality.

Breer addresses this subject most profoundly in his greatest film to date, Bang! (1986). One of its first images is from a 1930s home movie, taken by Breer’s dad, of the young Bob canoeing at summer camp. Intercut with this are the cartoons Breer drew at the time–macho images of “heroes” like Tarzan. Breer’s poses vary in the canoeing footage, portions of which are repeated, but he’s always in similar positions–caught midstroke, seemingly never getting anywhere. The grand ambitions of the drawings are sharply juxtaposed with his apparent straining to make progress in the canoe; soon imagery from sports events, such as a TV wrestling match, underlines the point.

The theme of failed ambitions reappears in Bang!’s animated images of plummeting airplanes. These lead to a shot of a postcard with some pink flowers in the middle, part of which appears to be rotating as Breer films it through a moving magnifying glass. Then an image of a crashed airplane appears to rotate similarly; later the postcard reappears with the top cut off and smoke apparently rising behind the “horizon,” as if a plane had crashed behind a hill. These three shots suggest a knowledge of flying, which Breer did a bit of in the 50s: a tailspin often precedes a crash. But Breer also links the plane crash to his own image making, suggesting the inverse of the imaginative optimism of Fuji: if vision can reinvent the world, it can also fail to do so, leaving only wreckage and fragments behind.

The latter half of Bang! movingly presents this possibility. We see a broken visual field, images separated from one another by a white background; printed words–“Wuzzat?” and “fade out”–appear to question Breer’s whole enterprise. At one point the word “nothing” appears in a variety of colored letterings; the “joke” here is on making something out of nothing. The filmmaker who’d previously seen cinema as a fully equal substitute for flying or bicycling now seems to regard it as a humbler partner to the “real” activities at which, the film suggests, he did not succeed. One can even see the film’s final shot–of the ridiculous toy telephone, whose bouncy, jerky movements seem to echo the rhythms of Breer’s films–as a kind of joke on his work. The ecstatic surprises and vivifying rhythms of other Breer films remain in Bang! but seem more profound for being paired with their opposites–loss, lack, self-doubt, emptiness.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons.