Eye Washes: ROBERT BREER, 1926–2011

A fixture of the New American Cinema, experimental animator Rober Breer pioneered a form of cinematic collage that used single-frame editing and omnium-gatherums of chaotic imagery to shape the quotidian into whirligig treatises on the nature of perception.

Robert Breer’s Recreation (1956-57). Courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

In films like Recreation (1956 – 57) and Eyewash (1959), Breer intercut shots of household objects with bright, abstract patterns arranged contrapuntally. In the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, experimental filmmakers such as Hans Richter, Oskar Fischinger, and László Moholy-Nagy had already attempted to transfer various idioms of abstract painting to film. Breer’s work owed a debt to these early pioneers, but it was quicker, more violent, jagged, highlighting the rough edges of torn construction paper and letting squares and triangles veer away from the world of the Platonic Always and into the world of randomness and biomorphism. Breer, in other words, differed from his predecessors by embracing some of the impulsiveness of Abstract Expressionism and the shifting, nerve-racking time signatures of bebop and free jazz.


Breer often filmed his live-action sequences by laying objects flat on his animation table. Because the table in these shots is parallel to the camera’s lens, it is always encroaching on the picture plane, dissolving with the two-dimensional space of the screen, and thus flattening the object placed in the middle, the shadowed edges of which appear as mere ciphers of what was once real space. Breer’s single-frame editing style exaggerated this effect; he explored the way that our perception of depth in cinema is tied to duration. Rapid pacing eclipses depth; shots held for a long time draw us into the space represented on the screen. Breer’s montage moves at breakneck speed so that the viewer’s eye has to constantly struggle with how best to approach the image. A viewer can confidently move into an image held for 24 frames, but not one held for four. The juxtaposition of filmed objects and drawn abstractions continued this dynamic, as the spectator is always unsure whether or not the next image will be one that even has depth. This accounts for the strange experience of watching Breer’s movies, of seeming to be pulled, arms and legs flailing wildly, in multiple directions at once: into the space of the screen and out of the space of the theater, then, rapidly, flush up against the screen and outside of illusion, dancing on the surface of a drawing and then falling into a live-action sequence. Sometimes the succession of frames creates its own space, seeming either to draw images into a void or shoot them back out, the process waxing and waning as the cuts become slower or quicker by turns.

Many Breer films of the 1970s and ’80s focused not on the collision of live-action and illustration but on the more self-contained collision of figurative and abstract drawings. This strategy was presaged in his early 1957 film A Man and His Dog Out for Air, which follows its eponymous heroes as they take definite shape on the screen only to become just dangling, amorphous pen markings and then shift into various guises and back again. Following Paul Klee’s famous statement that “drawing is taking a line for a walk,” the film is joyous in its composing and decomposing of an imitative realism, playing like the opening of “The Book of Genesis,” subject to fast-forward and rewind buttons: suddenly, order out of chaos; just as suddenly, chaos out of order.


In later films like Fuji (1974), T.Z. (1979), and Trial Balloons (1982), Breer combined the drawing technique of Man and His Dog with the editing style of Recreation and Eyewash. The images move seamlessly in and out of abstraction and, through cutting, are thrown alarmingly in and out of illusory space. Circles become birds, which fly off into the distance only to knock flat against the screen as they flash and flutter in time.

Even while certain patterns of development are discernable in his career, Breer remained resolutely experimental in the truest sense. From the political allegory of Jamestown Baloos (1957) to the elliptical autobiography of Bang! (1986), Breer was never afraid of coming up with something out of left field. He made his movies frame by frame, and he seemed to have embraced their improvisational panache more broadly.

The objects Breer included in his collages often reference art history. The glove that appears throughout Eyewash recalls both de Chirico’s “The Song of Love” and Duchamp’s “Pocket Chess Set with Rubber Glove”; the newspapers that appear in Recreation are an obvious nod to early Cubist collages. But what’s most resonant about the objects in Breer’s world is their near-at-handness. They’re the bric-a-brac you just accrue in an apartment or a studio, the junk you throw tantrums about when it’s time to move. They remind us that while Breer’s films are intense and often disorienting, they are never otherworldly. They are the stuff of ordinary perception, defamiliarized so that when the lights come up you arrive where you started and know the place for the first time. 

Contributor

Tom McCormack

TOM McCORMACK is an editor at Alt Screen and the Film and Electronic Art editor at Idiom. His writing has appeared in Film Comment, Moving Image Source, Cinema Scope, Rhizome, and other publications.

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