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Interview with Robert Breer
Guy L. Coté
Film Culture, No. 27, 1962/63, pp. 17-20.
Robert Breer in UbuWeb Film
Film Culture in UbuWeb Papers
Presented in partnership with Anthology Film Archives
Robert Breer was born in Detroit in 1926. From 1943 to 1946, he studied art at Stanford University in California and won its annual painting prize in 1949. That year, he left for Europe, settled in Paris and for the next ten years participated in group and one-man shows in France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, England, U.S. and Cuba. Since 1959, he has been living in Palisades, N .Y., and now devotes most of his time to making films. His work has received awards from the Creative Film Foundation and the Bergamo Film Festival, and A MAN AND HIS DOG OUT FOR AIR ran for several months at the Carnegie Cinema, New York, with Resnais' L'ANNEE DERNIERE A MARIENBAD. The following interview was recorded during the 1962 Montreal International Film Festival, and is published here with acknowledgments to "Obiectii, the Montreal critical review where it first appeared.
COTE: How did you get involved with films in the first place?
BREER: First, I was a painter. In Paris, I was influenced by the geometric abstractions of the neo-plasticians, following Mondrian and Kandinsky. It was big at the time, and I began painting that way. My canvasses were limited to three or four forms, each one hard-edged and having its own definite color. It was a rather severe kind of abstraction, but already in certain ways I had begun to give my work a dynamic element which showed that I was not entirely at home within the strict limits of neo-plasticism. Also, the notion of absolute formal values seemed at odds with the number of variations I could develop around a single theme and I became interested in change itself and finally in cinema as a means of exploring this further. I wanted to see if I could positively control a range of variations in a single composition. You can see that I sort of backed into cinema since my main concern was with static forms. In fact, I was even a bit annoyed at first when I ran into problems of movement.
My father was an amateur movie-maker from way back; he had even made a stereoscopic camera in the 1940's. I borrowed one of his cameras to film my first tests: a set of cards showing the transformations of forms through various phases. That was in 1952, and I called the film Form Phases. For a long time, the films remained incidental to my painting, but I remember a show in Brussels in 1956, at the Palais des Beaux Arts, where the films were received much better than the paintings. They organized a showing of Form Phases IV at the cine-club, along with Murnau's Sunrise, and I remember feeling a sort of excitement about the dramatic situation of presenting my work to an audience. It's very different from an art show: you never really know if you're making contact with people during an exhibition of paintings.
During that period, I began to consider the problems of free forms floating around. I'd rejected this earlier, trying to get some kind of plastic absolute. That's what had bothered me with the neo-plastic approach to things. In Mondrian, for example, the final absolute is verticals and horizontals. There's no way out, really, and I couldn't accept that. The neo-plasticians said that red was red, that it had a certain wave-length and was meant to be absorbed as a pure sensation. Likewise, blue was blue, and equally a pure sensation. And the two together made for a certain relationship which itself should remain pure. The neo-plasticians felt that the essence of art was in these relationships, and that they had to stay strictly within their own limitations and not take on any other meanings.
COTE: Well, you've evolved considerably from that position since then.
BREER: Yes, films have completely liberated me in various ways. You can see it in the subject-matter I have treated in my films. The Pope film, for example (A Miracle), is a sort of Kafka-like metamorphosis of a human being. Now, I feel that the color red can't be just the color red and have no other meaning. The consecutive fact of film allows for everything! You can mix up symbols and conventions: a red can be a red, or it can be blood, or it can be confused. We deal with metaphors in our experience, and the words we use can have emotional qualities. So can colors and forms. In a sense, I don't entirely believe in abstract films, although I must say that people seem to read into A Man And His Dog Out For Air a lot more from its title than what I actually conceived when I made the images. I can describe it as a sort of stew: once in a while something recognizable comes to the surface and disappears again. Finally at the end you see the man and his dog, and it's a kind of joke. The title and the bird songs make you expect to see the man and his dog, and it's the absurdity that makes audiences accept what is basicalIy a free play of lines and pure rhythms.
COTE: You have said that your films are constructed like paintings. Is that not self-contradictory?
BREER : In the first place, my films are not literary. The only literature involved in A Man And His Dog Out For Air is its title. That's the whole scenario, and it's almost like the title of a painting which one puts on when the painting is finished. Then, A Man And His Dog is constructed from the middle towards both ends. I started with an image which evoked a feeling, and I expanded this feeling in several directions. I work at a painting in very much the same way: you put down a color, which has a relationship to the canvas, and you put down another which alters the relationship, and so forth. The results of this way of working aren't exactly predictable, and in A Man And His Dog, for instance , there 's a peculiar thing at the end which I don't understand but which obviously tickles the audience. I don't think I could ever find the same spot again, at least not consciously.
I think of a film as a "space image" which is presented for a certain length of time. As with a painting, this image must submit to the subjective projection of the viewer and undergo a certain modification. Even a static painting has a certain time dimension, determined by the viewer to suit his needs and wishes. In film, this period of looking is determined by the artist and imposed on the spectator, his captive audience. A painting can be "taken in" immediately, that is, it is present in its total self at all time. My own approach to film is that of a painter — that is, I try to present the total image right away, and the im ages folIowing are merely other aspects of and equivalent to the first and final image. Thus the whole work is constantly presented from beginning to end and, though in constant transformation, is at all times its total self. Obviously, then, there is no denouement, no gradual revelation except for the constantly changing aspects of the statement, in the same manner in which a painting is subjectively modified during viewing.
COTE: Are you not trying to say that cinematic form and abstract painting form are compatible?
BREER: No, I think they are incompatible, at least in my own work. What I've just said is a kind of subjective analysis of the creative processes which I am sometimes conscious of I make my films. But it's clear to me that the language of painting and the language of cinema have little in common. In my canvasses, I used to make rectangles dance around, like balIet dancers, because of the strict relationships I imposed on them. But as soon as I put them in a fluid medium such as cinema and made them dance, my balIerinas became elephants! Not only that, but the camera had broken up the fixity of the relationships, there was no longer any need for rectangles as such, and I could change my forms completely. I started from scratch all over again.
The only thing I've carried directly from my painting days is a practical discipline which I have observed also in other artists who have transformed to films: that of working alone, at the artisan level. I almost have to work that way, and that's why I've had to invent my own shortcuts to making animated films, such as my flipcards, which make it possible for me to see the action before I actualIy shoot it on the camera.
COTE: We speak of abstract films, and I can't help thinking of Norman McLaren's brand of abstract films. In a sense, they are not really abstract at all, because he often gives to non-objective shapes the semblance of human movement. He's an actor who creates shy lines and aggressive blobs, who imagines dynamic performances on the screen which mimic human drama.
BREER: I think that the reproduction of the semblance of natural movement is but one of the many possibilities of cinema. For me, the cinema medium is just an arbitrary thing which was invented that way to provide for the reproduction of natural movements. What I'm interested in is to attack the basic material, to tear up film, pick up the pieces and rearrange them. I'm interested in the domain between motion and stilI pictures. It seems to me that in animation, particularly, the search for the reproduction of natural movements plays far too big a role. Whether stylized or not, I don't think one needs to conceive of movements as related directly to those observed in reality. There's more to cinema than creating the illusion of psychologically anthropomorphic movements.
I would rather define a special approach to "abstraction in cinema" by using the word "unrelationship." The initial assumption in unrelationship is that literature is an over-refined and specialized means of expression with only incidental utility in the process of making continuous imagery, or "motion pictures." Words are sophisticated pictures used for the transmission of ideas; "unrelationship," itself a word, indicates a type of cinema built around the art of the non-rational, non-reasonable association of images. There can be no scenario for this type of film, but you must not confuse it with "abstract art"which pretends to be a world of pure sensations, where red is red. In the new use of cinema, blood is red, and red is red, and the confusion is possible and right. The new imagery I speak of simultaneously appeals to all known and unknown levels of awareness, using the full range of stimuli from primary colors through pictograms to the written and spoken word. The nature of movie film permits the combination in concentrated form of great quantities of divers e materials and interpretations.
COTE: One comment heard about experimental films in general is that most of them fall into the category either of trying to reproduce on the screen the subjectivity of mental disorder, or else trying to induce in the audience a kind of mental disorder through the use of unrelated images. It has been said that although such attempts may be occasionally successful, they are a singularly fruitless and unrewarding form of artistic communication.
BREER: Well, the key word you use is disorder, by which I understand formlessness. There are many formless films which have no other purpose than to "épater les badauds," and I agree that these won't last. But you know very well that one cries disorder when one is unable to sense the real order, the aesthetic relationships which have in fact been put into the materials. I know it's not easy, but what I constantly try to do in my films is set up what is to be expected of them, even if this is the unexpected, so that audiences will know where they are. My films, if nothing else, are formal: they are concerned with overall form. There are some conventions normal to most films which don't apply in mine, and I've had to forcibly tell the audience that it shouldn't expect the normal notions of continuity. I'm very much concerned with a new kind of continuity; even if it's anti-continuity, it still has a form. Take Blazes, for instance. It's a film where notions of continuity are shattered. The succession of abstract pictures follow so quickly and are so different from one to the next that one doesn't accurately see anyone picture, but has the impression of thousands. It's a form of visual orgasm. I put the spectator off the track to such a point that he becomes passive and forgets notions of continuity. He can no longer anticipate the images and is too bombarded to remember the past images. He is forced to just sit there and take the thing in as an actuality: the violence is just a by-product.
Actually, any disruption of normal thought patterns is bound to have an effect, and people often will call that "disorder." Some people stalk out of my films, and are angered. I'd like to think that out of that reaction, people will eventually be brought to see the films as I see them.
COTE: But what about boredom? What about the people that are bored by your films?
BREER: Ah , boredom. I'm against boredom. I can work with outrage, but I'm sorry to have to bore anyone. If I had to choose, I'd much rather anger them, though I should say that the eventual goal is pleasure, viz. joy.
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