Robert Breer: Home Movies

Elena Duque
Robert Breer

Robert Breer was born in Detroit, the Motor City, in 1926. His father was the engineer who designed the Chrysler Airflow, a popular model of car, and an inveterate home cinema fan who applied his mechanical knowledge to his hobby, even inventing a 3D camera to film family events. Breer Junior, however, had no interest in cinema or those kinds of inventions, and from studying engineering went on to devote himself to art. Mondrian’s painting took him to Paris in 1949, and his untiring research into composition and colour led him a few years later to think of cinema as a possible way of expanding these ideas. At the start of it all was a flip book, which was later to become the basis for his work in frame-by-frame filmmaking: “I made a flip book of small paintings to try to understand how I arrived at making this final painting.”

In the early fifties Breer set out on a path that would lead him to be a pioneer in the field of experimental animation. A path that emanates the indescribable joy of someone who marvels at the things that they are discovering, which in turn fuel the following games. Games, because despite its fundamental rigour, Breer’s work was joyful and fun. In those years he created a series of films called Form Phases, in which painting and collage meet in their mobile, changing compositions, blocks and lines that are capable of provoking moments of humour in the way they move or evolve. He made kinetic toys under the premises of abstraction to be displayed in the gallery, such as flip books and mutoscopes of various shapes and colours. He made satirical collage films such as Un Miracle (1954) and Jamestown Baloos (1957), in which newspaper and magazine clippings of human figures, animals and landscapes mix irresistibly with flickering bursts of irregular geometric shapes. He played with the possibilities of the line, which winds its way between figuration and abstraction in A Man and His Dog Out for Air (1957).

One of his main fields of experimentation was what happens in the brain when images collide: starting with the premise of the cinematograph, where 24 still frames in rapid succession merge to produce an illusion of movement, Breer set out to subvert the principle by showing a rapid succession of totally different images. This produced glorious explosions such as Recreation (1956), a kind of collage generated in the eye, containing pieces of paper, slices of bread, tools of different kinds, a glove and a piece of cloth. Or Blazes, in which a series of 100 paintings filmed frame by frame, with different combinations, rhythms and distances, ends up producing a three-minute film in which no second is the same as the last. Using the same starting point, he experimented with the blending of colours in the eye-brain in films such as 69 (1968) and 70 (1970), in which he generated continuity by means of moving geometric shapes that change colour at full speed, from one frame to the next, turning the viewer’s eye into a painter’s palette.

After this great creative explosion expanding in different directions, starting in 1964 (he returned to the United States in 1959), with Fist Fight, which opens this program, Breer began to move towards a terrain that incorporated all of this knowledge and production in films touching on the personal, perhaps the only possible kind of home movie for an artist who worked with flicker and abstraction. Fist Fight was made to accompany the New York premiere of Stockhausen’s composition “Originale”, and it is the sound of that performance that provides the soundtrack to the film. A compendium of photos glides in crazy succession with abstract forms and pop imagery: memories of childhood and youth (photographs of Breer as a boy and later at his work table; of his wife, of friends...) join the dance of his experiments based on the combination of stills, with short fragments of “cartoons”.

In the early 1970s, two hallmarks of Breer’s work emerged. One, devised in the sixties in order to save work, was the use of 4x6 inch index cards (about an A5) to make his films: he painted on them with marker pen, crayon, pencil and airbrush, or pasted pieces of different materials and photographs onto them. The cards were filmed in succession, sometimes recombined in different ways. The portrait of Breer filmed by Jennifer Burford, as well as his mutoscopes, shows his working system using the cards. The second hallmark was rotoscoping, an animation technique invented by Max Fleischer in 1912 that consists of tracing, one by one, frames from a “real action” film. Fleischer’s aim was to make his characters (Koko the Clown, and later Betty Boop) move realistically; Breer took the human movements of his home movies and spun them into the colourful flickering universe of his animations.

It was in Gulls and Buoys (1972) that he began to use the rotoscope. The title is a play on the “Girls and Boys” bathroom signs in a beachside restaurant. Using 16mm footage of a trip to Rhode Island with his wife and children, Breer started working with rotoscoping in his own way: a baby playing in the sand, a boy getting into the water, the seascape and its seagulls flying overhead, in sequences full of digressions and colour changes. The world of children figures prominently in other films in the program: Trial Balloons (1982) is based on those sausage-shaped balloons used to make animals and hats at birthday parties. That real image, along with others of a baby taking hesitant steps, and a couple battling it out at ping pong (among other pastimes), is the starting point of abstract and equally playful animation with marker pens, like the soundtrack of the film that offers the out-of-tune music of an electronic toy and the squeal of a deflating balloon. There is also another recurring motif in Breer’s films, which is the coming and going between the two- and three-dimensional. If the cubist collage of Picasso or Braque reminds us of the flatness of the canvas, the objects that burst into the frame for a couple of seconds in Breer’s films pull us out of the cartoon illusion in a fleeting flash of reality, also reminding us of the intensive work involved in the process of frame-by-frame filming.

The cartoon (including its other meaning of caricature) is important in Breer’s work, appearing in many of his films (the mouse in Fist Fight, for example). As a child he drew caricatures, and in films such as Horse Over Tea Kettle (1962) he returned to this idea with animals and household objects, drawn with a felt-tip pen, that metamorphose like Émile Cohl’s phantasmagorias, but then dissolve into their elemental forms, spots of colour or blurry lines. He extended this idea to ATOZ (2000), an animated alphabet for his granddaughter Zoe, which even includes a nod to his film Recreation.

The program closes with Time Flies (1997), which opens with a soundtrack of Breer snoring and a picture of him, grandpa taking a nap. A clock turns into a speeding seagull, photos of holidays on the beach, of the cat in the sun, of the garden and the kitchen at home are other elements in a collage that even allows itself oblique allusions to sexual desire in vague, humorous caricatures. One of his last films (Breer died in 2011), the most perfect condensation of all his years of experimentation. As if Breer Senior’s 3D camera and his otherworldly family films had inadvertently left an indelible mark on Breer Junior: that of transforming the domestic into material for the most sophisticated visual devices, since the everyday and inconsequential is the true stuff of which life is made.

By Elena Duque