In Robert Breer's vivacious 1957 animation A Man and His Dog out for Air, lines stretch, bend, twirl and break, dynamically sketching a neighborhood, with its buildings and trees, its sidewalks and birds and, finally, a man and his dog walking in the city.
The film is a captivating dance, hovering between figure and line as Breer's pencil reveals an image before letting it dissolve once again into abstraction. The film is at once raucous and surprising, incredibly simple and yet dazzling brilliant, and this is Breer's filmmaking genius. His rich and varied body of animated films, which span more than 50 years, is a testament to the profound pleasure of experiencing perception as it occurs.
Given this work, and Breer's contributions to American avant-garde filmmaking overall, it's sad to hear this weekend via the experimental film community Frameworks that Robert Breer passed away on Saturday, August 13.
Breer was born in 1926 in Detroit, and began his career as a painter living in Paris in the 1950s. You can see evidence of this background in many of his shorts, including Recreation (1956), an energetic collage film that recalls the work of Robert Rauschenberg, mixing painted fragments, drawings and ads. Blazes, from 1961, demonstrates the artist's love of painting, but shows, too, how completely kinetic his work is. The film cycles between rapidly flickering patterns of black and white paint, with occasional washes of color to sooth the eye. The chaotic film ends with an amazing, vertiginous rush headlong into the painted screen in a final, vivid flourish.
In his 1974 short Fuji, Breer bounces between live action, rotoscoped images and graphic shapes to depict a train ride that includes a view of Mount Fuji, as a tourist's journey becomes a magical exploration of graphic possibilities. Breer's more recent work was occasionally autobiographical, as in Bang!, which combines baseball, war planes, World War II imagery and the bodies of naked women, returning repeatedly to images of trees with the sound of crickets. It's a previous generation's American boyhood recalled through flashes of memory.
Breer's work centers on perception, sometimes drawing you in and sending you head over heels and other times pushing you back, and letting your eyes feel the pulsing, spinning power of imagery in motion. Breer seemed to like nothing better than to send his viewers on traveling vectors of movement, jumping between visceral feeling and snippets of meaning, offering in the end nothing less than an experience of contemporary being, a being that is in constant flux.
Breer visited Los Angeles in November, 2008, when he presented his work at REDCAT, LA Filmforum and the Hammer Museum. Filmforum videotaped the Q+A session with Breer, and has posted the videos on YouTube in five parts. The videos offer a glimpse of Breer's thinking and practice; in Part 3, he demonstrates his hand-painted cards that were the low-tech foundation for one film, for example, and in Part 4, he talks about breaking the rules and mixing live action and abstraction.
You can find examples of Breer's work on Ubu Web and Artforum, which features Blazes and several other shorts. As American cinema continues to reinvent itself, looking to the past for rejuvenation and methods to be tried again as much as it looks to the future with new tools and technologies, artists like Breer remain absolutely relevant.