In this post, I'll try to talk about an aspect of Robert Breer's cinema. You know this already if you've seen his films, but please keep in mind that there are many other aspects to his highly expressive, sensual, imaginative, personal, joyful, humorous art. Trying to unify them all in one post is beyond my scope, and perhaps it would contradict Breer's multi-faceted films themselves.
A few years ago, when I made my top ten list for the Senses of Cinema, I ranked Robert Breer's What Goes Up? (2003) as my second favorite film of all time, and on my note for it, I said:
'If frame is the unit of cinema, what happens between frames deserves higher attention.'Now, after three years, I'd like to elaborate on this.
Almost all of Robert Breer's films are animations that at some crucial points draw attention to the succession of frames. One of the strategies he keeps using repeatedly is this:
Imagine an animated movement A (i.e. a red square going up). The successive frames that create the illusion of the movement A are called A1, A2, A3, A4... Also imagine an animated movement B (i.e. a black line going from left to right). The successive frames that create the illusion of the movement B are called B1, B2, B3, B4... (Warning: the frame 'B4' should not be confused with the formula in Howard Hawks's Monkey Business)
Now imagine the corresponding frames from the movements A and B superimposed. So A1 is superimposed with B1, creating a new frame AB1; A2 is superimposed with B2, creating a new frame AB2, etc. The new frame-images can be projected in succession: AB1, AB2, AB3, AB4...
But this isn't what Breer does. Instead he does this:
A1, B1, A2, B2, A3, B3, A4, B4...
The mind's eye still sees a similar superimposition of the movements A and B, but it feels different than the previous example. Especially when seen on film, the brain somehow feels a vibration, and if the eye is trained enough, one can actually see that these are separate frames that follow each other really fast.
What happens in between these successive frames depends on the individual brain (my whole point?). Ideally, the eye shifts between complete darkness and the bright frames (Breer usually uses white or some other bright color as his background). This shift happens gradually (quickly, but still gradually) because of the residue the images leave on the mind. This residue is the only reason why we think the image stays on the screen for more than 50% of the time. In fact, the screen is black half the duration of the film (any film!).
What I'd like to stress is that we're talking about very minute lengths of time here... Less than 1/48th of a second at most...
This also contradicts, in a way, with my statement above that frame is the unit of cinema. When we are watching a Breer film, both the frames and the blacks, and everything in between, become separate units, or to take the idea to its natural conclusion: There are no units in cinema (or other time-based arts), it's simply a continuous event.
Can you give me other examples from life or art when we care about such miniscule time-lenghts? Or when something asks us to feel these? I bet you can't give that many... (and calculating these lengths scientifically has nothing to do with the actual experience of actually feeling these...)
My whole point is that Robert Breer, along with some others such as Stan Brakhage (especially in his hand-painted works), Peter Kubelka (Arnulf Rainer), Harry Smith and Larry Jordan (their flickering animations), has created an experience of time that humanity had not know before, or has cared very little about.
Just to stress my point, I'd like to mention Breer's kinetic sculptures... His kinetic sculptures move too slowly for the mind to perceive. But when you watch them for a time, you'll notice that they have changed places. I've never seen one in reality but I assume that this kind of work asks its 'audience' to try to capture, imagine, feel the movement, or actually, the time itself... Breer wants you to CARE about the time passing.
Just as Hollis Frampton said that all film (film itself, not the soundtrack) is about light (how can they not be when all they are is light reflected from the screen), one can state that all time-based artworks need to be 'about' time, or rather, to make this less polemical, and more reasonable, at least they need to be AWARE of it.
Personally, I know very few artists who were as aware of time as Robert Breer is.
Someday, I'd like to write about the other aspects of his work, especially about the unique sense of rhythm in his films...
The reason I chose not to use any images in this post is that no number of frames can get at the sense of duration I tried to explain above. They would in fact contradict my whole purpose.
I would also like to say that what I'm saying above is not new in any way. Fred Camper, P. Adams Sitney, Stan Brakhage, Peter Kubelka and Robert Breer himself have described the above phenomenon and its implications much more successfully. Read their writings...
Here is a great article on Robert Breer by Fred Camper, where he writes:
'I can think of a few filmmakers whose work offers universes as complete as Breer, but none whose work seems more ‘complete.’ Breer weaves together daily seeing and abstract forms, depth and flatness, movement and stillness, sound and silence, coming together and falling apart, success and failure. Sitney has suggested that the project of avant-garde cinema is a mimesis of human consciousness, and along with Brakhage, Breer offers as complete a realisation of that aspiration as we have yet seen — in the form of “visual orgasms” which, filled with delight and surprise, also cause the viewer to reflect on seeing and thinking.'