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Kenneth Anger, and Gregory Markopoulos
lived and made films in Europe during
part of the 1950s. Their aesthetics had
been molded in the 1940s in America, and
the change of place did not mean a fundamental change of style or vision, despite
the radical division between American and
European practical film theory at that
time. The avant-garde tradition in film had
broken down in the early 1930s, and despite sporadic and isolated efforts at independent film-making in several countries,
the only continuous and sustaining force
for ambitious cinema was at the margins
of the commercial industries. All three filmmakers returned to America to make their
major works of the 1960s. When Anger
and Markopoulos went back to Europe at
the end of the decade, the situation there
had been changed as a result of direct
American influence.
Two important figures of the American avant-garde cinema, however, began
to make their first films in Europe in the early 1950s. They are Robert
Breer, an American, whose cinema grew out of the painting he was doing
in Paris in the early 1950s, and Peter Kubelka, an Austrian who went
directly into cinema but who did not find a significant context for his art
until he came to the United States in 1965. Breer had resettled in Palisades,
New York by 1959. Although their films are obviously very different and
no influence can be traced from one to the other, both have their roots in
the graphic cinema of Eggeling, Richter, Duchamp, and Lye, without the
mediation of the Abstract Expressionistic and mythopoeic phases that I
have described in the previous chapters.
Both Breer and Kubelka were only marginally aware of the early
graphic cinema. Nevertheless, they each took up its premises and reduced
them to a new essence after a hiatus of more than twenty years. The similarity of their situations, if not of their films, has produced a number of
related (sometimes in likeness, sometimes in opposition) theoretical positions and insights, which will become evident as I discuss their films and
their theories separately. Since they both came to America as fully mature
artists, their work and thought have been resistant to certain native patterns and will therefore offer an illuminating contrast within this book.
The two fundamental works of the graphic cinema from the 1920s
made without animation were Fernand Leger’s he Ballet Mecanique and
Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema. By extending a metaphor from several
of his paintings into film, Leger compared a universe of human actions
and everyday objects to the functions of a machine. The movements of a
woman on a swing, the loop of another climbing a flight of steps again
and again, the rapid alternation of a hat and a shoe through montage,
rhythmic flashes of street scenes, and periodic prismatic distortions are
compared to the operations of gears, pistons, and flywheels. Each of the
movements of both the tenor and vehicle defines a shallow or a flat space
of performance. Even the loop of the woman climbing the stairs with her
wash confines her repeated efforts to the same two or three steps in the
flight, as if a very limited depth were open to her in the potential field.
he Ballet Mecanique is a tour de force of rhythmic and spatial strategies. Two are particularly interesting within the scope of this chapter. It
was one of the first films to employ the rapid intercutting of static scenes
to give the impression of motion — a hat stretching out to a shoe or a
triangle jumping into the shape of a circle — and perhaps the very first to
combine fragments of actual motion into purely rhythmic figures. It was
certainly the pioneer in combining both these tactics to render threedimensional images flat to the eye by means of the speed with which they
pass on the screen. Both Breer and Kubelka are the heirs of this strategy
as much as of the formal intricacies of the films of Eggeling and Richter.
The second formal operation of importance to us derives from Cubist
painting. It is the incorporation of printed texts to present the literal flatness of reading within the framework of conflicting, diminished depths.
Clement Greenberg has described the function of printing within the context of Cubist painting and collage:
[Braque] discovered that trompe-l’oeil could be used to undeceive as well as to deceive with. It could be used, that is, to declare as well as to deny the actual surface. If the actuality of the
surface — its real, physical flatness — could be indicated explicitly
enough in certain places, it would be distinguished and separated from everything else the surface contained. . . .
The first and, until the advent of pasted paper, the most important device that Braque discovered for indicating and separating the surface was imitation printing, which automatically
evokes a literal flatness. . . . Only in the next year [1911] are
block capitals, along with lower case numerals, introduced in
exact simulation of printing and stenciling, in absolute frontality
and outside the representational context of the picture. 1
Leger introduced the same dimension to film when he showed a title, “on
a vole un collier de perles de 5 millions,” which as we read it
makes us forget the fact that it must have been placed a certain distance
from the camera in order to be filmed. It seems as if the words lie on top
of the actual screen. But when he swings the camera back and forth in
front of the sign, we are forced to experience that depth.
Marcel Duchamp refined the same principle in his Anemic Cinema
(1927). He slowly intercut centered shots of rotating wheels with spiral
lines on them and wheels with puns printed spirally. The lines generated
optical illusions of depth into and out of the screen surface when they
turned. But the sentences remain perfectly flat because they are read.
Breer made very little use of printed texts for this purpose; Kubelka
none at all. But later artists of the graphic film made it a cornerstone of
the participatory film, an outgrowth of the structural film which often
overlaps with the graphic.
Robert Breer’s first film, Form Phases I (1952), comes directly out of
the tradition of Richter and Eggeling. A black rectangle rests in the center
of the screen with a white rim around it. All of the animation occurs within
the black space. Lines appear, intersect, and spread to the edges of the
blackness. A consistent rhythm of frozen and moving figures establishes
the following pattern: the lines slowly move to a fixed form; then that
form holds still for a few seconds and cuts abruptly to another frozen
figure; after that is held for the same amount of time, it slowly changes,
freezes, cuts to another figure, etc. The alternation of changing lines with
collisions of still shapes determines the structure of this very short film. In
the course of its evolution the black rectangle loses its reductive shape; the
changing lines leak over into the white border, diminish the edges of the
rectangle into curves, and carve sections from it.
Breer described the background of his first film in an interview with
Guy Cote:
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 that 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 neoplasticism. 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 possibly 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 the problems of movement. 2
Later in the same interview he unfolds the heart of his first film when he
says of all his work, “I’m interested in the domain between motion and
still pictures.” The cuts of Form Phases I take place between still figures,
often the mirror images of each other, and the motion variations are bracketed by the static poles of arche and telos, the beginning from which and
the end to which lines move. The realms between stillness and motion
remain the object of almost all of Breer’s explorations in cinema. He came
quickly to a heightened awareness of the operation of the single frame as
the locus of the tension between the static and the moving.
In Form Phases II (1953) the fastest shots are three frames long in a
color animation of evolving and freezing hard-edged shapes in both reciprocal and uncoordinated movements. Reversing and varying the reductive
screen-within-the-screen of his first film, he placed a thin black border,
sometimes thicker on the left, sometimes on the right, around an almost
completely white rectangle in the center. In the middle of the film, still
another reduction of the screen shape, a small rectangle with blue diagonal
stripes, appears and enlarges to the edges of the frames as the diagonals
come loose and descend across the screen in waving blue lines. The final
and most interesting tactic for generating forms out of the given shape of
the screen is the use of a black dot which moves just within the edges of
the white, black-bordered space, defining its limits.
The following year he made a loop, Image by Images I (1954), composed entirely of shots only one frame long. Of course, every animated
film is made by shooting one frame at a time. But conventionally only tiny
variations in the shape and position of images are permitted by animators
to give the illusion of a continuous naturalistic motion. Breer’s invention
was to abolish all of the slight variations and to project a continuously
repeating strip of film in which each frame was essentially independent of
the others. Thus any sense of continuous movement would have to be
replaced by a more general notion of rapid change, an affirmation of the
static in the center of the greatest speed that cinema affords. Furthermore,
the endless loop confirms the stasis of the individual frames by repeating
them at fixed intervals.
The same year that he experimented with the loop of Image by Images
I, Breer made his first collage film, Un Miracle (1954), in collaboration
with Pontus Hulten. It animates Pope Pius XII in a gesture of benediction
from the Vatican balcony so that first he seems to be juggling a series of
balls and then his own head. The film is only thirty seconds long. It is,
however, the first manifestation of a second strain in Breer’s work which
runs parallel to his formalism throughout the 1950s and dominates his
work in the early 1960s — the humorous cartoon.
The first film (as opposed to a loop), in which he employed the singleframe changes of Image by Images I was Image by Images IV (1956). It
is not a strictly single-frame film, as none of Breer’s have been in toto since
the original experiment: single-frame variations on line figures, both open
and closed into geometrical shapes, numbers, and flickering colors collide
with graceful continuous lines, with movements in clusters that are repeated several times with variations. For the first time, he gave this film a
soundtrack: rapid sputtering noises similar to, if not actually sprocket
holes passing the sound reader.
Retreating temporarily from his investigations of high-speed imagery,
he made Motion Pictures (1956) the same year. In a filmography he described it as an “evolution of forms derived from the author’s paintings.”
Against a black field, constantly changing colored strips of paper cross the
screen, meet each other, and deflect at angles. Each encounter of two edges
of the paper creates a possible transformation of direction, angle, color,
and scale. At one point he modifies the texture of his materials by using
a thick white paper towel. This time the soundtrack is made up of discontinuous sounds of a violin. Motion Pictures remained the most elaborate
of Breer’s achievements in the strict tradition of Eggeling and Richter.
With his next film, Recreation I (1956-1957), Breer made his first
major contribution to the alternative graphic film tradition, that of Leger
and Le Ballet Mecanique. Here he elaborated the single-frame technique
of Image by Images I and /V into a complex micro-rhythmic form, with
the fastest possible stretches of imagery (single-frame sequences) interrupted by and evolving into just slightly longer shots of a few frames. The
speed of the alternations tends to flatten the appearance of objects in the
single-frame shots so that they expand into a somewhat deeper space when
the merest extension of their duration occurs. Besides the hundreds of
successive shifts in degrees of shallow depth, there is a coordinated tension
between the stasis of the single frames and the minute, fragmented figures
in motion when brief continuities occur.
Along with collages of colored paper, a moire pattern, and a piece of
typewritten paper, Recreation I uses numerous solid objects of differing
degrees of depth: buttons, a mechanical mouse, a jackknife, plastic film
reels, a glove, a cat, string, the animator’s hand, and most strikingly, a
wad of paper expanding after compression. Almost all of the images appear twice, but not in a symmetrical pattern; often they are inverted and
the number of frames allocated to them is not the same for each appearance. The effect of these numerous variations within a very limited range
of depths and durations is to create a dense pattern of interlocking and
incomplete rhythms accented by slight, discontinuous movements within
the frame which the eye can organize into a complex unity.
Noel Burch, who wrote and speaks the run-on punning French speech
which accompanies the film like a Dadaist commentary, accurately compared the total impression of this film to the collages of Kurt Schwitters. 3
Breer himself made a statement about the structure he generally prefers
for his films, which is particularly appropriate here:
I think of film as a “space image” which is presented for a
certain length of time. As with a painting, the 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, the 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 times. My approach to film is that of a painter — that is, I try
to present the total image right away, and the images following
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 constantly changing aspects of the
statement, in the same manner in which a painting is subjectively modified during viewing. 4
In an article on the cinema, called “A New Realism — The Object,”
which equates “the realism of the cinema” with “the possibilities of the
fragment or element,” Fernand Leger calls for a new kind of film-maker:
New men are needed — men who have acquired a new sensitiveness toward the object and its image. An object for instance if
projected for 20 seconds is given its full value — projected 30
seconds it becomes negative. 5
In Recreation I Breer took up the challenge of Leger, but in a direction of
heightened speed that the maker of Le Ballet Mecanique had not quite
In an interview Breer stated:
I started in Europe and I feel that my orientation was somewhat European. As a painter I was working out of Bauhaus
traditions while Abstract Expressionism was getting going here,
you know, coming out of Surrealism. . . . It’s true that my films
had their roots in European experimentation of the Twenties.
. . . Another European aspect of my work might be that it is
more conventionalized than that of the Americans. The Abstract
Expressionists, and so forth, were working in a sort of anticonventional way, trying for direct expression, while I was
happy working out of conventions. I like this idea of limitations
which you break all the time. The limitations have to be there,
if they’re self-imposed or if they come through some kind of historical inheritance, as mine are. I’d set up conventions on a film
and then play with those within them. 6
The first part of this statement is a lucid appraisal of the difference
between his work and that of his American colleagues. His stance in regard
to conventions has varied as his work has changed. The earliest films he
made, between 1952 and 1957, grew out of the norms of geometrical
painting into those of the graphic film, with important modifications of
both. But beginning with A Man and His Dog Out for Air (1957), he
made animated cartoons until 1964. They include Inner and Outer Space
(i960), Horse Over Teakettle (1962), Breathing (1963), and the climactic
Fist Fight (1964), in which cartooning broke up and led back to the fast
motion cinema of his earlier works.
In the cartoon films there is a shift in his working process. Instead of
creating the film directly in front of the camera as he was shooting it, he
began to draw the lines and figures of individual frames on paper and
cards. By flipping through the cards he could approximate the experience
of the film. The actual shooting became more of an exercise in translation
than creation. In an interview with Jonas Mekas, he spoke of Recreation
as having been made
in a kind of deliberate feeling of wonderment: “What the hell
will this look like?” you know, that kind of thing, and “I don’t
want to know . . . whether this is cinema or not; it doesn’t matter.” Then I would go back and try to incorporate some notions
of control and construction. 7
By introducing the middle step of creation on cards, he refined his animation but diminished the dynamics achieved in his first works.
The weight of his interests as an artist lies in the creation and breakdown of illusions. This, he seems to believe, becomes clearest when the
materials of the illusions are depersonalized (and demythologized), or as
he has said, “conventional.” A letter about his undeveloped interests in
three-dimensional films (inspired by a three-dimensional shadow play of
Ken Jacobs) led to a discussion of his general aspirations in making art:
It has to do with revealing the artifices instead of concealing
them. The fact of that rabbit sitting inside the magician’s hat is
the real mystery, not how it’s dissimulated. The hat should be
transparent and show the rabbit.
So it’s again the threshold area that defines the form.
Thresholds for my own exploration have been:
1. The fusion of stills into flowing motion and back again (flip
cards, collage film, sculpture).
2. Transition from literary convention to other — i.e., abstraction
and back again (collage films — Pat’s B’day).
3. Transition from subconscious to conscious awareness — i.e.,
slow motion sculpture, fast paced film.
4. Transition from 2D to 3D — transparent mutoscopes and cut
out sculpted mutoscopes — rotating bent wires. 8
Naturally the notion of the “threshold” is more vital to Breer’s aesthetic than that of “conventions.” Conventions are, in fact, a means for
him to come upon a threshold more immediately. O …
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