Re-posting this interview in light of the passing of yet another singular avant-garde artist, Robert Breer, R.I.P.
[the following was included in the No. 56-57 Spring 1973 issue of Film Culture]
INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT BREER CONDUCTED BY JONAS MEKAS AND P.ADAMS SITNEY ON MAY 13, 1971-IN NEW YORK CITY
JONAS MEKAS: I don’t know if it will work, but ideally I’d like to concentrate only on your last three films, 66, 69 and 70. I think that they differ from all the others. Or no? What do you think? Do they differ, for you?
ROBERT BREER: Yes, they do. But you know, Form Phases IV is very much like those films. Form Phases IV was made in 1956 or something, and tha was my last abstract film until the film 66 which was in 1966 or 1967. In between, I made those collage and animated cartoons and people films. 66 was very much a return to Form Phases IV. It’s a funny kind of retrogression, I guess. 66 was purely geometric, abstract. 69 was another abstraction; and then, 70. They have numbers and they group together, developments of each other, I guess.
MEKAS: Most of your films before 66, I mean the period between 1960 and 1966, deal with certain collage areas-even the films with people. They don’t go that deeply into the explorations, in a sort of minimal way, of color, the illusions of the eye, the…I don’t know how to describe it.
BREER: But that’s where I started. My first film, Form Phases I, in 1952, as a matter of fact, it’s an abstract film. That is an abstract film, and it came right out of my paintings and elements in it were taken from my paintings. In fact, it was meant to be just an elaboration on the painting I was working on at the time. I wasn’t really interested in film; I didn’t know if I was. So now I am going back to that again. I don’t paint anymore. Oh, I fell into a certain dead end in the painting, at that time, and the neo-plastic ideal. Films were very liberating, so I took advantage of it. I wanted to see some things I’d never seen before. Actually, those collage films were in the same spirit as the abstract paintings, trying to distill the essence of the medium. For me, film was another medium that permitted mixing all this other extraneous stuff, ideas and words and configurative elements that I couldn’t justify putting in paintings anymore, and I was sort of trying to come to terms with conventional cinema as opposed to film, but still, very basically, abstract, you know, examining the material, what was possible in film. So now, I’ve come back.
MEKAS: Parallel to your film work, you continued working on your moving sculptures.
BREER: I made paintings and films for about six years and I kept on painting. Gradually, I stopped painting. And then I went through a period when I cam back here from Paris, well, for maybe two or three years, when I didn’t do anything but films. Then I wanted to bring film back into… I got disoriented by the theatrical situation of film, by the fact that you have to turn out the lights and there is a fixed audience, and when you turn out the lights you turn on the projection light and you project the piece of magic on the wall. I felt that this very dramatic, theatrical situation, in some ways, just by the environment of the movie house, robbed some of the mystery of film from itself. My early sculpture was an attempt to make films concrete that could be seen in daylight. Well, the kind of effect that I got out of flip-books, where you hold something in your hand and you flip three images together and they flow into one image. And that is a very concrete situation. It’s something you hold right in your hands, something that you are looking at in normal circumstances, under light, without sitting in a chair, or something, and art is always presented that way. In a gallery, you walk around and look at it on the walls. I couldn’t go back to static painting anymore after film-so I started making objects that had some kind of development in time and yet could be looked at as concrete objects. So, I started making these bent wire objects and mutoscopes, flip cards.
MEKAS: You may be interested to know that there is now a screen invented which allows one to project films in bright daylight. As a matter of fact, the brighter the room, the more clear the image will be.
BREER: Well, there is one already, it’s called television.
MEKAS: But this new screen is specifically designed for projecting films. I don’t know the principle, but it was demonstrated half a year ago.
BREER: Well, I still felt a kind of remoteness between the projector and the screen. The pleasure I get out of making drawings and then looking at those drawings immediately, is something I thought I lost somewhere in cinema. It was made up for by these effects that you couldn’t get any other way, these collage effects, but I still felt a loss there and I wanted to get closer to the direct action of an artist or somebody making art, I guess. Even a screen in daylight, when you can now get a very bright image, still seems to me that the image on the screen has gone through a mysterious process, it’s back in the booth some place. So it’s trying to be concrete about cinema that got me into making sculpture, and the things that creep around on the floor came five years ago, I guess. There was a period when I was searching around for something that would be the equivalent of what I thought was-I hate to use these words-mystery….and wonder…killing words…It’s a very fragile thing for me and I felt that it had to be distilled somehow and isolated and it had to be really strong; it ‘had’ to be. It seems like a contradiction in terms, but they had to be singled out, with nothing extraneous around, just that phenomenon, and I don’t know how to describe that, I don’t know what it is, I guess it’s what people see when my things are successful, that’s what they get. So that these things move around on the floor, just dumb objects, and all they do is just move around very slowly, and I try to keep it as simple as that. There are a lot of ramifications, but I am not talking about film now, of course.
BREER: I am trying to explain the evolution, you know, back and forth between films. I never quit making films, but I just change emphasis. It’s something about the work habits that makes me go from film scale back to concrete objects. It’s a kind of nice, stimulating process for me. If I get bogged down in making objects, or somehow I come to a point where there is nothing going on, I can use this change of scale and material to revive my ideas. There are some practical things about that, working in a small scale, the way I do with the films, just sitting in one place, and…It has a lot to do with the…kind of….declaring the limits to the means ahead of time so that then you can work within these self-imposed limitations and you don’t have to think about the limitations anymore. In that sense, I guess, it’s kind of conceptual. This is the effect that you are going to get…Like, I made ‘Breathing’ as a film. A little self-consciously, I had a sing up, and I was working on the…I work in strange little rooms and places, I like to do that…to get myself a room some place and close to the door and sort of work in there….So, I had a sign for making Breathing, which involved making thousands of drawings over a period of a couple of months-and I had a sign which was going to be the title of the film, for a while-I’ll be damned if I can remember it exactly-I think it was: THIS FILM IS WHAT IT IS WHAT IT IS WHAT IT IS WHAT IT IS-and had the sign around and that was a reminder for me, as a kind of discipline that I didn’t refer to anymore after I wrote it, but it was there to remind me that I was making a really concrete film; I wasn’t going to digress; I was going to keep on making ‘direct’ film. So it is a kind of compulsion to define my limits.
MEKAS: A “direct” film?
BREER: Well, in that case, I was drawing on cards and animating and the temptation, with my background, when I start drawing, is to let things flower out into other areas and make cartoons and bring in extraneous material, and so forth. In this case, I decided that the limit was going to be…I was going to keep very close to direct, concrete imagery. It is my own, private classification…I didn’t invent it, the term, but that was my meaning of it. I guess, that the movement of that line, and its place on the screen, and its density, the rhythms, and so forth, were going to be the totality of the film, and I’d concentrate on that.
MEKAS: This is a silly question, but could you try to sum up, what, for you, cinema is, as opposed to painting? Are those two directions, areas, clear?
BREER: I use the word “threshold” a lot, when I am thinking about what I am doing. I have a notion about conventions or disciplines, they are inter-changeable words for me. The sum total of the, let’s say, cultural history of the…
MEKAS: Yes, we were on the word “threshold”.
BREER: Yes. Somewhere, in all my work, I tried to amaze myself with something, and the only way you can amaze yourself is to create a situation in which an accident can happen. The accident is relative to what you’re trying to do. It’s only an accident because it’s unforeseen. And somehow it always gave me that opportunity. It’s narrowing down now, in such a way that the accidents are smaller and smaller…That’s the terrible thing that happens with the kind of control that you have. Still, it’s very important. And that’s where I consider the threshold of what I know about a given medium and what happen when I violate that threshold at the moment I consider I am doing something worth pursuing. So, every film has to get me interested, while I’m doing it. This has to happen somewhere along the line. It’s a notion, like…It’s probably an old idea about avantgarde, you know, about breaking ground and about defining limits of something by breaking those limits all the time. I consider limits very important, if only to serve as a basis for rupturing, you know? This is the only reason for doing this thing, it’s a matter of bringing life into something. You break a leg and you know what your are made of; if you get sick, then you know what you are, or, maybe in a more positive way, if you have some great paroxysm of joy. I mean, sexual revelation, all kinds of physical revelations, like that. And in an art form, it takes a more formalistic…
MEKAS: Do you see any different steps in your work-can you group your work in some way, in groups? Periods? Technique-wise or subject-wise or threshold-wise..?
BREER: Yes, because I have tried a lot of different things, to amaze myself. I guess, there are. The first films were working out painting problems. But my work habits are such that for a long time I used to alternate from one kind of film to the other-the other being an antidote to the one I just did.
MEKAS: From anecdote to antidote…
BREER: Yes. The anecdote was one of the things that bothered me, so I used to alternate between them, I guess. If you went back and looked at dates and things, you’d see that I went from collage things, very dense kind of, chopped up imagery, to something that I…that would serve least in working as an anecdote, and that’s when I got into the line…the flowing…the kind of floating through things. And so I really alternated those types of films.
P. ADAMS SITNEY: You mean, did one collage, and then one…
MEKAS: When I say “groupings”, I don’t necessarily mean groups that are separated in time. They could be overlapping.
BREER: That’s right. They do. They overlap; they almost alternate one after another.
SITNEY: When did you start the alternation?
BREER: Right at the beginning. I went first from geometric films, in 1942, that first, little one, Form Phases I. A lot of bad and successful experiments…I had to work through everything I had seen, too, and try everything I had seen. So it started right at the beginning. I went from that fairly rigid constructivist type film to using flowing inks, and so forth.
SITNEY: Which ones?
BREER: They are on ‘that’ reel…I don’t know if they are on ‘that’ reel. Well, there were more Form Phases…Some of them are mainly titles…very out of frame, you know…unhappy lighting, and so forth. But still, the basis was there. Once I did that, O.K., enough of that…now it’s time to break up everything and do the other thing. It got to be kind of a habit, doing that. I don’t know how long you want to go on…
MEKAS: If you have time, we can run as long as the tape runs.
BREER: O.K… It doesn’t show very well on the films that I show normally, because I suppress a lot of films. What I found was that when I make a film which I really like very much, I try to make a sequel to it. And that was always…it was just the energy that I put into that film, the impetus of it it carried over into another footage which sometimes would be called, you know, a sequel to the previous film. I mean, I’d have Recreation 2, which was a result of making Recreation 1, where I really tried to exploit what I discovered in that film. Those were very self-conscious efforts and usually not as interesting as those first ones, and that stands to reason. And so there is always that little film after the one that I considered good. Then I’d throw all that out when I realized what I’d done. Later on, I quite making those sequels, I’d just eliminate that stage. I realized that that was my way of dissipating the energy by making a phony film…I’d just spend it out until it was really driven into the ground, then I’d start all over again. It’s a strange business of self-hypnosis, you know.
Generally, there is a shift, I guess, from the early geometric things to when I decided that maybe I could break out of these notions of plastic formalism altogether. The cinema really provided an opportunity to forget about continuity, that’s one of the things about cinema which was there waiting for me, as a trap. I decided, since I don’t know about continuity, I don’t have to think about it, and I’ll just put it out of my mind, and I’ll do it in a very methodical way, which was by fracturing, shattering the image so there wasn’t a flaw in it.
So that the collage thing was a kind of deliberate-like the first ones, Recreation and the loops I made before that-were done really 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, I can attach no value to it. I don’t know whether this is cinema or not, it doesn’t matter.” It was that kind of thing. Then I go back and try to incorporate some notions of control and construction, and so forth. I think Jamestown Baloos was a film where I felt I was riding kind of high on that film and mixed in everything, every discipline I could think of, very conspicuously, and would carry it off just on the level of drive and euphoria, and it would work because I’d will it to work, that’s all. Then, after a more sober reflection, I’d go back to another film. Then, there are films that I did out of…
MEKAS: Horse Over the Tea Kettle seems to me to be one of those films with several satellites…
BREER: All of them…A Man With His Dog Out For Air, I did it to celebrate the birth of a child, and also because Fanny way in the hospital, I had a week of being alone. I worked very intensely…Those films are done deliberately very quickly, so that I don’t think about them. They are done in…I don’t work in anger or anything like that. I kind of work best when I am well fed and well screwed and everything…very peaceful, happy with myself and feeling quite congenial, and that’s when I work best. Nothing works out of anger…
SITNEY: It seems, there are films, like Horse Over Tea Kettle and Man Out For Air, they look like they were made first on cards, or something, first on drawings and then film. Other films look like they were made at the projector.
BREER: There are cards, of course…This is the scale thing in cinema that intrigues me, and I don’t know what I means, but I started working on these small cards. Man and Dog was made on regulation size 8x12-or whatever-sheets of paper. The problem there was covering that amount of area in depth through several thousand images, it’s a lot of ink. I scratched film too. But it’s really against my better judgment. I knew that the results would be limited to looking like every scratch ever made…So then I came to these cards, and I don’t remember how I discovered ‘that’ as the way of doing things-it seems very simple-minded, but certainly it was the right scale for me, because they allowed me to work very quickly and eliminated a lot of the…Oh, there are so many advantages, I don’t want to go into it, but working on cards, it was a beautiful thing that happened to me. That, of course, makes the images look very direct, because of the scale-the line is blown up, it’s almost like a drawing on film. Is that what you mean by having that kind of presence on the screen? It does. But the thing is that working on cards, you can work through five images, relate five images together, you know, the light would shine through five cards. If you work on film, even 75mm film, at most, even with McLaren’s device of seeing, overlaying, you know, with the prisms seeing-two images one on top of other-you can’t do that.
SITNEY: It’s not what I meant. What I was asking is this: some of your films look like they are cleared out completely in advance. The images were made on cards, or paper. Others, like Recreation obviously were made while the camera was going.
BREER: I see. That’s right. That’s a good point. That’s what I was telling Jonas, before you joined, that I like to work in a room…The thing about film is that you can…I take a long time working out something, I refine it way down, I am very reductive in my work. I sit and I look at them, at a box I’ve made, for days at a time, you know, until I’m absolutely at ease with it. I might change something after a week or so. With film, I like the same amount of control. The interesting thing about film is that the act of filming sometimes can be very wild. I permit myself full freedom with film because I know that I can chop it up later, or I won’t show it, I can burn it more easily, I can destroy it, or I can reconstruct it. So that puts a kind of curb on this tendency to distill everything all the time, that’s what’s nice…
MEKAS: It’s funny-but yesterday I spoke to some writer who said she had just destroyed all her writings, and she said, if this would have been film, probably she wouldn’t have destroyed it. She felt the writing was much easier to destroy….and film, she wouldn’t destroy, she thought. And now, you say, you can destroy it because it is film. Sculpture-you wouldn’t destroy that easily…So I am interested in these subtle gradations of destruction…
BREER: I mean, it’s harder to do away with it, you know. More concrete, that’s what I was saying; one objection to film was that. It’s playing off of this discipline, narrowing down, narrowing down, narrowing down….Sometimes it goes beyond the limit of felicity, you know, you get….it dies. Well, with the film, you can chop off the dead extension of that kind of energy, or do it all over again.
MEKAS: I will go back to the attempt of grouping….I am curious that you don’t find that much difference between your last three films and the previous films. I projected, yesterday, to a group of people, here, at Anthology, your film 69. And I could talk about any other film, any film-but I practically couldn’t say a word about 69. I don’t know how to approach it, or how to talk about it, although it may be my favorite film of yours. I don’t know how to begin to talk about it.
BREER: I couldn’t talk about 69 either for a while. Because I am one film beyond it. I think 69 goes from a kind of very deliberate, repetitive opening sequence that seems to be very locked in on itself, and gradually disintegrates, right? And it goes dark, and it ends dark. Things break up completely. Somebody asked me at the Flaherty Seminar or some place, what was the meaning of the last part of 69 when the flow that was previously there, on the screen, began to break into pieces? And I said that that was the analysis of the synthesis. I broke up those motions and actually shuffled the cards to get that effect, you know-I shuffle and shoot them, and I shuffle them again and I shoot them again…
MEKAS: It was done on cards?
BREER: Yes. So then, I was analyzing the construction of the film. That’s part of my idea about concreteness and exposing the materials of film itself and that was the way of doing it. But I think that film…
SITNEY: When you shuffled the cards, how many frames did you take of each card?
BREER: Well, only one. There’d be one or two, it depends. Sometimes four, it’s something I decide while I am shooting. This is what happens with age and experience…I’ve been working the same way for so long a time now that I finally have the shooting rhythms and the drawing rhythms and the screening rhythms sort of built in. I know, if I hold this four frames…-I don’t think about it anymore, it’s reflexive, you know. It’s not necessarily a good thing, but that’s what’s beginning to happen, and I can pretty well predict how it’s going to look now. That is very bad. This means I make pure films or I won’t make films after a while. Because, as I say, I can’t surprise myself anymore without going out of my way.
SITNEY: Although you use cards, it seems the materials changed in the last three films, haven’t they? 66 is one material, 69 is another, and 70…
BREER: Yeah. It’s a question of getting the right image. You know, all of those films are concerned with, or use, single frame alternation, working out, let’s say, interweaving, three different themes, maybe, by alternating the images of them, you know, until finally you can stack up about three or four things, like working on a fugue. Instead of double exposing or overprinting all the material, I just alternate the frame. I can do that, because I have frames in my hand. Those cards are frames. And so I am playing with a piece of film, really. I am editing with individual frames.
SITNEY: The actual materials that you put on top of the cards seem so different.
BREER: In 69 I used the kind of self-sticking commercial plastic with different colors, called zippatone.
MEKAS: Your earlier films were not noticed much for your use of color. Color is more noticeable in your last three films-subtle blues, and yellows…
SITNEY: You say you use zippatone-you cut the shapes out?
BREER: Yeah. You use the knife and a rule for straight lines, and things that you are told not to use, in art school, but it takes the sentimentality out of the line, it takes the nerve out of the line, you know, lines are enervated, like the free flowing cartoon films. And that has a certain quality I was trying to eliminate and so the films are more brittle, the edges are sharp. Now, in the last film, I used pray paint, and a knife, so that the combination there is soft and hard. You noticed, in the last film, some of the shapes dissolve into softer shapes. Even if they have hard edges, the triangle turns into a lumpy shape. And it is a kind of intellectual comment on the evolution of form, from geometric to organic that takes place in that film all the time.
MEKAS: I see that you are still using all the tools you used in painting and sculpture. Now you use them to make films. I think it’s funny.
BREER: I guess I do.
SITNEY: Was 69 hand-drawn?
BREER: Oh sure. That was done with a knife and a straight edge for a straight line. There are elements of free lines there, but very much reduced and eliminated. You know, there are things you don’t see in the films, that I cut out. I had one still reminiscent of the earlier films, incongruities that I put in to sort of define the film. I have a feeling that , well, one you mentioned in 70, when that big dome shape, which is a slow zoom, approaches, it seems like it is incongruous, it is very disturbing, it’s something like a piece of dust in your eye, and you’re looking at the thing in the convention which is predictable, and then this thing comes in and it seems to be discordant. I’ve always done that, that’s the basis of the first film, mixing things up and then…There are still leftovers of that in these films. I have a feeling that it’s like…stepping off the screen or turning on the lights, so people know that they are in the theatre, it’s something to break up the format, so that you can better appreciate the format. Otherwise you get absorbed into a discipline, you have no reference points anymore, except maybe to put your hands in your pockets or something, but I inject those things for myself. It’s like taking the camera off the stand and walking outside with it in Fist Fight. It’s a deliberate intrusion. It’s for myself.
SITENY: But in general, in Fist Fight, there were more intrusions. Fistfight wasn’t made on cards, was it?
BREER: No, that was every size, every format. I decided then that that was too…as an antidote to a film I made before, I’ve forgotten which. Breathing? Breathing I shot over-I shoot these films over. Breathing I shot four or five times in 16mm. I edited it and then I arranged the cards the way I wanted. I took it into town and rented a 35mm camera for one day; I shot something like, I don’t know how many frames, over 8 thousand in a day, for ten hours without even standing up. I never made a cut in the film. All the images were in exact order.
MEKAS: You mean, you used it as is, in big chunks?…
BREER: It was all shot in one day. But I had shot it several times before, and I went back and edited my images, so that when I got back my 35 print, I didn’t have a splice, which is a kind of tour-de-force. I don’t know why I did it that way. I think I am just more at home with the cards, and no reason to cut film if I can…you know, I feel it’s kind of artificial that way…
SITNEY: With Fist Fight, did you cut the film or did [sic] it directly?
BREER: Oh yes, sure. I always, you know, edit a lot. But with ‘Breathing’ it was also money saving. I wanted the quality of 35. So I made sure that I could do it very quickly.
SITNEY: But Fist Fight seemed to consider all the techniques-cartoons, and collage, and…
BREER: That’s the throwback to Jamestown Baloos. All my films refer back and it might take a few years to finish them. I think everybody must do this. So now I have gone back to Form Phases. I have no interest in Form Phases at all now. But I just notice that there is this, after all these years, this funny kind of connection. As if all other stuff drops out of sight.
SITNEY: But there is something in Jamestown Baloos that I haven’t seen in any other films, that tri-part structure.
BREER: Yeah. It was a triptych. And I was actually thinking in terms of the triptychs that I had seen, I guess, in Germany. You know, they fold, they close, and I think there is one in a Northern German town (Lubeck), in a big church there…I don’t know whose it is, maybe a medieval German artist-it’s black and white on either side and color in the middle, and this was, I think, the basis for making Jamestown Baloos that way. Three parts. The color is silent, and the other two parts have sound on them. So that the film is…the idea was that it’s a completely symmetrical piece of film, it has no real beginning or end, you could close the black and white things in…I think of the films as objects sort of, rather than continuities. You should be able to hold them upside down. But that is not true, you can’t show them backwards, it wouldn’t make any sense…I think of them as blocks of time, in which no time takes place.
SITNEY: It seems to me that Blazes and Form Phases came together. The shape of one and the speed of the other, and something new is born of that union in the last three films. But each of the three films, they seem to be quite different.
MEKAS: You didn’t play before with the screen itself. But in your last three films, you seem to make the audience conscious of the screen and of the space into which we are looking, in some way.
BREER: Well…For one thing, in 69, I was flowing those things way back into space, and yet it is a flat screen. The first time I was making films, the idea was that I could accept film on the basis that the screen was a flat plane. And that was a painting discipline brought over to film. It was a flat plane on which things took place as they do on paintings, the whole neo-plastic ideal, which came out of cubism, I guess. Concentration, awareness, and even a heightened use of the picture plane. You know, Cezanne shuns the use of perspective; he permitted himself to go behind. Well, if he went behind the plane a certain amount, you have to come forward a certain amount, to finally locate that plane right on the wall, and that was the idea of painting as a concrete object. Picasso slapped a newspaper on the Cubist painting; that declared it was an object independent of its references. And, of course, this was brought into film, from the neo-plastic disciplines of Mondrian. I think any art discipline, or any kind of expressive disciplines are arbitrary. They are useful at the time, as a means of explaining oneself to oneself or whatever it’s all about, but, they’re perfectly open to complete violation. I don’t think there is any sacrosanct-I don’t believe, in other words, the picture plane is…It’s an interesting concept. It’s valid if it’s done right. The truth is somewhere in how it’s done, not in itself as some kind of moral edict, you know. What the hell is wrong with the hole in the wall? So when these things are flowing back in space, they’re still on the white surface and they’re drawn things, so maybe, it’s a violation of a principle that I used for a while, and that’s what you’re talking about. But I still…..Oh, blah-blah-blah….Jesus!
Mekas: This talk was not intended to be a methodical, chronological discussion anyway. I wanted to ramble around the margins of your work. So it’s fine to blah-blah-blah.
BREER: The…One gets seduced by ideas. Like Andy’s approach to the turned on camera, a one-to-one time ratio thing. It’s a marvelous cleansing kind of thing. My God, it seems like the most obvious thing-the best things always are-and, for me, it was a very cleansing thing, because…You know, the time when you are working on an animated film, the time ration between the amount of work on images…the scale of working from small things are eventually shown at my dimension, large or small, which we don’t have much control over-from all thse little drawings, it takes you a day to do one second…All these things you have to come to terms with, somehow. It means that the film discipline, animated things, for all your control, you’re really giving up a lot. Unless you finally come to terms with that. And that’s what I’m trying to do. I am trying to make sense, biologically, or kinesthetically, with myself, between what comes out on the screen and how much time I put into it. I don’t know if it’s a matter of just developing a rationale for that, or actually making some kind of time connection. So that when I do, when I work for a year, in a little room, to make a film, and I shoot it all on one day and then it’s projected for twenty years after that on different sizes of screen-I am aware that this is all; I did it all at first, in that one room. It become direct. It seems like the long way around, but I don’t know another way. But that’s why these dumb creeping things of mine, I spent a year and made thirty pieces. I had to run them all day long. I make one and add it to the others, and I kept adding, and it was one big piece, like a tapestry which got bigger and bigger, and they’re all related to one another. I can only work on that with all the others running around me. I kept expanding out from the one thing I started with, and it bothers me when I think that they are all dispersed somewhere in different places and that they’re not running and, you know, all destroyed now, really.
…Well, it’s this tremendous scope of possibilities of cinema. Brakhage’s view of…encompassing the universe, you know…I don’t know, I have to quote you, from your lecture (to Sitney)…but the romantic ideal, the cosmic view…of incorporating the whole world in the film…Whether you use the word “world”, “universe”, the symbol like that…
MEKAS:…or that little room in Palisades, New York…in which all those things are put together…
BREER: …I think there is this compulsion, I think you are right. What you’re defining, the kind of cinema, Brakhage and Blake, the poet-are cases of self-consciously doing this and incorporating signs and symbols of this effort in their work, in really successful work it takes…cosmic ramifications. It can be just as radical a change in somebody’s life to see a….to have an experience of film that excites them. Film can be something utterly banal…I guess, what I am saying, every artist is working for this kind of final nirvana in his work, it has to encompass all truth, truth about everything.
SITNEY: Do you think of some of your films as more particularly successful than others?
BREER: Oh, yes. I am not very happy with some. There are parts in Fist Fight that bothered me very much. But I learned not to go back and hack at it.
SITNEY: Which parts?
BREER: Let’s say, that there are parts that I like very much and the rest I am indifferent to. Parts that I like very much, I think people will be surprised…I mean, they’re the emptiest parts…and why should anyone know it? I don’t know, maybe people see it this way too, but from comments and things I…I kind of like the parts that have to do with rather sparse structure. It’s hard to say that about a film like that, so full of imagery, but…
SITNEY: I am interested in what you consider “sparse structure” in that particular film.
BREER: Well, there are sections in there that I could tell you about, like after these racing cars appear, where there is a little line that goes across the screen and there is a certain glimpse of cartoon imagery and a thing that falls down this way (Breer demonstrates), and then maybe nothing for a while, and another image that comes in, and there is a kind of severity in the structure there that I like. What I don’t like are the things that seem more…they’re more amusing or distracting. You see, that film started as an autobiographical film and all the elements are photo-album-kind-of-memory-things and I just changed it into Originale film, halfway through. Actually, it was done by that time. It was to be called ‘Cookies’, or something. So I used all autobiographical material, thinking that was the most neutral metrial I could use, because it was so personal that it was all loaded with emotional stuff, emotional references, that that material would cancel itself out; it was better than avoiding it, you know. But now, it seems, when I look at it, the things that…my own picture in there bothers me, and things that do refer to the stuff I am most familiar with…
SITNEY: How did you get the sound?
BREER: Oh, that was taken from five performances of Stockhausen. I had fifteen hours of sound, I had long tapes, and I picked out stuff. I have sort of the feeling I’d rather have-in the spirit, I’d rather have Fontana Mix by Cage rather than Stockhausen. I am not a profound admirer of Stockhausen. I admire him, I guess, in a way, and I dislike him very much in other ways. But he saw it, and I don’t know what his real feelings were, but he said he wanted to take all his own music and chop it up the way my film was, but he probably felt like burning what I did to his sounds. Which is reasonable. Because, in fact, even on that track, one of the actors criticizes the happening, very critically of Stockhausen and I think he was sincere.
SITNEY: I think the soundtrack is particularly successful.
BREER: Yes, it’s probably because of the Stockhausen stuff.
SITENY: No, no. There is a sequence where you see a gallery. I guess it’s at your gallery and you hear all kinds of noise in there and it works together very successfully. I think due to the qualities of the sound, it has a special quality that suggests a room and space…
SITNEY:…with special images in the film; it works very well.
BREER: You know, my sound often has special qualities because it’s recorded in the room where windows are open, and you hear the airplanes or other things. Some of the sounds are made by hanging the microphone out of the window, and there are accidents that I use all the time.
MEKAS: This is a film which you said bothered you. Which ones do not bother you?
SITNEY: I ask more dangerous questions…
BREER: It’s funny. I don’t know how to explain it, but my…Well, let’s see…I have some nostalgic feelings about cartooning. There is a thing, I was going to be a cartoonist, when I was a kid, and I thought that the beauty of that was that I’d be able to stay at home and work, you see…and I liked that idea very much. The other thing was tempting too, to get tuberculosis and be able to work under, you know, hospital conditions, so I wouldn’t be bothered and I could play with the nurses, probably…and probably, what comes from childhood memories of working, sick and drawing something…So cartooning still has attractions to me. It’s like Fahlstrom said about animation one time, that it’s you own little universe. You can create people and destroy them and make a whole world and…So it’s that, combined with-it has to do with the joy of drawing. It’s a very joyous thing, drawing. A marvelous thing. And so I like to…Right now I’m doing that. I’ve got a kid’s film in the can. It got way out of hand. It’s something I’m doing for the Big Brother of Sesame Street. And it got to be more work that joy. The confines are too small. But it’s kind of a sickness I have.
SITNEY: I’ll ask a more dangerous question which we never ask anyone.
BREER: Wait. I haven’t yet answered your other question.
SITNEY: I am curious, and you have to answer this honestly: what do you think about the selection of your films by the Anthology Film Archives?
BREER: Oh…Welll…I am honestly pleased to have my films selected. I was surprised in some sense, but not amazingly surprised by the choice, when I saw it. I thought that it was historically correct, in my own little history, to pick out Recreation, because, after all, this is the first showable single frame collage film that I did, and since a lot of my work followed that-that made sense. And also, it’s a film that has a lot of spirit to it. That’s okay. It’s a good film. I’ll tell you honestly, I don’t like the way they look together. But obviously, it’s very subjective…
MEKAS: Which of the films would you add to what we have?
BREER: I thought about it, and I don’t know. When a group of august judges chooses your films, you get a little…You have a moment of wondering whether your evaluation is worth anything at all. So that the films which I felt kindly about were, for reasons that had nothing to do with the film at all, such as Horse Over Tea Kettle. You are asking…It is a dangerous question. An artist, what does he think about his own work? And how valid is what he thinks about it? That’s what made me think how valid my own stuff was. I am glad that anything gets through at all, I am happy for that. It sounds super-modest, but…
SITNEY: We always wanted not to have the work which was the most polite to us, which would please…but to try to get the works which we felt had the greatest investment of energies and the….
BREER: I guess, what I would, for my own image, public image, have liked, it would be sort of wider spread, more examples further afield, less similar. Except for the last three films.
MEKAS: I’m certainly for having in Jamestown Baloos.
SITNEY: Well, I mean, I don’t think we can rehearse here the debates that occurred. But there are other films that various members of the Selection Committee would want, the things cancelled out…But I think ‘Jamestown’ is important.
BREER: Jamestown Baloos, I felt, was a turning point. It was a breakthrough for me. I’ve never shown Recreation with Jamestown. I always like Recreation, but when I make my own programs, I wouldn’t show Recreation because I felt that it was contained in Jamestown, in the middle section, the same kind of film was in there, and I didn’t want to be repetitive. So those two kind of play again each other. So I don’t know now, whether you want to show them both.
SITNEY: It’s not the question of that, no.
MEKAS: I have a few questions here. You’ll have to be very fast. It will have to be from the top of your head. Try not to delay. Name three colors!
BREER: Oh, my God…Well, Red. Green. Yellow.
MEKAS: Name three red things, objects-whatever comes to your mind, whatever.
BREER: Well, I have to name the flag, and blood, and I have to name red.
MEKAS: Name three blue things. Anything blue.
BREER: Sky. Must I say water? Shirts.
BREER: I have to think of urine, and yellow…I tell you yellow is a Buddhist color, a color that is very ephemeral. It’s a color of nothingness.
MEKAS: Drop three names of three artist, no matter from what field.
BREER: If you promise not to print.
MEKAS: You don’t have to choose the very, very greatest ones. Just rattle off the names.
BREER: Vigo. Oldenburg. Frank Stella.
MEKAS: Now you have to rattle from the top of your mind twelve disconnected words.
BREER: I have a feeling I’ll pay for this….How many? Twelve? Oh shit. Mother. Film. Discipline. Flying. Floating. Lightness. Cat. Dog.
MEKAS: Your are thinking.
BREER: Oh, I’m not supposed to think. Card. Rug. I want to know the results of this.
MEKAS: These are very innocent…
BREER: It’s not all innocent.
Labels: 66, 69, 70, A Man With His Dog Out For Air, Blazes, Breathing, Film Culture, Fist Fight, Form Phases I, Horse Over Tea Kettle, Jamestown Baloos, Jonas Mekas, P. Adams Sitney, Recreation, Robert Breer