You might as well write about music as using slow-limbed words to capture the animated films of Robert Breer. But here goes.
Breer films are quicksilver to watch. Just minutes long each, they are typically composed of a flurry of disparate images, from fluid animations hand-drawn in marker to live film footage and still images of magazine cutouts and assorted everyday objects. The experience is literally dreamlike, with images passing in (take your pick) surreal flow or hypnotic staccato, often with a simple soundtrack of real-world noises. Viewers are free to glean meanings from the motifs that emerge or simply bask in visual pleasure.
A cross-section of the venerable American animator's cosmically playful but seldom-seen work will screen March 4 at Pittsburgh Filmmaker's Melwood Screening Room. The program consists of nine 16 mm shorts, ranging chronologically from 1963's "Breathing" to "ATOZ" (2000), one of two recent Breers currently on exhibit at the Carnegie International. A touchstone work is "Fuji" (1974), which uses home-movie footage of a train trip through the Japanese countryside to launch a series of abstractions -- games with color and shape -- and sportive translations of photographed reality into Breer's alternate universe of forms joyfully liberated from function.
"Breer makes a cinema in which everything seems alive," writes critic Fred Camper. That's mesmerizingly true in 1968's "69," in which renderings of geometric solids flicker and spin, alternating becoming ghostly afterimages, erupting in hasty profusion, and going soft and squiggily before assuming their former rigidity. (It's "a dream of Euclid," wrote Donald Richie.)
The mind-blowing "LMNO" (1978) opens with a beautiful, wood-blocky image of a fish before gushing forth a torrent of images whose interrelationships seem idiosyncratic: hammer, tennis racket, biplane. But soon there's knives and bananas, spinning through space; a voluptuous woman's rolling naked hips; a stickman's legs, severed by a locomotive, hopping off on their own -- an hilariously horrifying catalog of sexual anxiety.
Full of delightful visual puns -- the pigeon's head and eye that become a roll of cellophane tape in "Swiss Army Knife With Rats and Pigeons" (1981) -- Breer's films are never close to dull. And their meaning is often surprisingly accessible. For instance, "Bang" (1986), which some consider his greatest work, is a vivid, ruefully funny collage of childhood ambitions meeting frustration and loss.
And music, after all, proves a valid reference point. Rhythmic as any sound composition, Breer's films might be the cinematic equivalent of Smile-style Brian Wilson: his colors and shapes a match for Wilson's melodies, both men confronting adult concerns (failure, existential yearing) with adult virtuosity and a disarmingly childlike candor.