BREAKAWAY (1966, 16mm, b&w/sound, 5min.)
Music by Ed Cobb
Dance and vocal by Toni Basil (Antonia Christina Basilotta)
While visiting Los Angeles in the fall of 1964, San Francisco-based artist Bruce Conner (1933-2008) began working on a film with his friend, the dancer, choreographer, and singer Toni Basil (b. 1943). Completed in 1966, BREAKAWAY features Basil dancing energetically against an empty black backdrop to an upbeat soundtrack, a Motown-inspired pop song called “Breakaway” that she released in 1966 as the B-side to her first single, “I’m 28.” Throughout the film’s five minutes, Conner deploys dizzying camera zooms, stroboscopic effects, and rapid-fire cuts that transform Basil’s choreography into a psychedelic spectacle of pulsating, blurred, ecstatic movement. Whereas the film’s first 2 and 1/2 minutes is synched to the duration of the song, once the bass line starts to fade, both the flow of images and the soundtrack unexpectedly begin to play again in reverse, rewinding Basil’s performance back to the beginning—an audiovisual demonstration of the “breakaway from the everyday” called for in the lyrics.
BREAKAWAY’s opening credits list Basil’s given name, “Antonia Christina Basilotta,” instead of her shortened stage name, emphasizing not only her Italian heritage, but also signaling this as a personal, creative work, distinct from the “professional” portfolio of the Hollywood choreographer and emerging pop singer. As the soundtrack revs up with a funky drumbeat, Basil first appears on screen in a series of flickering long shots, wearing a black bra and polka-dot stockings and striking glamour poses against an empty black backdrop. The staccato rhythm of this section suggests strobe lights, while the abstract geometry of the stockings recalls mid-1960s mod fashions. Here, she glances flirtatiously at the camera as her flamboyant gestures are intermittently frozen by flicker. After segueing into the song’s first verse, she begins to dance wildly, spinning, shimmying and leaping her way through multiple costume changes, including a diaphanous white slip that gives her pale skin a delicate, almost ghostly appearance. Conner’s camera dances with her, punctuating her movements with rapid cuts and frenzied zooms that render her body into an ethereal streak of white light against black void, a spectral apparition that threatens to “breakaway” from visibility entirely.
Basil’s dance in BREAKAWAY was created specifically for Conner’s camera lens. Her profilmic performance cannot be re-staged, since its existence is predicated on the presence of the camera, and especially, on Conner’s kinetic cinematography and an array of in-camera and post-production visual effects—including stroboscopic flicker, rapid zooms, smeared abstractions, and rhythmic audiovisual correspondences. The soundtrack is similarly transformed from a catchy pop tune into an illegible slur of noise and distortion, reminiscent of the “backmasking” techniques and tape loops used in psychedelic rock, like the The Beatles’ pioneering 1966 album Revolver. With this unexpected reversal, the film seems to symbolically enact the “breakaway” from “everyday” experience that is called for in the song’s lyrics —a release not only from gravitational space and progressive time, but from language itself. This section hints at the possibility that the film will continue indefinitely, playing forwards and then running backwards on a loop— but this hope is dashed when the film ends just as abruptly as it began, with flickering shots of Basil coquettishly posing. The finale is marked by the playful addition of two split-second shots: a close-up on Basil wearing sunglasses, followed by her sitting cross-legged in paisley stockings and a garter belt, and concludes with another winking reference to Basil’s Italian heritage: “FINE.”
Pop, Collaboration, Utopia: BREAKAWAY in Los Angeles, 1964-1966
(in excerpt) by Dr. Johanna Gosse, Art and Film Historian