Bruce Conner: The Art of Montage
November 10-23 at Film Forum
It makes sense that the artist once hailed as the progenitor of the MTV aesthetic should also, 30 years later, be hailed as the progenitor the YouTube mash-up. And indeed, if you look at Bruce Conner's movies you can find both the ecstatic thrill of lightning-quick montage set pop-rocking, and the clever and obsessive re-contextualization of cultural detritus. Conner is perhaps sui generis among avant-garde filmmakers in that his influence can be felt with equal force in both the art world and in popular culture. Whether this influence is direct or osmotic doesn't matter much; the point is that once you've seen Conner's movies you will start to recognize the Conner-esq in ads and music videos; on vlogs and in internet parody vids; at fringe film festivals and in the Whitney Biennial.
As much of a cultural psychic, in his way, as Andy Warhol, Conner's aesthetic has undergone a similar kind of mass dispersion; and, as with Warhol, one can't help but feel that if Conner had never existed someone would have had to invent him. The fact that he's not better known has at least one obvious cause, which is that Conner was reticent about, or downright hostile toward, fame. He was contemptuous of consumer culture and seemed to feel basically the same way about the world of museums and big-name galleries. A resident, for much of his life, of the Bay Area—on the scene with the San Francisco Beats in 50s—Conner believed in artist-run spaces and artist-organized events; he had a DIY ethic, an outsider mentality and a total distrust of institutions. Temperamental—and by some accounts a bit of a prima donna—Conner made it difficult for people to exhibit his work.
A sculptor, painter, printmaker, and more, Conner came to filmmaking almost by accident—or so goes his self-made myth, but anyone who sees his early work has to suspect he had been reading some Eisenstein. Inspired in part by the flickering countdowns that preceded movies (but were seen only by projectionists), as well as by the experience of flipping between TV stations, Conner's first film, A Movie (1958), is a poetic and occasionally random-seeming assemblage of Americana, culled from a wide variety of both documentary and fiction films. We get cowboys and Indians, submarine captains and half-naked ladies; spectators, scuba divers and beach bums. A Movie is Hollywood degree zero, the extracted DNA of the golden age of the silver screen. The over-arching theme of A Movie is the dance of eros and thanatos; that entanglement of the pleasure principle and the death drive that was, throughout the 20th century, the barely sublimated obsession of the dream factory. The last section of the film, composed of interwoven footage of disasters (sinking ships, falling bridges, crashing cars and exploding blimps), could be considered the first supercut of monster pwnage. But where most YouTube videos are undiluted schadenfreude, Conner had a message for Eisenhower's America: we have met the epic fail and it is us.
Cosmic Ray (1961) similarly mines images of war and sex but, containing faster-paced editing and unfolding to Ray Charles's "What'd I Say," its effect is more immersive than A Movie. As naked go-go dancing shares screen time with Mickey Mouse cartoons, combat footage, and stroboscopic night photography, it becomes clear that Cosmic Ray is the urtext for so many MTV blitzkriegs. The film has been read as being about how sexual repression leads to a militaristic mindset, but today's viewer may easily lose track of such an argument. The film is, clearly, a palimpsest of Mad Men-era neuroses (ones which probably never left us; hence the popularity of Mad Men): a pathological attraction to violence swings along to sexed up gospel music, with close-ups of bouncing boobies that add either a thrilling sense of liberation or a creeping sense of patriarchal control (you be the judge).
Crossroads (1976), at 36 minutes, is Conner's longest film and, depending on who you ask, either his best or his most overpraised. The movie consists of footage from the 1946 nuclear bomb test at Bikini Atoll, extremely slowed down and played many times, from many different angles. The result is that the viewer's mind is stuck constantly toggling between registers; at one moment, you can't deny the lyrical beauty of the amorphous mushroom cloud, while at the next you have to try to comprehend the unfathomable destruction it portends. As the explosion is repeated ad nauseum, it becomes tempting, almost irresistible, to settle into the more aesthetic mindset, losing yourself in a wealth of detail etched in the smoke. A message film without any obvious message, Crossroads was by no means Conner's only examination of the dialectic of repetition. Marilyn Times Five (1968-73) takes distended footage of a naked Marilyn Monroe (lookalike?) and repeats it five times, effectively robbing it of its erotic value, numbing you with the supposedly thrilling. Taken as a duology, Crossroads and Marilyn could be seen as exploring the same issues that were on Susan Sontag's mind when she wrote, in On Photography (1977), "The same law holds for evil as for pornography. The shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings, just as the surprise and bemusement felt the first time one sees a pornographic movie wear off after one sees a few more. The sense of taboo which makes us indignant is not much sturdier than the sense of taboo that regulates what is obscene."
Conner's masterwork of repetition, indignity and obscenity, though, is Report (1963-67), his film about the Kennedy assassination. Report begins with looping, stuttering news footage from the infamous Presidential Motorcade, set to radio broadcasts and firsthand accounts of the event. Conner plays the motorcade's progress over and over again, attempting a reckoning through repetition similar to the way the trauma victim in Tom McCarthy's Remainder tries for authentic experience by reconstructing vaguely remembered scenarios, "slotting himself into them, like a gramophone needle into a groove, and replaying them." Report eventually spirals outward, intercutting clips of John F. and Jackie O. with a panoply of spectacles: riots, ads, spaceship launches, bullfights. Through clever editing, Conner inverts our understanding of the bullfight sequence; at one moment, Kennedy is the bullfighter, a strapping young lad bowing to the adoring crowd, ready to perform—at the next, he's the bull. What's conspicuously absent from Report is the Zapruder footage; at the moment of the fatal shot, which recurs, we get intense black and white flickering. The technique is effective, structuring the film around a central lack—but there's more to it than that, Understanding Conner's formal developments in their proper context requires understanding the place of Report next to the Zapruder footage. As Jonathan Rosenbaum put it, talking of the 60s, "The key film document of the decade, endlessly scrutinized and discussed, was not an entertainment feature at all, but the record of an amateur film-maker named Abe Zapruder of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963; the close analysis to which this short length of film was subjected was characteristic of a changing attitude towards the medium as a whole."
Many of Conner's avant-garde techniques in Report were, in a way, echoes of the techniques that amateurs and the mainstream media applied to the Zapruder footage in a very attenuated fashion and over a long period of time: repetition, re-contextualization, what Rosenbaum accurately calls scrutiny. The desire to scrutinize images—to loop, rewind, and re-photograph—was evident in work by certain avant-garde flicksters of the 60s and 70s who came to be known as structural filmmakers. Around the same time, Sam Peckinpah was taking scenes of violence, showing them in ultra slo-mo and replaying them from multiple camera set-ups. The people attending Peckinpah's movies were also witnessing the introduction of "film studies" courses into academia, where films would be essentially slowed down and repeated in order to allow for close reading. In 1963, the year the Zapruder footage was taken and the year that Conner began working on Report, the first standardized machine for "instant replay" was used in a sporting event. Of course, newsreels had almost always re-used stock footage, and re-photography had for a long time been a makeshift trick for frustrated editors, and certain purportedly guileless cuts in silent films had repeated action from different viewpoints, and early cinema exhibitions would frequently play movies both backwards and forwards, but mainly to wow the audience; what defined the changing perception of cinema in the Conner-era was a serious grappling with the idea that moving images don't just contain meanings, but contain hidden and elusive meanings—meanings that require scrutiny in order to be fully accessed.
Now, with the internet, our repetition compulsion as regards images is moving toward a zenith; nobody today watches anything they care about only once. If you haven't seen that bicycle accident in reverse, or that political stump speech set to hip-hop, or that Olsen twins vid in satanic slo-mo, then, well, you haven't really seen it. And it's no accident that internet trolls have dubbed the Zapruder footage "the first meme." It's funny cause it's true. Significant, too, is the fact that as re-viewing has become de rigueur, the assurance of authenticity has evaporated. While the Zapruder footage begged for intense dissection because it was shaky, shot from a distance, and because the physics involved are hard to make out from that angle (or so I'm told), images today might require scrutiny because they're outrageously embellished or completely fabricated.
The late 70s found Conner the cultural commentator stepping aside to make way for work more indrawn. His pair of head-scratchers Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1977) and Valse Triste (1979) are possessed of a gnomic interiority. While both concern the oneiric and onanistic coming of age of a young boy, they frustrate any straight symbolic reading, offering threads of narrative but remaining essentially mysterious. Constituting a kind of Künstlerroman, Dreamland and Valse Triste are in line with Stephen Greenblatt's statement that, "the celebration of the imagination has to include a place for solitary sex."
Like many people associated with the Beats, Conner found himself, in the late 70s and early 80s, attracted to punk-related happenings (Allen Ginsberg, Nicholas Ray and Robert Frank all dropped into CBGB's to see what the young people were up to). This led to his making some music videos, including Mongoloid (1978), Mea Culpa (1981) and America is Waiting (1981); the first for DEVO and latter two for eponymous songs from Brian Eno and David Byrne's collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981), an album that was pioneering in its use of sampling—a Conner-esq piece of musical assemblage, in other words. Composed of bits of old industrial and science films, all three works are extraordinary in terms of serving up eerie resonance and offering satisfying and complex sound-image conjunctions. Put them next to almost any mainstream music video from the era and one sees just what MTV was missing. This helps drive home the point that, while Conner was presaging so many of the strategies of contemporary media, he was also pointing toward a future in which these strategies could be mobilized in ways so much more interesting than their general use has allowed. Conner's future hasn't, by any means, been entirely foregone—it just exists mostly at the margins, where Conner himself worked. To see found footage work as bracing as Conner's, one can turn to recent movies by people like Oliver Laric, Kent Lambert and Luther Price, to name only a few—I pick these three simply because I like them a great deal. With originality and verve, they're adding to and transforming what has become a venerable tradition within alternative media-making-not just incurring a debt to Conner, but helping to repay it, too.