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).