Bruce Conner, Cultural Psychic

11/10/2010 4:00 AM |

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.