Jul 10, 2008

The Cold War Collages of Bruce Conner (1933 - 2008)

Few avant-garde filmmakers had a healthy relationship with mainstream pop culture. The popularity of underground cinema peaked in the mid-1960's, as people like Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger became stars, and such films were enjoying long theatrical runs in venues other than museums or obscure cine-clubs. Yes, Warhol was a darling of the media, but in those rare instances when his films are shown, people's curiosities are satisfied mighty quickly. And Kenneth Anger was always enamoured with pop culture- his love-hate relationship with Hollywood burgeoning since children, and in the volatile 60s, his films Scorpio Rising and Invocation of My Demon Brother, were apocalyptic views of modern society. You could still enjoy Anger's films alone for their editing and unique style, yet could likely miss all the arcane subtext. But I would argue that the collage films of Bruce Conner, who died Monday after years of ill health, remain the most accessible of that movement. Although Arthur Lipsett's collage works were popular, and equally commented on those troubled times, his films are perhaps too dense. Conner's on the other hand need no work on part of the viewer to appreciate. His playful, yet troubling work is easily absorbed, delivering simple but cleverly executed subtext that remains intact upon multiple viewings.

Bruce Conner was a multi-disciplinary artist -with painting, sculpture and photography among his practices- and one of the last surviving names of the Beat era Bay area group of artists. Yet, since this a film blog, we are of course celebrating his incredible cinema: decoupages assembled from found footage both inspired by and becoming products of the times in which they were made. From the Beat Generation to Flower Power, Conner's work depicted the anxiety of the era, in which counterculture tried to forge a demi-paradise all while trembling that armageddon was around the corner.

A Movie (1958) was intended as part of an art installation, to be played continuously, so that there is no sense of the film having a beginning or end (the title cards "Bruce Conner" and "A Movie" are spliced in throughout the movie to further give this illusion). However, there is a progression, as images of combat and destruction predominate, and the film escalates to a concerto depicting a world out of control, culminating in a classic Conner image: a mushroom cloud. Cosmic Ray (1961) is edited to the pulse of Ray Charles' "What I Say" on the soundtrack, and within four minutes emerges as a celebration of the taboos of white picket fence America, namely sex. The bump-and-grind of rhythm-and-blues (or its cousin, rock and roll) is married to sexual imagery onscreen, yet with additional images of animals and war, this film is more of a catalogue of man's animal instincts-- namely sex and death... yet images of the latter are considered the less obscene in our hypocritical culture.

Crossroads (1976) is perhaps the last word on the atomic age. This 33-minute film is comprised entirely of footage from the 1946 Bikini Atoll, in which the experimental Operation Crossroads (more appropriately titled than they knew) detonated an atom bomb. This footage, aided with a hypnotic score by Terry Riley and Patrick Gleeson, is a moribund love poem where we witness the terrible beauty of destruction.

But of all the Conner films I've been fortunate to see, Report (1967) is my favourite. This film on the JFK assassination had been denied permission to use a lot of presidential footage, so instead, as we hear radio reports of the president's shooting and of his previous arrival in Dallas, the fall of the post-war white picket fence Camelot is depicted with TV commercials, post-war consumerism, casual violence of bullfights and horror movies, and even blank leader to suggest that the unthinkable has happened in the land of the free. Had he been able to use his intended footage, I am uncertain if the result would have been as powerful as this, as Report serendipitously is a scathing portrait of Americana.

Bruce Conner's legend is intact just with these four films out of the 20 he had made. And although he had sporadically made movies in the 90's, the last I recall hearing about him was that a few years back, he had withdrawn his films from renowned independent film distributor Canyon Cinema out of protest against the new management policy. This is yet another sorry case of an independent artist's work becoming inaccessible to people who would enjoy them. Conner's work is too good, to say nothing of important, to just be seen by those fortunate few who live in a city that supports such screenings. Unlike his contemporaries Warhol, Anger and Brakhage, Bruce Conner's work has not made the transition to DVD. (Although back in the day, there were two short volumes collected on VHS, at insane prices.)

I would have liked to postscript this post, dear reader, with some links to view his work via Youtube or Google Video, as even bootlegged Conner is better than none, but any search results had been removed. What a sorry way to honour a legend.


Steven Fama said...

I share your love of Bruce Conner's work, including his films.

I don't understand your final comment, referring to the removal of Conner's film from websites such as YouTube.

You write, "What a sorry way to honor a legend."

On the contrary, the removal of Bruce's films is an extremely appropriate way to honor him. Conner was adamantly and explicitly opposed to his films being shown or seen on-line.

When his films first appeared on-line, on YouTube, without his permission, Conner took the time to watch them. He did not like, to say the least, the size and quality of the images. He repeatedly directed that YouTube and others remove his movies. Jean, his wife, widow, and the copyright holder for Conner's work, has the same view as Bruce and is the one who directed that YouTube and others remove all on-line postings.

I hope this helps explain why removing Conner's film's from YouTube honors him.

Greg Woods said...

Steven, thanks for your comments-- I appreciate them. A common thing I address in my writing is the difficulty for people to see experimental films. For those who don't live in a city that has a cinematheque or such venue that frequently shows them, and if the work isn't on DVD, what other choices do people have to see and appreciate such work? There is no reason to assume that people who don't have proper means to see such work wouldn't be interested in it. And if people have to watch an inferior copy of something in order to see it at all, well so be it.

I can understand Mr. Conner's wish to have them removed, and I thank you for addressing this issue. They should be seen in their proper glory, and certainly with the mention of his passing in the news this week, one hopes there will be steps taken to make that possible, and make it more accessible, so people won't have to rely on a compressed flash file to substitute a proper movie experience.