Mar 28, 2017
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Bruce Conner: ‘A Movie’ Maker
by Tony Reveaux
A light, piercing through the night
If artist Bruce Conner had never made a film, critics and historians alike could still be more than satisfied by his statements as a San Francisco painter, sculptor, collagist, printmaker, and photographer. Included in the prestigious 1997 Whitney Biennial, Conner was the subject of a touring survey in 1999–2000, and is featured in the current Carnegie International exhibition.
In his assemblages of the 60s, there lurks a smoldering intensity in the variety and the conditions of the found materials and their uneasy equilibria in shotgun wedlocks of the provocative and the incongruous. Restless razor-eyed explorations have led his craftsman’s hand to collages, constructions, installations, book editions, posters, performances, light shows, and life-size body-direct photograms.
During a long illness, Conner slowed but did not cease his creative output, finally passing on at age 74 in July. His works have been unique constructs composed of the familiar recombined into richly provocative puzzles that prod the viewer to reconcile ambiguity with the obvious and to accept the comic with the horrific. Through the structural range of his films, from the retinal bursts of found imagery to elegiac serialism, Conner might be considered a ‘John Cage of cinema.’
In 1991, A Movie was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. Yet, this was the first film Conner ever made. The concept for the 12-minute work began in 1958 as a motion picture component for an installation using found footage. His reverse-engineered recombinant re-shuffles the tropes of old newsreels, documentaries, and girlie films into a cinematic experience that each viewer can recognize and interpret uniquely. The swelling soundtrack of Respighi’s Pines of Rome both mocks and reinforces Hollywood’s delusional heroics.
In 1961 he continued constructing with collage films, which have become milestones in experimental visual composition. The intelligently explosive montages of Cosmic Ray combine the working iconography of motion-picture projection with clips from documentaries, newsreels and cartoons – ricocheting from a striptease dance into an intensely kinetic and structurally erotic rhythm on the screen.
Scoring with light
Filmmaker Ben Van Meter had formed The North American Ibis Alchemical Light Company in 1967, which performed light shows at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. When Conner stepped in to manage the company’s performances, he ran slide projections, 8mm film loops, hand-drawn abstractions, and clips from numerous sources (including educationals and Betty Boop cartoons), and his own films Looking for Mushrooms (1961-67) and Breakaway (1966). Among the three bands that played each night were local unknowns and the top bands of the day (including The Doors and Big Brother and the Holding Company), and Conner’s signal contribution was guiding his group to perform and improvise like a collaborative multimedia jazz combo.
In 1967, KQED-TV planned to feature a series on Bay Area arts, and Conner was invited to direct a live session with poet Michael McClure. With a two-camera setup, McClure was seen reading the poem to his own image on the set screen, sometimes multiplied in the process of feedback going into the monitors that might become negative, or might go out of focus. A five-minute segment of that performance resulted in Conner’s film Liberty Crown (1967).
Conner’s Mongoloid (1978) included music by Devo, and America is Waiting (1982) featured music by David Byrne and Brian Eno. Both pieces are virtuoso, fast-paced electrifying cadenzas of stylishly new-wave industrial, scientific, and educational footage that Conner appropriated from films and TV commercials.
Report (1963-67) weaves looping images of the Kennedy assassination with montages of other public violence in a haunting cinetaph of global tragedy. The White Rose (1967) is Conner’s elegiac and compassionate witness to the act of removing her 2,300-pound impasto painting of the same title from his friend Jay DeFeo’s apartment studio.
At thirty-six minutes, Conners’ longest and most monumental film is Crossroads (1976), featuring the haunting music of Patrick Gleeson on the Moog Synthesizer. Crossroads examined the first underwater atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in 1946, which was recorded by over 500 ‘eyes’ in boats, planes and from land. With his obsessive persistence, Conner wrested that footage fresh from the declassified vaults of the National Archives. He re-choreographed different angles of the gravid colossal columns of the blast in what was one of our biggest human sculptural performances, into an elegiac procession at different speeds of the out-of-the-bottle genie of atomic warfare.
Persistence of a visionary
Three works may best express the depth, range and reach of Conner’s creativity; all have music by Patrick Gleeson. In Luke (1967/2004), Conner visited his friend Dennis Hopper on the location of Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967). Constantly moving, his 8mm hand-held camera captured the backstage labor of the process of Hollywood feature production. Slowed down and transferred to video, Luke is a floating, dreamy alternate reality of a movie making a movie. Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1977) and Valse Triste (1979), both tinted in sepia, are exquisite works of visual chamber music. Their mysterious yet concrete scenes of elusive familiarity share the luminous and interdependent qualities of dream logic and memory.
Tony Reveaux has been a Bay Area media writer, editor, teacher, and consultant since the 70s.
Posted on Aug 07, 2008 - 04:01 PM