Leaders of Men

Amy Taubin on Bruce Conner

Left: Bruce Conner, A Movie, 1958, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 12 minutes. Right: Bruce Conner, Breakaway, 1966, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 5 minutes. (All stills courtesy of The Conner Family Trust.)

COSMIC RAY FOREVER! Pelting the screen with flickering invocations of sex and death and set to Ray Charles’s arousing, carousing “What’d I Say,” Bruce Conner’s 1961 electrifying five-minute granddaddy of all music videos is the opening salvo in a retrospective of movies by the artist, who died in 2008 at age seventy-four after a long illness. Conner’s reputation as a maker of still images—assemblages, collages, photographs, drawings, and paintings—has taken off in recent years, but it is his moving-image work that cements his place among the innovators and masters of twentieth-century art.

An inveterate tinkerer, Conner was determined to leave authorized versions of his films when he passed. The retrospective “Bruce Conner: The Art of Montage” playing at Film Forum (November 10–23) comprises seventeen single-screen works, varying in length between ten seconds and thirty-five minutes, and is divided into two programs of roughly seventy-five and seventy minutes respectively. Program A is the stronger of the two, with six breathtaking works: Cosmic Ray, A Movie (1958), Marilyn Times Five (1968–73), Easter Morning (1966/2008), Valse Triste (1978), and Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1977). Program B starts strong with Mongoloid (1978), America Is Waiting (1981), and Report (1963–67), but the two films that conclude the program—Looking for Mushrooms (1959–67/1996) and Crossroads (1976)— are lesser works (others strongly disagree) and, at thirty-five minutes, Crossroads is also the longest. If you are unfamiliar with Conner’s work, you should start with program A.

With a few exceptions, Conner’s films were originally released in 16 mm. After his death, the Conner Family Trust transferred the film masters to digital for preservation. (The Trust also removed the bootlegs from YouTube.) At Film Forum, all the films are being projected in DigiBeta, and they look so splendid that for a minute I thought I was watching 35 mm.

Conner began working in film in the late 1950s, extending his assemblages and collages into the time-based medium. It was the moment of Rauschenberg’s Combines and Burroughs’s cut-up novels (and, with Brion Gysin, cut-up audiotapes and movies). Conner’s fascination with underground movies began when he was part of a small circle of filmmakers and artists—first in Boulder, Colorado, then in San Francisco—who organized screenings in galleries and impromptu spaces. In the evocatively and concretely titled essay “How I Discovered Electricity” (reprinted in the new anthology Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Area 1945–2000), Conner describes how he had no choice but to make his own movie when filmmaker Larry Jordan, who was running the Camera Obscura film series, refused to allow him to insert a filmstrip of a nude woman in the countdown leader for someone else’s film. (This anecdote was perhaps the source decades later for one of Brad Pitt’s character’s subversive activities in David Fincher’s Fight Club [1999], except by then the forbidden image was an erect penis—or, for all I know, this was a practice adopted in the intervening years by bored projectionists/frustrated filmmakers everywhere.) Conner looked on both soft-core nudies and the countdown leader (used to focus the film but unseen by the audience unless the projectionist is careless or is an avant-gardist dedicated to the materiality of the medium) as the cinematic repressed and suppressed. He collected examples of both categories along with other “worthless” genres—old newsreels; training, educational, and science films; cartoons; and 16-mm condensed versions of Hollywood westerns and other kinds of B movies that were sold for home entertainment (they were the predecessors of VHS cassettes).

Left: Bruce Conner, The White Rose, 1967, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 7 minutes. Right: Bruce Conner, Mongoloid, 1978, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 3 minutes 30 seconds.

Conner’s first official film, the twelve-minute A Movie, is a rapid-fire edit of clips from all these categories. It begins, as movies do, with the title and the filmmaker’s name writ large on the screen. The opening also includes flashes of the taboo girlie flick and various focus leaders as well as the intertitle THE END. After this introduction, what could be termed the “film proper” begins (although it is in fact no more “proper” than the title sequence, variations of which punctuate the succeeding eleven minutes) with a celebration of the essence of all movies—they show stuff moving—and of the kinetic effect on the viewer when subject movement or camera movement or both at once is combined with lightning-fast editing, especially when the alternation of predominantly bright images with predominantly dark images produces a flicker that seems to expand the screen. The thrills and laughter induced by the initial cascade of speeding cars, galloping horses, a charging elephant, and careening wagon trains (as if the trailers for a dozen different movies were contesting for first place in the viewer’s eyes) soon give way to a darker strain of images: The cars crash, the Hindenburg explodes midair, the soldiers fall, the A-bomb releases its mushroom cloud. Horror and elegy are one. The apocalypse is nigh. A Movie contains the infamous seemingly causal montage of a German U-boat gunner looking through his periscope/a naked woman posing/a missile speeding toward an unseen target—a two-second sight-gag illustration of D. W. Griffith’s maxim, later claimed by Godard, that “cinema is a girl and a gun.”

Like all of Conner’s films, A Movie both embraces and critiques that maxim and everything else that thrills and appalls us in the movies and in the history of the century written in the language of movies. A Movie is—as are the films that follow, different though they are from one another—an engine of desire, of analysis, and of transcendence. If the first two speak largely to what is called “content,” the last has to do with form—the deployment of light and time, cinema as cosmic ray. Or, rather, cinema is Cosmic Ray. The title of Conner’s second film refers both to the eponymous musician and to the ecstasy induced by the combination of the incantatory sound of Charles’s voice and the pulsating radiance of the image, which meet where the orgiastic dissolves into pure visual and aural vibration.

Even in my brief period of scorched-earth feminism (around 1978), I found Cosmic Ray irresistible, a more carnal version of the light and movement overload in the final sequence of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). In those years, I had no patience, however, with Marilyn Times Five, which now seems to me not only one of Conner’s greatest films but also among the most witty and poignant of so-called structural films. Its basis is a filmstrip of a Marilyn Monroe look-alike posing as if for the calendar photo that jump-started Monroe’s career. The model teasingly removes her undies, caresses her breasts, twists her torso this way and that while reclining on a towel, takes a bite from an apple and rolls it down her body, sips from a Coke bottle—all this (but not necessarily in that order) while the camera hovers over her, angling for a shot that might make the exercise seem erotic rather than ridiculous. Conner edits this tawdry footage into five variations of equal length, step printing and overexposing the original image of the simulated Marilyn so that her flesh turns to white light as if she were burning up from within even as she’s buried in the tumultuous motion of the film grain. He sets each of these variations to the same recording, from the sound track of Some Like It Hot (1959), of the actual Monroe singing the torchy “I’m Through with Love” in her heartbreakingly breathy voice. In the last variation, the play of real and fake, desire and boredom, reaches a climax via negation. Just when you feel as if you’ll go nuts if you have to look at this woman writhing around once more, Conner denies the viewer the image of the fake Marilyn, replacing her with black leader until halfway through the song. Absence creates a desire more intense than does the film incarnation of her flesh when it finally reappears. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” applies even to simulacra.

Conner is often categorized as a found-footage filmmaker, but several of his movies include or are entirely edited from material he shot directly from life. His last film, the lyrical, lushly colored Easter Morning, is derived from 8-mm Kodachrome footage that he shot during the ’60s, the images superimposed in two and three layers in the camera. Forty-two years later, he transformed and rearranged these images, pixelating some, lingering over others in slow motion. The yellow-red flame of a candle seems to illuminate the dark foliage and riotously colored flowers of a garden and then the interior of a house in which a naked woman sits; a large cross atop a white church is glimpsed through an open window. It is a deeply personal, erotic, cryptic, and mysterious work, as personal, erotic, cryptic, and mysterious as another last work that may have been its inspiration: Duchamp’s Étant donnés, with its “illuminating gas,” its garden, its naked female figure. In the last months of Conner’s life, one devotee of the peep show (the sexual substratum of modernist reflexivity) paid tribute to another.

“Bruce Conner: The Art of Montage” runs November 10–23 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.