Critics’ Picks

View of “Bruce Conner: CROSSROADS,” 2014.

Los Angeles

Bruce Conner

Kohn Gallery
1227 North Highland Avenue
November 8 - December 20

Watching the recent digital restoration of Bruce Conner’s thirty-six-minute film Crossroads, 1976, which depicts 1946 footage of the first underwater atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll, is a vertiginous experience of telescoping back in time. Conner obtained this government-shot film from the U.S. National Archives and with minimal interventions (editing and, most notably, the addition of music), turned it into a resonant meditation on the apocalyptic sublime, rendering the familiar nuclear mushroom cloud strange again. The mushroom cloud is one of Conner’s signature images, appearing in A Movie, 1958, and briefly in Cosmic Ray, 1961, as well as in his collage works and drawings, some of which are also on display here.

Repetition is key to the film’s power. With the introduction of each new shot—a placid seascape dotted with ships—we wait, anticipating the explosion. The alternation between aerial views and straight-on shots provides a variety of perspectives, so that each eruption is astonishing in a different way. With his characteristically sharp eye (a found-footage pioneer, he was one of the first to appreciate the anonymous stylistics of educational and industrial films), Conner foregrounds the tension between the terror of the event and the involuntary beauty of the footage, with its organic shapes in motion and extremely subtle gradations of light and dark. The original electronic musical score by Patrick Gleeson (in the first half of the film) and Terry Riley (in the second half) provides two contrasting aural perspectives. Presented on a giant thirty-five-foot screen in a spacious dark room with four benches, this is an exemplary model of what contemporary digital moving image restoration and exhibition can achieve.