TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 1982

THE UNCANNY RESURRECTIONS OF “AMERICA IS WAITING”

BRUCE CONNER HAS MADE FILMS since 1958. America Is Waiting, 1981, like Conner’s earlier films, is a compilation, a wacky assortment of bits and pieces of old newsreels, educational films, Hollywood movies, ’50s TV commercials, and hermetic fragments of industrial “film features” that one remembers dotting the devotional desert of Sunday morning programming long ago. Conner’s films are resurrections of sorts (film and photography are perhaps the ultimate forms of mummification) and, like most resurrections, there is something about them that is both ghoulish and uncanny. Certainly, his sculpture and collages were both. They are rarely seen now, but it was as a maker of assemblages and collages that Conner came to film, as did Joseph Cornell, whose earliest films were also compilations.

Though it would be simplistic and even wrong to push the analogy too far, both collages and compilation films bring disparate elements together within a common field, destroying or using context to produce new, unforeseen combinations. The new unity elaborated by associative links presupposes the varying origins of individual elements and the viewer’s memory of their former, more familiar, context.

America Is Waiting is about America, about American culture in general, and about American self-image as articulated by attitudes toward national strength, patriotism, and a vanished Golden Age of cherished national ideals. It is a film that articulates images of war, death, and disintegration in a way that pointedly challenges and subverts this legacy. It calls to mind some of the stridently political art of the 20th century, namely, Dada photomontage in the hands of Raoul Hausmann and John Heartfield. And like their work, it makes you laugh.

Conner’s most recent films tend to be very short (31/2 to 5 minutes) but to contain many shots, some of which—at one frame each—are on the threshold of invisibility. The welter of seemingly unrelated shots streaks past at a rate that preserves the discursive character of the image flow but thwarts any attempt to read the shots as narrative.

America Is Waiting is a black and white, sound film whose title is taken from the sound track, the David Byrne/Brian Eno song from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The sound track cues the editing in Conner’s film, providing a running commentary on the image as a way of generating a complex of meaning and association. The first two shots of the film, a long shot of a desert radar installation followed by a close-up of some sort of radar screen, timed to correspond to the words “America is waiting for a message of some sort or other” (the words of the song are supposedly the ravings of an anonymous San Francisco radio announcer), are defined as images of watchfulness and vigilance. This deliberate, descriptive relationship of sound to image is one possibility among other, usually more oblique, combinations. The sound track may suddenly direct attention away from an obvious reading of an image or sequence of shots, to favor a more remote interpretation, just as it can transfigure an image that would be otherwise merely anomalous or opaque. Sound captions shots in a way that defines a subset of the larger range of associations the image might evoke.

Sound/image relationships presuppose other relationships among shots which have been constructed to complement or contradict the sound track. Editing is the most crucial problem of all compilation films, and this is particularly true of Conner’s film, due to its brevity and concentration. The match between the film’s first two shots bridges the gap between a long shot and a close-up of the same subject. This is a conventional type of transition, familiar to us from watching movies, whether we are aware of it or not. Conner repeatedly sets us up for image combinations which resist the traditional reading we are invited to attempt. Thus, the next shot is another variety of “establishing shot,” of the Capitol building seen from above with an American flag fluttering in the foreground. Next come two frames of a Minuteman statue silhouetted against the sky. The linking of these three images does not conform to the editing practices of narrative sequences we learn from Hollywood movies, but the images do share a common iconography. The radar device suggests the same notion of vigilance as the Minuteman; “American-ness” thus spills over from the Minuteman and the Capitol onto the radar antenna. Because the links are less than conventional we are encouraged to substitute others of a more poetic nature. We feel compelled to make narrative sense where there seems to be none, as if we could make whole what has been irretrievably torn asunder. If each shot did not evoke the whole of which it was once a part, Conner’s juxtapositions would not seem as violent as they do.

The thematic core of America is Waiting emerges out of a tangle of correspondences. Linkages between shots or groups of shots elaborate the film’s discursive structure, making use of both the images’ content and formal considerations. There are “immediate” linkages between adjacent shots, and “global” ones between isolated images or sequences that echo each other throughout the film. Global linkages are easy enough to spot. The most common device is repetition. The radar screen, a close-up of a gauge (unreadable because its markings are not numbered or otherwise coded) and a teardrop-shaped cloud of white stars on a black ground, become privileged images by virtue of their recurrence. Extending the notion of repetition into variations on a theme are shots of people firing guns, soldiers parading, and a shot of a mad doctor opening a coffin which recalls a single-frame shot of a military cemetery.

A distinction must be made between the subject matter of a shot and those formal aspects that leap to the fore when one shot follows another. This is necessary if only because all of the image combinations in Conner’s film are overdetermined. They refer to other combinations remote from themselves, or formally “rhyme” with other images, and these formal linkages often mask contradictions between the content of adjacent shots.

Contrast between two instances of the same category is a simple rhetorical device which Conner uses often. The Minuteman is followed by “modern” soldiers running for cover in an elaborately choreographed scene which ends inside a fallout shelter. The courage and simplicity of the Minuteman is contrasted with the well-equipped retreat of the contemporary soldier.

Another kind of linkage, spread out across a sequence of shots, literalizes the psychoanalytic notion of “dramatization,” setting up a theatrical situation within the film. Curtains appear to be flung open, revealing an audience in a movie theater watching a Western on a screen set back behind a proscenium. This is followed by a medium shot of a cowboy on horseback, captioned “HERO,” firing his six-shooter at an unknown target. The image within an image is a stage within a stage. The picture “comes to life,” projecting us into the space of the lone rider on the screen within the screen. The next two shots are of horsemen falling, presumably shot by rider no. 1. A sense of narrative is revived, only to be shattered by black frames, shifting to a more symbolic mode where the context dictates that a black spot on white ground be read as a bullet hole, and a cloud of stars as the departed soul.

Frequently, linkages evoke a train of thought. A shot of Mt. Rushmore is followed by one of broken rocks falling into a bin. Mt. Rushmore is thus reduced to a pile of rubble. Despite the abruptness of the cut, we are able to recognize “stone” as the common element and to extend the juxtaposition to ideas about our crumbling national heritage, the imminence of decline, or the erosion of American values. Related to this strategy is the use of what Noël Carroll calls “verbal images.” Verbal images are images that can be reduced to a word or a sentence when placed within the appropriate context. As with metaphor, context is all important. It is context that enables the suggested word or sentence to be extended easily to the broader thematic concerns of the film. In one sequence, the camera moves in on a world globe floating in black space as if the viewer were about to crash-land on the United States and the film stock itself appears to disintegrate, leaving only the white projector beam. The message—“the world is falling apart,” or “the country is going to pieces”—is clear, and is supported by the images of war, death, and destruction that have been seen up to that point.

One of the most interesting things about Conner’s editing is the way one shot elicits a conventional reading such that it retroactively illuminates relationships of a host of preceding shots. This works rather like a joke. One sequence was what might be called a “delayed reaction shot.” The pivotal image is of Elsa Lanchester in the Bride of Frankenstein at the climactic moment when the monster’s bride-to-be beholds her betrothed for the first time. In Conner’s film, the shot is only two frames long and is set off by black and white frames that precede and follow it, respectively. This creates a flicker effect that gives the Lanchester shot a negative, or solarized, appearance. In between the first black frames and the Lanchester shot is a single frame of a military cemetery with uniform rows of gravestones, while just before the black frames there is a brief fade-in to two men seated at a desk, talking on the telephone. Whether or not one knows that the Lanchester shot was a reaction shot, her scream is so obviously a reaction to something that it is impossible to resist linking it with the two preceding shots. Backtracking still further, the previous sequence showed MPs marching, soldiers on a battlefield shrouded in clouds of smoke, and Marines parading, all of which, when followed by the cemetery shot, suggest that all the soldiers are dead and that Lanchester is responding to this unfortunate piece of news. Such use of a conventional editing device forces a sudden shift of perspective. The character of Lanchester is made to mediate that shift, cueing us as to what our response is supposed to be. That we can be made to identify with the Bride of Frankenstein is the propagandistic strength of film.

More explicit causal connections occur as well. The clearest instance of this is near the end, where a close-up of a detonator with wires trailing off it is followed, just after a disembodied hand pushes the plunger, by a shot of a girl running along an alley as bombs explode around her. Connections of this kind are commonplace in all movies, but as in the “delayed reaction shot,” Conner’s causal connections tend to generate others. They radiate outward from a cognitive center, elaborating a context in which other, less conventional linkages can also be made. The shot before the one of the detonator is implicated retroactively in the causal structure that produces the explosion: a homely assortment of moms and dads and kids pledges allegiance to the flag as a superimposed question mark burgeons from the center of the screen. The outcome of the act of pledging allegiance is depicted in the two shots that follow, which create a causal link between the hand that pledges and the hand that presses the button. The same group appears in the shot after the explosion, this time dissolving into the silhouette of a hanged man whose body hovers briefly over the fading image of the American flag. A second shot of the detonator conveys the results of what is now seen to be an image of mindless patriotism.

Continuity vs. discontinuity is another “global” structural device found in the organization of sequences. The sequence in which two boys, one outfitted with a walkie-talkie, the other sporting an oversize space helmet equipped with a communicating device and an all-purpose grenade/rocket/pellet gun, coordinate an attack upon an invisible opponent, is a model of conventional shot/reverse-shot cross-cutting. Obviously recut by Conner, this is a sequence in which match-cutting and fluid camera movement are pursued to the point of parody. As the only sustained narrative action in the film, it affords an unexpected sense of release. The climax is a synthetic cut in which a burst of toy gunfire explodes like fireworks into a cloud of stars over a pot full of an Almond Joy-like mixture of milk chocolate and nuts. This image of “fertilization” contradicts the principle of editing that presumes continuity of action within a given context of adjacent spaces. Conner reinstates the rules so that he may more forcibly suspend them. The sexual content of the image is clear. After this nutty transubstantiation, a shot of what is ostensibly the finished candy bar materializes, superimposed over the pot of chocolate, as if the gunshot/stars had fallen into the chocolate and produced a third thing as their literal offspring. The transformation effected by the cut resolves into an end product making explicit this juvenile, “confused” image of sexual intercourse in which the offspring is a turd.

The next sequence, which is the most discontinuous in the film, appears to be unleashed by the promise of oral and anal gratification. It illustrates a kind of formal linkage which is basic to Conner’s editing technique, as it addresses a subcontinent of imagery to which he is particularly attached. Encompassing images as diverse as those of an Arrid Extra-Dry cotton ball test, a man in bed tormented by a nighttime cough, a pair of scientists or shop teachers lost in thought, and a serried array of dials, this sequence is held together by schematic diagrams or titles which hover over the contents of each shot. These serve as abstract representations of concepts or ideas. Thus, a white line turning around a central point reads as a clock even in the absence of the rest of its “face,” and signifies the familiar time lapse we know from TV commercials. The white line turns and the cotton ball falls off the “dry” Arrid hand. The way in which these diagrams structure the shots’ meaning is analogous to the use of the words, “What can be done about Larry’s personal problems,” superimposed over the reflective gaze of one of the shop teachers. The two forms of captioning—verbal and diagrammatic—merge in a shot of mysterious dials which a white X divides into quadrants filled with question marks. The sound track refrain, “No will whatsoever . . .,” further reinforces the unity of the series.

Simpler formal devices in the film include reversals of black and white and of direction. An air conditioner on a moving sidewalk in the foreground glides by a group of back-lit musicians, while in the next shot a top-loading automatic washer passes in the opposite direction. After the apparent disintegration of the film stock described earlier, the world is born again as an image reassembles; a star emerges from somewhere in the Midwest, enlarging to white out the screen. This figure-ground reversal is inverted when, next, Teddy Roosevelt’s face grins out from a cut-out of the same star in a white ground, which spreads out as in the previous shot. Conner constructs a formal rhyme of great beauty in the process of metaphorically representing U.S. saber-rattling by identifying America with rough-riding Teddy, who becomes a star-encapsulated space child, the offspring of a nova, born of some cosmic catastrophe.

One remarkable quality of many of Conner’s images is their didactic tone. Whatever their provenance, they share a common purpose with educational films and TV commercials: to convince, to inculcate. Conner seeks to persuade us of the bankruptcy of the politics and way of life promoted by American public education, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue. He accomplishes this with the propagandistic images produced by those very institutions. Armed with Madison Avenue’s secret weapon, the subliminal shot, Conner emerges as a kind of Popular Mechanix propagandist of the unconscious.

Among the many shots that possess a certain dreamlike improbability is one that is particularly arresting if only because it is so hard to decide what is going on in it. The difficulty hinges upon an inscrutable apparatus, in which a narrow black screen encased in a black box about the size of a console television set (one of the larger models) displays a single horizontal line of indecipherable characters moving across from right to left. As the camera pulls back from a close-up of the screen, we see a woman at a microphone and a boy and girl seated quietly in a classroom. Is the woman at the microphone responding to a hidden interlocutor, or is what she says rendered up in code by the receiving apparatus? Is this the message America has been waiting for? We will never know what that message is, but we are being told what kind of message Conner’s film might be.

It is a film whose message, like the one on the luminous screen of the mysterious black box, must be deciphered in order to be understood. In this shot the attentive children recall the situation of the viewer confronted with the hermetic text of Conner’s film, just as the microphone alludes to the annotative function of the Byrne/Eno song. Like most movies, Conner’s film is a dual text, composed of sound and image. That it must be read differently from most movies is a result of its peculiar structure. Because of that structure and its dependence upon complex contextual shifts, much of the interpretive burden is born by the sound track which forms part of that context. The sound track’s irony is internal. It undermines the rhetorical intent of its own lyrics which, by themselves, are little more than an appeal for old-style gunboat diplomacy, quick rearmament, and a host of other Americanisms that words like “confidence,” “will,” and “integrity” are meant to conceal. The explicit irony of the song, which is that of codewords, and of the lyric’s hortatory tone, provides a clue to the hidden ironies of the film, which are in turn compounded by specific sound/image relationships. It is, after all, the sound track that proposes the notion of a message “of some sort or other” which, if properly understood, will set America back on her feet again. This message is constantly alluded to by shots of radar antennae, gauges, walkie-talkies, and, finally, the obscure telemetry of the black receiving device. And the notion of waiting, of expectancy that is inscribed in this film is a sad one indeed.

There is a sense, albeit a limited one, in which America is Waiting structurally recalls dreams, daydreams, hallucinations, and jokes—the raw material of psychoanalytic theory. The use of verbal images reminds us of Freud’s emphasis on language when analyzing the manifest content of dreams.

Films, unlike dreams, do not require knowledge of the filmmaker’s life and childhood experiences. The collective consciousness of popular culture provides the equivalent of the individual unconscious. Freud compares the interpretation of dreams to the act of deciphering a rebus, which he contrasts with treating the same rebus as a “pictorial composition” that, on its own, makes no sense. The corpus of commercial cinema creates a set of ready-made editing dos and don’ts that provides contextual reference. It is the context that comes from without, that informs both Conner’s construction of the film and our reading of it. Retracing the filmmaker’s steps forces us to reenact his discoveries. This is film used as an instrument of discovery. We are the active participants in Conner’s propagandistic spectacle, even though we may at first feel ourselves merely to have awoken from a dream. To understand it, we must reconstruct it.

Scott Cook is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University.