STAR TRIBUNE | Conner on celluloid: art for art snobs’ sake


MINNEAPOLIS – Bruce Conner’s peculiar films are one-half julienned Cold War newsreels and one-quarter mocking music tracks, and the rest fell out of the blender.

As a lightly cultured suburbanite, I generally take an “Emperor’s New Clothes” approach to museum-sanctified Profound Art Films. I tend to mute my misgivings and mumble, for fear of appearing narrow-minded to the more aesthetically attuned. But Conner’s hogwash is enough to make you roll up your brain’s welcome mat and double-bolt the door.

Using found footage improbably collaged together, Conner creates jump-cut juxtapositions of collapsing bridges/coronations/charging elephants/stag films/volcanoes/car crashes. He began his work in the 1950’s, when the unexplored possibilities of non-narrative cinema seemed to hold innovative promise. Instead, it dead-ended in intellectual foolery, music videos, and pretentious TV commercials. 

When Conner’s creations aren’t doling our hackneyed sexual imagery (the man never saw a pinup girl, a roaring locomotive, or a stream of flowing water he didn’t love), they’re trivial. “Ten Second Film” is, sure enough, 10 seconds of film countdown leader. “Breakaway” features Toni Basil doing the Mashed Potato to the tune of her forgettable song, and then the blasted thing runs backward, soundtrack and all. “Vivian” shows art groupie Vivian Kurtz climbing into a glass display case in a gallery, to the tune of “Mona Lisa.”  Time and again, the work mocks the shallow conformity of American-society – hardly the freshest target or the hardest to hit.

The exhibition’s best films aren’t Conner’s obsessive meditations on the Kennedy assassination, but his lighthearted videos for Devo (“Mongoloid”) and David Byrne (“America Is Waiting”).  His cut-and-paste style fits the songs’ jumpy rhythms, and the lyrics give viewers a framework on which to hang the haphazard imagery. But they total about seven minutes of the 70-some on display. 

If there’s a great deal of black in your wardrobe, this junkyard of images might spank your bongos. For the rest of us non-artniks, it’s 10 miles uphill in tight shoes.