FILM COMMENT | ONCE UPON AMERICA: The multi-faceted career of artist Bruce Conner has a brand-new object.


Vol. 38, No. 4, July/August 2002, pg. 40

A Bruce Conner film might be constructed from a dozen or a hundred instances—shards, jolts, figments—of déjà vu. Though it may employ fewer: Marilyn Times Five (68-73), where an iconic handful of b&w nudie tableaus are gracefully looped back on themselves as though refracted through a peep-booth's two-way mirror (just a recumbent Monroe lookalike, a bottle of Coke, and thou). These images, scavenged from home movies, newsreels, stag films, Defense Department footage, educational shorts, and TV commercials, are summoned forth from our collective consciousness, and beckon us down that irrationalist primrose pathos into their subterranean lairs. If the specter of the Sixties continues to haunt the imagination, as an unraveled utopia of ruined shrines, forsaken promises, and impossible desires, then Bruce Conner is the era's truest documentarian, as well as its shadow DJ.

Within five indelibly compressed and elastic minutes, Breakaway distills the kaleidoscopic ferment of the time—1966—into a flickering, light-tripping go-go ballet/striptease performed by the hyperactive Antonia Christina Basilotta (later shortened to Toni Basil). A radical template that would eventually be looted and diluted by MTV's minions, the film is nominally set to the beat of Basilotta's white-chick, faux-Motown single "Breakaway." But as Conner intricately and lovingly dices and spliced together different angles, exposures, and frame rates of her movements into a blindingly fast montage, then runs the whole of the song and footage backwards, his searing, tilt-a-whirling-dervish rhythms take the film into another realm altogether. It reveals itself to be a rock-and-roll meditation on the Gnostic spirit of Martha and the Vandellas, weighing the salvation held out by "Dancing in the Street" against the damnation unveiled by "Nowhere to Run," together with a secret silent film in which Basil is transformed into a one woman army of the night: not merely a hippie Theda Bara, but Conner's Musidora, his Falconetti, his Louise Brooks.

Breakaway and seven more of Conner's greatest hits are to be found on 2002 BC, a one-hour DVD collecting 16mm films spanning the years 1964 to 1981. By no means definitive or complete (more films are currently being digitally remastered, with the hope of a further DVD release or releases if the artist can "find a patsy"), 2002 BC omits Conner's startling, scattergun debut A Movie (58), his sex-and-death excavation of Ray Charles's Judeo-Pagan "What'd I Say" (Cosmic Ray, 61), and his mushroom-cloud magnum opus Crossroads (76). (The Bomb haunts and entrances Conner, as though man-made Armageddon represented not only the height of human folly but the naked face of God: you say tomato, I say to-mah-to...) Nonetheless, 2002 BC is a mellifluous introduction to the artist's oeuvre: you won't find a more thrilling demonstration of the possibilities intrinsic in slipping mediated flesh into pure negative space (girl meets void, girl loses void, girl illuminates void) than Breakaway, or a more vivid recapitulation of mythic afterlives/shocks than Marilyn Times Five or the soul-freezing JFK assassination Report (63-67), or a more precise rendering of uncanny currents beneath the stoic mask of the mundane than Valse Triste (77) or Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (76).

Pop as esoteric science, erotic abandon, mystical abstraction, terror as the deepest source of humor: Conner gazes upon the United States of Apocrypha as an ancient prophet might, etching his own Book of Perpetual Last Days in celluloid sign language. The art is all in waiting, attentiveness—which may account for how the two-and-a-half-minute film Vivian (64) can feel like a feature, and the seven-minute The White Rose (67) has heft and metaphysical density of an epic. Vivian uses an outlandishly Elvisoid "Mona Lisa," casting a spell, a force field, around its subject, a living art exhibit encased in glass whose human ebullience keeps breaking free of the confines of a "cold and lonely, lovely work of art." Marcel Duchamp meets the Beatles, and both are found wanting: Conner is after more than just a witty fusion (thought that's more than most artists ever achieve). He is looking for what lies beneath the mausoleums of art, culture, the social itself. The second reality behind the visible world—or the third eye—is his destination: The White Rose pulls double duty as treasure map and holy grail, chronicling the removal of the artist Jay DeFeo's 2,300-pound whale of an unfinished painting from her studio by moving men. An air of metaphysical pensiveness hangs over the proceedings, as if this dream ceremony were part of the painting brought to life, a pageant acted out by all involved—the artwork and the supernatural acting in concert, as a single entity.

One side benefit of having these films on DVD is that the viewer can study their processes, play with Conner's alchemy: you can slow Breakaway down to a crawl (where it remains a ravishing blur) or speed up Report so the dirge becomes a raucous, dirty punk shout, or hold your own shotgun wedding of Marilyn and Kennedy. Which isn't to say you can "deconstruct" them, merely that the closer you look at Conner's juxtapositions, the more you see the myriad films within films, the mysteries within mysteries.