Dennis Hopper credited Bruce Conner with inventing the music video, and Bruce Jenkins, the former director of the Harvard Film Archive, once wrote, “what the Cubists wreaked on painting . . . Conner inflicted on cinema itself.” For every iconoclastic film that the renegade West Coast artist made before his death in 2008, there are sculptures, collages, paintings, and drawings, too. Simply put, if you’re not yet familiar with Conner’s work, now’s the time for an introduction—well ahead of the retrospective that MoMA and SFMoMA are rumored to be jointly planning for next year.
A very good place to begin would be with CROSSROADS, the 36-minute film Conner made in 1976 out of archival footage of the first tests of nuclear weapons conducted at Bikini Atoll in the summer of 1946. (Code name: Operation Crossroads.) One of the most thoroughly documented events in history—one estimate puts roughly half the available celluloid on the planet in Bikini Atoll for the occasion—the extraordinary experiment has turned up in many pop cultural moments over the past seventy years, including the final scene of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Michael Jackson’s video for “Man In the Mirror.” But no other compilation of the footage is as creatively conceived as CROSSROADS.
As terrifying as it is beautiful, CROSSROADS represents the detonation of a nuclear weapon with a yield equivalent to around 23,000 tons of TNT (the same as the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki) ninety feet below the surface of the ocean, under a fleet of abandoned naval ships floating in disrepair—test subjects for the bomb’s destructive powers. Almost in direct contrast to the rapid-fire blasts at the end of Dr. Strangelove, Conner’s film presents the test in its original film speed and from various angles, so that the viewer can experience—fifteen times over the course of thirty-six minutes—an almost mesmerizing sense of doom.
An artist whose sense of nihilism was as highly developed as his sense of beauty, Conner never made work that was easy or decorative, which is one reason the West Coast resident never achieved the commercial success of his Pop contemporaries in New York. Fortunately, the importance of his work has become more widely recognized of late. On Saturday, Conner’s longtime dealer, Michael Kohn, is opening an exhibition of his drawings and CROSSROADS,which was recently restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Until then, you can preview the film in the exclusive clip below. I’d say, “Enjoy,” but that’s not really the point.