Doug Aitken: Before you made A MOVIE in 1958, you were making collages, drawings, and still images. How did your work lift off the page and onto the reel in such an extreme way?
Bruce Conner: One of the reasons I made A MOVIE was because it's what I wanted to see happen in film. Ever since I was fifteen years old, I'd been watching movies and thinking of ways to play with their storylines. For instance, I would imagine taking a backlit shot of Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus walking through a doorway and overlaying it with something like the final words from King Kong: "Beauty killed the beast." Then I'd imagine the next shot being something else entirely using different sound. Basically for years, I'd been playing with bits and pieces of different films in my head, and I kept assembling and reassembling this immense movie using pictures and sounds and music from all sorts of things. I'd been waiting for someone to come up with a movie like this. And nobody did.
DA: It's as if your mind instinctively wanted to construct one single movie out of every movie you'd ever seen.
BC: I thought surely there must be somebody out there making experimental films, or maybe experimental historical films, using other movies as sources. I was determined to find this film, and I just didn't. I had always been interested in trying to find films you couldn't see in standard movie theaters, and from very early on, I was involved in film groups and clubs. It was the only way you could see these films. You have to realize that in the 1950s it was really hard to see any interesting feature films. Like you couldn't even see Charlie Chaplin films. Period. No one played them. You couldn't see films like D. W. Griffith's Intolerance from 1916 or Leni Riefenstahl's 1938 Olympiad in any theaters at all. If you wanted to see these kinds of films, you had to start a nonprofit film society and rent the films from The Museum of Modern Art. When I came out to San Francisco from Colorado, I started a film club with Larry Jordan called Camera Obscura. We were the only film society or film group in the entire Bay area at the time. There were no theaters showing at that time. We were it.
DA: How did you begin making A MOVIE?
BC: Film from other movies was really hard to get your hands on. The only piece of film that I owned at that time was this filmstrip that I'd found at a friend's house. It was a scrap of film showing a woman almost completely naked on a stool in the process of taking off a stocking. My friend had discovered it in his brother's dresser. He gave it to me since he knew I was interested in film. This filmstrip got the whole project started. I was inspired by the projectionists who sometimes mistakenly ran the countdown leader onscreen before the film. I'd originally wanted to surprise everybody at Camera Obscura by sticking this filmstrip between the numbers in the countdown leaders of what we were showing. But Larry Jordan said if I did, he'd quit the film society. He was outraged by the idea. So I decided that the only way I could deal with this, and still watch what I wanted to see onscreen—was to make it. Larry showed me the basics of splicing and so for two weeks, let me use his wet splicer, his movie projector, and his viewer. I went out and bought a bunch of shortened versions of films at local photo shops like 100-foot versions of things like Hop-Along Cassidy and newsreels. These had all the action and visual elements of film that I needed, and eventually I even spliced the filmstrip that'd been given to me in between the numbers in the countdown leader of A MOVIE.
DA: The way you edited the found footage in A MOVIE, you took out all the extraneous elements and put all the key dramatic scenes together into a narrative. Can you tell me about your ideas behind the sequencing of the footage?
BC: A MOVIE is a nonlinear film. Its fragmented structure makes the narrative appear to change and shift. People would say to me, "Oh, you reedited that film since that last time I saw It." or "You added something and took something out." And of course, I hadn't changed it at all. It just looked like it had changed from the way the footage was edited.
DA: There are so many different images in the film, people don't necessarily catch everything the first time they watch it.
BC: Just by putting images together, relationships between things are suggested whether they exist in real life or not. If you run three images together in sequence, people are going to draw a conclusion between them, and I wanted to play with this. A large part of the construction of almost any communication has to be its recreation by the person who experiences it. And this is not going to be the same all the time. It's going to change with the viewer. Then there's the space between the images also, which is important. I extended this space by putting in black leader to isolate images or to make the screen suddenly go black, leaving the audience to wonder what was going to happen next. In A MOVIE I could play with the unplanned and unexpected. I made them part of the entire concept of making the film. In fact, when I initially conceived of making A MOVIE, my ideas were even more extreme than the film ultimately became. What I wanted to do, I was not able to do back in 1958.
DA: What circumstances were you working in?
BC: First of all, I didn't have the money to do what I wanted. Secondly, there was no support for me in museums or any other place. To realize the project I'd wanted to, I would have had to produce it myself and push it into a place like an artist-run gallery, but back then there were only about two or three in all of San Francisco and virtually nothing else.
DA: So what did you originally want to do with the film?
BC: What I wanted to do was use a rear projection loop projector so the film would be running continuously without end. I tried to capture this idea in what became the final version by splicing "The End" into the film, but not at the actual end of the film.
DA: It seems like you were really making a statement by intercutting hard halfway through the film things like "THE END," "A MOVIE," and "BRUCE CONNER" in random places. It's a very provocative approach in terms of making the viewer question the traditional structure of film. They're like little traps.
BC: Yes, and then after the words flash onscreen, the film just keeps on going.
DA: Even though the film you made in the end has a start and a finish, it still suggests a very fragmentary narrative. You can start watching it in the middle or three minutes from the end and it doesn't really matter because there's no linear narrative. What other things had you originally wanted to do that you couldn't in the end?
BC: I'd also wanted the film to be played in a small cube of about 10 x 10 x 10 feet that you could stand inside. And I'd wanted the lights to change and there to be tape recordings, radio programs, and television sound that would impinge aurally on the viewer at random moments. This way, the film could be viewed in a different context every time it ran. For example, one time it could have Ottorino Respighi's Pines of Rome with it, which is what I used in the final version of the film. And then for the next loop, it could have a silly pop song playing with it, or lions roaring at off moments. However, that said, I was working for $.10 above minimum wage as an usher in a movie theatre at the time. It would have been impossible. I did not even own a movie camera.
DA: Having watched so many films, making A MOVIE must've felt like a really intense opportunity to put into practice all these ideas about film you'd been thinking about for so long.
BC: One of the values that I was dealing with in making A MOVIE was that I considered each shot of footage a movie in itself. For example, a shot of an airplane turning in the sky, that's a movie to me. So on one hand, A MOVIE is twelve minutes long with a start and finish and, in this way, is linear. But on the other hand, it has individual shots in it that are maybe two seconds long, and these are, to me, little movies that break up the film.
DA: It's interesting because in this way, the film reveals its own structure—the exact opposite of what traditional cinema does in making the technical craft invisible. In the editing you worked intensely with jumps in time and place, with the scratches and skips in the original footage in a way that was outside traditional film language of narrative film. A MOVIE seems like a manifesto for artistic perception, a way of seeing the world that's inherently fractured. Where did this come from for you?
BC: When I think of A MOVIE, I think about all of my life prior to that time and whatever I knew or experienced. My feeling is that nonlinear perception can't be beat from when you're one day old. So when I refer to essentials of perception, I try to think back to how I reacted to things and how things impressed me when I was a small child. I remember when I went to see movies for the first time, I didn't understand what was going on. There on the screen was a thirty-foot-tall image of a loud, obnoxious, unpleasant creature. I didn't realize that it was just a person. Instead, my experience was of a whole series of disjunctive images. I'm sure that's what people have to train themselves to ignore when they adapt themselves to reading moving images in television and cinema. It's like establishing a language of understanding. And when I think about nonlinear perception, I think about the way you collect various pieces of information and put them into some kind of functional use to make sense of the world. It's about consciousness itself.