COMMANDING THE AVANT -garde for the past 50 years and counting, cinema legend Bruce Conner continues to influence generations of experimentalists as well as the pop culture lexicon. When Conner coined the "film assemblage" genre with his pioneering film A Movie (1958), the film and music worlds could not help but appropriate his tour de force editing techniques – weak imitations eventually pervaded MTV. But though Conner's surface treatments have been rendered cliché by the mainstream, his visual and conceptual content has been spared. His aesthetics have transcended his name, becoming an integral part of film culture. A self-proclaimed thief of religious, political, and apocalyptic imagery, Conner subverts both the medium's iconic imagery and its ideology.
Surfacing from his studio to exhibit nearly his entire filmography, which demands two days of screening, Conner will be present at the San Francisco Museum of Modern on Art Thursday, Dec. 8, and Saturday, Dec. 10. Below is a phone conversation in which Conner attempts to misunderstand my questions.
Bay Guardian: You're most known for your rapid-fire editing of fragments that create a stroboscopic effect that lightly punches at the retinas, but mostly the brain. What subliminal messages lie between the frames?
Bruce Conner: Aww, that would be telling. Subliminal is how a subliminal message is supposed to stay.
The subliminal message is there in place of the substantial word. I've had no real faith in words; that's why I decided to deal with vision instead. I can't answer the question any better than that.
A poet from the 20th century named Carl Sandberg read a poem at a reading and somebody asked him to please explain it. He said, "Do you want me to use worser words?"
BG: I ask because subliminals are commonly used in television and advertising, and they do have a profound effect on people.
BC: Motion pictures are very insidious. It's dangerous stuff to get involved in. I try to avoid watching television programs and movies, as well as new feature films.
BG: Your first film, A Movie , fathered a new genre of assemblage film that is now deeply engrained in our foundation of modern art. You've been credited with the birth of MTV. Since you're skeptical of television and go out of your way to avoid it, how does it feel to have your techniques appropriated by it?
BC: Well, it's thievery, and I recognize it because I'm a thief myself. At the time that I made A Movie, I didn't necessarily feel that I was doing something that was going to change the way motion pictures are made.
Of course, it has changed. People who use the techniques that I used are not likely to know where the techniques came from – they have their own understanding, which seldom gets beyond the superficial. I've told people that one sign of success is when you or your work become cliché. There are folktales about people who get their wish and then they're not sure it's what they wanted after all.
BG: A Movie constantly lies to the viewer with false starts and beginnings. The viewer is completely disoriented by falling from the suspension of disbelief that film, and feature film in particular, usually dictates
BC: You have to work with the tools you have, and the preconditions that people have. There's a painting of a pipe by Magritte that has a message painted on it in French. Translated, it says, "This is not a pipe."
BG: Just recently I had someone tell me, "You know, film really is just about storytelling."
BC: In A Movie I keep setting up a sequence, like a narrative, and sometimes it's only one shot, then it goes someplace else. This is a classic structure for all comedy, tragedy, and storytelling. You start in the direction that the story seems to be going in, and then you have a little surprise.
It is called A Movie. It does have the elements of a movie: sex and violence, a beginning and an end, a transformation. What I was trying to do was to make something that would continually be different. It follows a very Puritan ethic of "waste not, want not." I never have re-edited that film.
BG: Not that one –
BC: Yes, there are ones that I have reedited.
It is part of my general point of view that the work is never finished, period. It's always changing, through time and how people experience it. When you see something the first time and you see it a second time, it is never the same. My films move at such a pace that if you blink, you may have missed five or six things.
BG: Your film Crossroads  uses the mushroom clouds from the first underwater atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in a repetitive manner, like a mantra. You use the same image in your artwork titled Bombhead .
BC: Bombhead is assembled with a photo that Ed Shea took of me wearing a military jacket and a tie with an atomic symbol on it. It is combined with a photo of the same iconic image of the bomb in Crossroads. Bombhead is the image of the 21st century as well as the 20th century.
Corporations and governments want to keep their monopoly of violence when they bomb homes and kill innocents. They are furious that cottage industries inspired by true believers are setting off bombs everywhere and sacrificing themselves as well. They decry the lack of style that they have developed with expensive computer systems that allow billion-dollar video game murders instead of personal involvement. They are also upset that this popular direction interferes with the profits from the weapons they mass produce and distribute all over the world.
BG: In Mongoloid , you worked with Devo. Not many people know how you got into the punk scene and how these kinds of collaborations happened.
BC: I'm not sure it's collaboration – they already had the recording of "Mongoloid." Toni Basil, the choreographer and singer, was in a film of mine called Breakaway . In 1977 she called me on the phone here in San Francisco and said, "Hey, Bruce, you gotta come to this show, the greatest rock 'n' roll band around – Devo."
I met her at the Mabuhay [Gardens], and I thought it was fascinating. I started going back, and there were a lot of big surprises, one after another. I also got involved as a photographer, taking photos for Search and Destroy.
In a very short period of time, I decided I wanted to make a film using their [Devo's] recording of "Mongoloid." I paid them a hundred dollars and I started editing the footage I'd collected from educational and military films. I believe we premiered it at the Mabuhay at a special program on December 7, 1977. It was a big hit, but with these films a big hit doesn't mean an awful lot economically or in terms of getting them seen. Although this and other films seemed to be "successful experimental" films, I still find in general that I pay people to go see my movies. There's so much money that you have to put out to make them available.
BG: Could you talk about your new film projects?
BC: None of my film projects are new. They're always old, they've been around a long time. I've got more than half a dozen unfinished films. Some of them were started back in the 1960s. They go through transformations over a period of time. Sometimes purposefully and sometimes due to limitations. I hope to stop soon. I'm not too anxious to start newer projects. A lot of what I've been doing is finishing or seeing a realization of a project that had happened before.
People talk about multimedia. All they're doing is putting a lot of TV sets out in the environment. They don't really know what they're talking about. There's no sense of history, because no one keeps the records until after it's dead and gone, and then someone takes credit for it who never did it in the first place. Andy Warhol is probably one of the more notorious ones for taking credit for so many other artists' work and ideas. A very unoriginal person.
BG: I think that's why he's so popular.
BC: It's a truism, yes. People who have nothing to say for themselves, who are not creative, find it much better to identify as their ideals people who are equally inept.
BG: A lot of people think that because video offers new technology, what they're doing with it is a new idea.
BC: I don't think they think this on their own. They're told this, continually, by the merchandisers of video equipment, and by museums, and by all of these people who act as if this stuff is avant-garde. Avant-garde is a historical term – it doesn't exist anymore. It's basically a lot of bullshit.
If that doesn't make for a good conclusion, I don't know what would – I've abused everybody who might possibly be on my side.
BG: Burn every bridge, Bruce.
BC: That's the best way to do it, if you can get off the bridge quick enough [laughs].