You may know BRUCE CONNER as an experimental filmmaker – whose films dominate their bastard grandchildren of music videos in style, form, humor and commentary, some 50 years after he started. You may also know his collage, assemblage, sculpture, photography, print making, painting and conceptual art. He even took a ton of photos of influential punk rock bands in the 1970s. Basically, if you are creative in any format, you would be inspired by something Conner made. Sadly, Mr. Conner passed away in 2008 after a lengthy illness. He was one of a kind. This interview took place in 2005, as his film LUKE (1966/2004) was making the fest rounds, and his show of punk rock photos was opening at the Barbara Gladstone gallery.
CINEMAD: Your film LUKE is showing at festivals.
BRUCE CONNER: It had a sneak preview at CineVegas, and then it premiered at the New York Film Festival and the London Film Festival. It’s also showing at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York from January 4th until the 29th. That’s in conjunction with an exhibition of fifty-three black and white punk photos that I took in 1978 at Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco.
How did you find the punk rock scene? In 1977 Toni Basil called me and said, “You gotta go to Mabuhay Gardens tonight and see the world’s greatest new rock band, Devo.” So I went there and I liked the show, the place was pretty interesting. I started going back to see if I would find another band just as interesting. There were a number of events there, some of which I photographed. Most of my photographs are of San Francisco and California punk bands; some of the bands were obscure and only played once. There are pictures of Toni Basil and Devo and a few others that are better known.
The Search and Destroy you showed me had great photos of The Avengers and Negative Trend. Also in the show are Crime, UXA and the Mutants. Usually there’s more than one photo of each band. There is one photo of a band called Ointment that gave a great performance and then disappeared.. Vale, who published my photos in Search and Destroy magazine, told me recently that he thought they were the best punk band he remembered seeing at Mabuhay Gardens.
But were you drawn to the scene quickly? In its own way, it reminded me of the energy of the poets, artists, filmmakers, and dancers who had been characterized as the Beat generation in the 1950’s. Then in the ‘60s some of the same people were called the Hippie generation. This creative phenomenon appeared to become publicly conspicuous in San Francisco every ten years.
You must have seen it differently than everybody else since you had lived through the other two angry youth movements. They weren’t always angry. They were complicated periods of time, just like we are in right now. I wish we could find more people with that kind of intensity today. It’s worth gravitating towards that type of environment. A kind of activity that compels people, despite the limits of their technological or professional abilities, to produce, perform, and have their say.
Were the punk photos pretty conscious, or more snapshots? The second time I was there, I saw Vale, who worked at City Lights Bookstore, he said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Well, I’m interested in this stuff.” And he said, “ I’m starting a new magazine called Search and Destroy about the punk scene.” I said, “Maybe I could take some photos for that.” During the next year, I probably wasted too much time trying to take photos that would be appropriate for the magazine.
I had no idea which of three bands playing each night would turn out to be really unique and interesting. I ended up being at Mabuhay Gardens several days a week. I also conceived creating a photographic document during the year of 1978 at Mabuhay Gardens. I didn’t receive any money for the photos printed in Search and Destroy. But, over the years, I’ve gotten used to paying people to look at my work.
The reverse of the mainstream. Well, people think they’re paying me when they go to a film festival, but as you and I know, festivals don’t pay the filmmakers when they show their films.
Do you get paid for books and art gallery sales? I don’t get paid when any of my words or work are published in books. Art galleries sell my work once in a while. I distribute my films through Canyon Cinema. It’s questionable whether I’ve ever made back the costs of more than a few of the short films. Beyond the initial cost there are the expenses of maintaining and producing new prints, transferring, archiving and all the rest of it. I like to support Canyon Cinema because they are the only viable 16mm distributor of short independent films. The films they distribute are about as independent as film can get. They are usually produced by one person who has conceived the work, filmed it, edited it, and distributed it.
What was the impetus behind finally putting out the DVD of some of your shorts (2002 B.C.)? It was produced as a fundraiser for charitable organizations. It was available through the galleries where I exhibit.
People could obtain a free copy if they made a donation of fifty dollars to a non-profit organization such as Haight-Ashbury Medical Clinic or the Food Bank in San Francisco. The dealers and I dealt with it as public service in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Manhattan. It also brings people into the gallery to see my drawings, prints, photos, paintings, etc. My justification, in terms the IRS understands, is that the films are nothing except a form of publicity for me to bring people closer to the work that is for sale at the galleries. If I were to actually try to deal with this as a business, there isn’t any business. [laughs]
People seem to have the illusion that, because they see these films and they read about them, it means substantial cash in the pocket for the filmmaker. In contrast to the ‘50s, many of the short films that get shown at film festivals, are there for practical reasons such as getting jobs in video or commercial film. Or it’s necessary for academics who must publish or perish. Or it’s pure vanity. I guess I fall into the latter category.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, these types of films were in a different economic community that had created its own distribution, venues, literature, and news. There were film groups and film societies all across the country. People did make money, but after a while, it became clear that these people had to be “helped” by others who were not artists. They took “pity” on these poor artists. They decided it was time that there should be grants administered by non-profit organizations (that would take all the money that was available) so artists could present their wonderful hobbies to the world. So everything was transformed to the point where that earlier film community no longer existed. It had been a classic example of free enterprise before the takeover. It’s now totally monopolized by non-profits who do wonderful things for the filmmakers and take the lion’s share for themselves.
It’s nearly impossible to start a film group because every city has a film festival that is charging filmmakers to display their films, collecting all the money at the gate, and having nice parties for their friends. I’m not sure how long things like this will go on. After a while some filmmakers won’t want to do it. Many people are going to be making low-cost video productions that are available on the Internet or elsewhere. Perhaps the festival environment for these types of films won’t be so promising for promoters.
A lot of the festivals’ job is connecting filmmakers to meet an agent, a manager, financers, other film production folks, to continue to produce work. It’s a big trade show. Many of them do a good job of showing the films, but at least half of it is trying to further yourself with these things. Do you think the answer would be that the film festivals simply rent the films they show? I think that would be nice, but why would anybody want to do that? Independent filmmakers pay for it and the festival pockets the money. I’ve tried to ask for film rentals at film festivals. The New York Film Festival says, “Well, you get the honor of your films being shown in our festival in New York.” The festival burns up the audience in the area. The people who see it there are unlikely to see elsewhere in the city afterwards. No second run theaters.
Right now, LUKE is doing the trip around to festivals. [Producer] Henry Rosenthal is handling all that for me since he has entered his productions in film festivals before. The theoretical goal is to find a sale to cable or commercial television. We’re not renting it, we’re not selling copies, and if that doesn’t pan out, I’m not quite sure what we’ll do with LUKE. It’s possible that it will never be available, because if I need to pay people to see my movies, why bother? It means a lot more work. 2002 B.C. is no longer available. We accomplished what we wanted to do. Now I have another DVD with CROSSROADS (1976) and LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS (1959-1967). It is distributed by the Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles. It seems more sensible to the gallery to have it for sale even if we don’t end up making a profit. It makes it seem a little more reliable and business-like.
How have you made a living? Being an artist of fifty years, that’s not job security. Well, at one point in the ‘60s, I had four jobs simultaneously. My wife was also teaching. In the ‘70s, my grandmother died and left me some money. My uncle died and was equally generous. My father left me some stock in a company that has since been absorbed by Kroger. So, after a while, I could pay my basic bills. I’ve assumed that I could live off this mainly because I bought my house here in San Francisco in 1972 when the costs were very low. We just take care of ourselves in a simple way. I’ve been telling people for ten years I’ve made enough money to live on from my work for the last 10 years. I started assuming that was the case in the 1990’s but I didn’t know what it really cost to live in San Francisco, the most expensive city in America. I was living off some of the inheritance that I received.
Buying a place back then was a smart move. I made enough money to live on in 1960. The next year, I made absolutely nothing and it pretty much stayed that way with minor improvement for years. Then I slowly started to have more income selling my work. I had a dealer, Paula Kirkeby, who told me, “I want to have a show and we need to raise the prices.” I said, “I don’t think people will buy this stuff at a higher price. We’re already charging $250 for these drawings and we only sell two or three out of the twenty-five we put in a show.” She said, “You might as well not sell them for $500 as $250.” We raised the prices and we sold two or three from the show.
I had a show in Los Angeles in 1991. The prices had gone up so much that I thought, “This is outrageous.” But I remember hearing somebody at the opening say, “Oh, these prices are so reasonable.” It seemed to make a difference when people realized that the work was at a certain economic level. Now the galleries will raise the prices and tell me afterwards, “Here’s the extra money.”
I expected people to value the work for what it was and not its prestige. I didn’t sign a lot of my work in the 1960s. If I did sign it, I would put my name on the back. I always thought that a signature on a piece of artwork represented an advertisement for Coca-Cola or Salvador Dali (interchangeable entities). I wanted to see that each piece had the character of a phenomenon that could be experienced without any predispositions or expectations about who made the work or when it was made or anything else. I want the work to live and succeed on its own merits, nothing else.
In fact, you can see that a number of my films don’t even have my name on them. I would complete them and, sometimes as an afterthought, I would add titles. I was more interested in finishing it and showing it to people and I would forget to ever put a title on it. COSMIC RAY (1961) did have my name in it at one point. My credit was only three frames long among all those flashing frames. Since I edited the film linearly in an A-roll and didn’t use a work print I would lose a frame every time I made a splice. After a while my name disappeared. It was a gratuitous demonstration that my ego involvement was too demanding.
And when you do get your name in there, you just stay on it, like in A MOVIE (1958). In A MOVIE, I decided that the credit concept was so absurd that I would just sit on it long enough for people to think that the name credit was all that the movie was ever going to be. Rushing movie music and “Bruce Conner” on the screen forever and ever. I just assumed when I made A MOVIE that every film I made afterwards could be spliced onto the end of it. The other movies would be like a continuation of the same film so I wouldn’t have to make any more titles. But of course, each of the following films changed character.
At CineVegas you told me you waited on LUKE because you didn’t want to release it without music? It was shot in regular 8mm and was intended to be shown at five frames per second. It had a production cost of less than four dollars. The camera and projector were very inexpensive because regular 8mm film was being phased out for Super 8 in the 1960’s. I could photograph using the features available on an 8mm camera that are more awkward or costly with 35mm. It was possible to fade in and out while running the camera, advance the film forward and backward by hand, film at fast speeds so things were in slow motion or do single framing of one picture at a time. I could take thousands of individual photographs with an 8mm camera and look at them in a little viewer.
I put my 8mm films in the Museum of Modern Art Film Archives in New York, and they made 16mm enlargements of them in 1984. I used that 16mm copy when Patrick Gleeson decided couple of years ago that he wanted to create another musical soundtrack for a film of mine. He has worked with synthesizers in advance of everybody else, introduced synthesizer to modern jazz, and created a lot of wonderful music.
He was able to do a stereo track for LUKE with such precision that I knew I could never turn it back into film after synchronizing it to 3 images per second on digital tape. LUKE will only be on video. I have been working more with video, in part because it gave me the opportunity to put the original stereo soundtrack by Terry Riley into CROSSROADS.
How did you come to create a new version of REPORT (1963-1967) this year? One of the projects I’ve had in mind was to recreate the character of one of the seven unique edits of REPORT before it was finalized in 1967. Between 1963 and 1967, it went through seven transformations. My concept was to make every viewing print similar using the same soundtrack, but the images would change with each print. People could see this long process of various images at different viewing times. The experience would be similar to people’s memory of seeing films when they are shown again. There is sometimes a moment of wonder when the images seem to be different or in a different order than when the film was first seen. I have been told by people after they viewed A MOVIE a second time that they were sure that I had re-edited it. In the 1960s, it was possible to make unique reversal prints. I would just edit the A-roll of REPORT (one single line of 16mm film) take some images out, move them around, put other ones in. During the first eight minutes of the film, I used one image that would repeat over and over and over as a film loop. The prints went into distribution or into people’s hands, and then they would someday disappear from wear and tear.
All on 16mm? Yes. So after transferring REPORT to digital, I went back and tried to recreate the character in one of these earlier versions. There’s a series of repeat images during the first eight minutes. The repetitive image I chose had been used in the third or fourth version. All of the various repetitive images were consolidated into the negative that was finally made in 1967. Obviously, coming back to this some 35 years later, it’s not going to be the same thing. Of course not, it’s on digital video. I changed the edit of the last five minutes, moved some images around or added other ones into it.
I can’t put it in Canyon Cinema because they don’t rent videos. They sell videos. A problem with selling videos is that the wonderful people who care so much about films and lecture about them in schools or present them in museums will sometimes cheat the filmmakers and Canyon Cinema by making copies for their multimillion-dollar non-profit organizations. This problem came up with the DVD of 2002 BC. There were people showing it in classrooms. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art put it on exhibit in the worst possible manner by exhibiting it next to a sculpture by Ed Kienholz called Backseat Dodge, which had a transistor radio in it running at all times. My video was on a monitor inside a clear plastic box with sound coming through the box. It was in a brightly illuminated environment. Of course, on the DVD it says that it is not for be shown for public performance.
Canyon Cinema also told me that rentals were dwindling for some of the titles available on the DVD. I want to preserve Canyon Cinema as long as possible. They have one and a half employees, they’re always on the edge of dissolution, and they’re the only viable distribution that I know of. They take care of the films wonderfully, they’re knowledgeable of what the films represent, they treat filmmakers with respect, they pay rentals immediately on request, and they treat the clients who rent the films very well. They’re dependable, unlike some non-profit organizations.
How did you feel, seeing all the images in REPORT again? The film itself? It always takes care of me. I was passionately involved with the subject matter. I try to make films that would have interest to me in the long run since I must continually look at them again and again if they’re going to be distributed or exhibited. REPORT is one of them, and it’s gone through a lot of transformations. I was so emotionally involved initially with REPORT that I would have to leave the auditorium while it was shown. It would disturb me so much that I would be physically shaking. I find it very difficult to convey my feelings or how I experience these films. I know they aren’t the same as other people’s experiences because many haven’t lived through the whole process. Perhaps they’ve only seen it once.
I try to structure the films so that there’s something new that can be found in them each time they are viewed by using the techniques that I’ve to found work with memory and kinetic relationships. I am aware of the way in which things will change in people’s consciousness when re-experiencing something. I had become aware that these experiences are like part of a movie in my consciousness and other people’s consciousness. When you recollect these images or even recollect other movies, they get are assembled differently. Invariably, if you see a movie a second time there has to be something else that’s rewarding in order to enjoy it another time.
When I saw one or two of your films in college there was this pressure from the instructor to interpret the film only one way, the “official” way. “Grrrr” (the artist growls.)
Which I never understood, especially as you made multiple versions. Sometimes when academics take over and write their books, they take all the fun out of it. They try to knock the balls off of them. I remember being at a college in the Midwest. I was invited to do a film program, exhibit in the art gallery, and visit a film class. We were watching A MOVIE in the classroom, and some of the students started laughing at the beginning of the film. The teacher said, “Shut up! This is a serious movie!” God, I could have throttled the guy!
So wait, he thinks you having your name up there for ten minutes was serious? This was at the first part, where all the cars are racing, one after another. There’s other stuff that’s intended to be ludicrous, but it’s not really a comedy. It has had an undeserved reputation for being a comedy. Andrew Sarris wrote a review of the presentation of the History of American Avant-garde Film in the Museum of Modern Art. He took vengeance on Jonas Mekas and all the independent films he had to look at. He had exploited his position at the Village Voice writing reviews of movies under Jonas Mekas’s authority. He must have hated all of the films that Mekas liked. Unfortunately the commentary and presentation at the Museum of Modern Art would make this reaction totally justifiable all by itself. Every part of the juice was excised, analyzed, historicized: use a lot of big words that people don’t commonly use for communication.
It’s important to analyze things to a certain point. But chances are, somebody, somewhere has beat off to MARILYN TIMES FIVE (1968-1973). Well, yeah, the music is wonderful. Sometimes you hear groans as the audience starts to see the third or fourth repetition of the song when it’s shown publicly. The audience was looking for an erotic girlie movie and it wasn’t catering to them.
Once they started to get “invested,” then you’d cut away. Things just kept repeating over and over. It was a girlie movie but it wasn’t following the girlie movie format. I was turning it around and beating those jocks over the head with it.
Porn gets used and consumed, and then thrown out. That’s kind of my feeling about Marilyn Monroe, too.
About how she was consumed and then thrown out? Yeah. That’s the tragedy.
Do you ever connect that film with REPORT? Yeah, I recently put them back to back. It’s hard to judge how people relate to this since they’ve become historical icons. Back in the ‘70s, I thought nobody would be able to understand REPORT again because they wouldn’t know the details of the assassination of President Kennedy. The media celebrated the 25th anniversary and the 30th anniversary, and then Oliver Stone made the movie called JFK (1991).
Did you see the movie? I did after a while when it was on VHS. People told me that it was a lot like REPORT. I didn’t think it was. He used a similar style of presentation with his own simulated media coverage. The only thing I really liked about the JFK movie was the clip of Eisenhower when he left office as the President of the United States. He warned the American people about the military industrial complex. His message was profoundly ignored at the time. It’s an amazing statement by someone who should really know, who led the American forces through a successful campaign in Europe during the second world war. Although it appears to me that we lost the war against the Nazis.
You think we lost over time? I recently looked at some anti-Nazi movies made during the war. The American view of the cruel Nazis actually looks kind of benign compared to the way things are here in the States. Almost like a travelogue to encourage to vacation in Nazi Germany to get away from the loss of civil liberties, stress and invasion of privacy here.
Encyclopedia Britannica had an educational film in the early ‘60s about despotism. I think it’s something that the current administration would not like to see presented today. It depicts how people lose their freedom piecemeal and the characteristics signs of despotism. I have this definite impression that, over the decades, we didn’t really win the war. This country kept taking over characteristics that were attributed to the Nazi regime. You can look at some of the old posters and books about life in Nazi Germany from the Second World War depicting people pulled off the street and thrown into jail without a trial. A so-called President or Fuhrer can take anybody off, doesn’t need Congress to declare war. The Bill of Rights is treated as a sort of nostalgic, quaint document.
I remember a time when politicians would tell you exactly what their point of view was and you would either vote for them or you wouldn’t. When they went into Congress, they usually did what they said they were going to do.
Now, the assumption that a candidate should tell the truth is shrugged off and the subject of amusement. The bigger the lie is, the more support people give to it, apparently. As Goering said, the big lie wins. There are a lot of things that Hitler had initiated in running his empire that have been implemented in ours.
You told me something one time when you were wearing an American flag pin. I had an American flag pin on my jacket. Some people who were opposed to the war or the Bush administration said, “Why are you wearing that flag?” I decided a long time ago that that flag belongs to me; it doesn’t belong to the government or George Bush or the war makers. It’s my flag, and I’m not going to surrender it to them just because they misuse it.