BY MANOHLA DARGIS
Bruce Conner's ecstatic films — fabricated from bits of old documentaries and educational reels, from mass-cultural snips and snails and recycled movie tales — were at once salvage projects and assertions of individuality in an increasingly anonymous age. In their modest way (modesty, in this case, being less a virtue than a worldview), they were acts of resistance, an aesthetic rejoinder to a world drowning in its own image. Just as important, they are generally a blast — witty, exuberant, despairing, engaged, apocalyptic
As it happens, a real blast figures large in his most famous film, “A Movie,” which was also made under a (mushroom) cloud in 1958, the year a B-47 lost a hydrogen bomb off the coast of Georgia and a second B-47 accidentally dropped an atom bomb in South Carolina. (No one was killed, but yikes.) There are jokey sections in “A Movie,” funny if sinister laughs, but mostly there are found-footage wipeouts and crashes, firing guns and dropping bodies and that very big bomb. An elephant dies, and Mussolini shows up dead. As a chronicle of the first half of the 20th century, the film takes you down, down, down, even as its kinetic editing brings you up, up, up.
Mr. Conner, who died on Monday at 74 after a long illness, made some two dozen films. Even if you think you’ve never seen any of them — “A Movie,” “Cosmic Ray,” “Report,” “Mongoloid” — you probably have, if only by proxy, because of their influence and cultural dispersion. (Generally short, they make for friendly viewing, if deeper thinking, which is why they show up in college courses.) Dennis Hopper has said that the editing of “Easy Rider,” his wiggy 1969 generational cri de coeur, was directly influenced by Mr. Conner. For better and sometimes worse, scores of other filmmakers in both the avant-garde and the commercial mainstream have been influenced by Mr. Conner’s shocking juxtapositions and propulsive, rhythmically sophisticated montage. MTV should have paid him royalties.
Mr. Conner was already a critically recognized assemblage artist when he turned to cinema in his mid-20s. In his hands film became an extension of assemblage and, arguably, an elaboration. Where once he used physical detritus like scraps of lace and junk to make art, he now used old Hollywood movies, newsreels and stock footage. Where once his materials included nylon stockings, they now included a clip of Marilyn Monroe (or a lookalike). Mr. Conner used that Marilyn image early in “A Movie” for a startling sequence that features a man peering through a periscope, a submarine discharging a torpedo, and an exploding nuclear bomb. With a few deft edits, he transformed innocuous cheesecake into a disquieting riff on annihilation.
Somewhat paradoxically, while Mr. Conner liked to say that an inspiration for “A Movie” was the Marx Brothers’ comedy “Duck Soup,” even this teenage favorite had its dark lining. “There’s a war going on,” he explained to an interviewer in 1976, “and Groucho tells Harpo that we need help, and he runs out and puts a ‘Help Wanted’ sign on the front of the building. Then you start seeing all these tanks, and airplanes, and soldiers, and porpoises, and giraffes — I don’t know — all sorts of creatures and things rushing to help them.” He added, “After that I started thinking about all the things I could stick together in a sequence like that: elephants running, trains blowing up, cars going, cars crashing, and so on and so forth.”
It wasn’t all crashes, wipeouts and dead presidents. (His 1963-67 film “Report” explores the image-exploitation of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.) His 1966 “Breakaway,” for instance, features his original footage of the singer and choreographer Antonia Christina Basilotta, a k a Toni Basil, dancing dressed and undressed, in forward and backward motion, to her rendition of the catchy song of the title. (“I’m gonna breakaway, breakaway from the everyday.”) On one level, the black-and-white film recalls Eadweard Muybridge’s early motion studies — Ms. Basil’s joy in her own physicality is glorious — but it’s particularly self-conscious and liberated. In contrast to Muybridge’s subjects, she looks as if she’s having the time of her life, her hair whipping and body thrashing in perfect harmony with Mr. Conner’s staccato and strobe-like editing. She’s a different kind of explosion.