BY STEVE DOLLAR
"Even 'Rocky' got a montage!" belted the singing puppets of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's "Team America: World Police."
Messrs. Parker and Stone were dishing some astute criticism of generic blockbusters, in the guise of a politically incorrect prank. But the satire of Hollywood tropes had nothing on Bruce Conner. The San Francisco filmmaker, visual artist, sculptor and music-video pioneer (1933-2008) made only a couple dozen short, experimental films in his 74 years. But they were terrifically influential in their brilliant, subversive use of—you got it—montage.
Conner was an epic poet and philosopher of the form, turning the very concepts of "epic" and "form" inside out. His 1958 film "A MOVIE" rearranges all manner of celluloid artifacts—Westerns, atomic-bomb documentaries, industrial and educational films, bachelor party smokers —into a running gag on narrative arcs and an X-ray scan of American pop consciousness. It's like a 12-minute riff on Susan Sontag's 1965 essay "The Imagination of Disaster," caroming back and forth between "unremitting banality and inconceivable terror." Except: Its visual collision of bikini models, Indians on the warpath, mushroom clouds and zeppelins in flames is edgier and funnier, no less for being set to Respighi's "The Pines of Rome."
This landmark joins more than 20 other films in "Bruce Conner: The Art of Montage," a career retrospective that presents a body of work in two separate programs. The films anticipate so much—MTV, obviously, and decades of cannily edited advertising and art-world irony—that to watch them now, in a sequence, can feel as revelatory as a bout of deja vu. They've become part of the very panorama they observed. "Cosmic Ray," from 1961, might be the greatest five-minute film of all time. Set to the rollicking R&B of Ray Charles's "What I'd Say," the piece deconstructs grainy black-and-white footage of a go-go dancer taking it all off (and putting it on, and taking it off). It's a rhapsody in monotone. And a pace-setter.
Conner's intimate relationship with music animates many of these films. His association with punk-era conceptualists DEVO and David Byrne made explicit his forecasting of the rock video. Conner's affection for reappropriating the imagery of big science, TV commercials and the military-industrial complex was a ready-made amplification of the social commentary lurking beneath the poker-faced chill and jerky rhythms of "Mongoloid" and Mr. Byrne and Brian Eno's "America Is Waiting."
Conner's formative experiences on the scene in late-1950s San Francisco made him an adoptive Beat figure, and his fascination with visual looping and repetition made him a natural associate of minimalist composer Terry Riley, whose compositions inspired Conner's work on paper and canvas, and accompany such latter-day efforts as the mycological travelog "Looking for Mushrooms" and "Easter Morning."
"Easter Morning," the filmmaker's finale, completed before his death two summers ago, revisits a favorite image—mushroom clouds blooming forth from atomic bomb explosions—and assorted others in a kind of greatest-hits parade. The ecstatic oscillations of Mr. Riley's organ improvisations radiate, then fade away with the final flicker.