BY AARON CUTLER
A naked woman performs a striptease as fireworks burst. Mickey Mouse, looking off-screen left, shoots goo from one of his eyes while Minnie scowls. The end of the reel rolls. Then a close-up of the girl, breast to butt, with a bright lollipop of lights above her. A diagram of egg-like teeth appears with "No brushing" shown upside-down. Another reel starts. The upright lady dances, more fireworks. Reel end. She's totally naked, and we can see all the sweet spots. Another reel mark, with a countdown. Soldiers march to war. Reel mark. Breasts, hand, and waist. Reel mark. Breasts and hair. Reel mark. The boys plant the flag at Iwo Jima. Breasts. Reel mark. Soldiers. Fireworks. Ray Charles, singing "What'd I Say" on the soundtrack, moans.
The first thing that you have to do with a Bruce Conner movie is figure out what you're watching. As this sequence from Conner's 1961 film Cosmic Ray progresses, soldiers marching before Mickey looks at wilting cartoon cannons before the dancing gal appears with a skull over her crotch, you get the idea that the film is about sex, in a way that simultaneously raises the flag and topples it. Conner tweaked the sex drive a lot. Consider a sequence from 1958's A Movie: A man looks through a periscope, sees Marilyn Monroe in a bikini, and fires a torpedo. Or consider the whole of Marilyn Times Five, in which a Monroe impersonator fondles a Coke bottle while "I'm Through with Love" plays over and over, in a film that prolongs the male gaze until the eyes tire.
It's true that some of Conner's most famous films show pseudo-cheesecake spectacles of twirling girls. But Conner, who died in 2008 after 50 years of filmmaking, tweaked many drives. His oeuvre, the subject of a 17-film, two-program show running for two weeks at Film Forum, offers multiple levels of enjoyment, and not just because in films like 1966's Breakaway the dancer writhes so energetically as to outrace even Conner's sense of irony. Born in Wichita in 1933, he escaped to join an emerging arts scene in San Francisco during the Beat era of the late 1950s. Some of his first major artworks were nylon-encased three-dimensional assemblages that featured dolls, fur, feathers, dog tags, and a healthy heap of disorientation. The question loomed: How seriously should audiences take this stuff?
Totally and not at all, both at once. In a sculpture like 1960's St. Valentine's Day Massacre/Homage to Errol Flynn, Conner created critical distance through physical distance—feathers prominently blocking images of half-naked girls and preventing the viewer from seeing the whole picture, which the cracked mirrors suggest is irretrievable anyway. When Conner turned from three-dimensional assemblage to film assemblage, he replaced the physical relation between objects with a temporal relation between images. What had once been a mirror placed strategically near a girl now became a cut from a soldier to a dame.
Conner prized the odds and ends of movies, literally. He tried and failed to obtain Hollywood studio prints, then found a bunch of chopped-up reel markers and B-movie outtakes and edited them together into the matter of A Movie—plane and car crashes, a Teddy Roosevelt speech, Indian uprisings, war deaths, elephant hunts, shivering natives, and a scuba dive into ancient ruins, all scored to Respighi's triumphant Pines of Rome. The obscenely long opening director's credit (well over 30 seconds, in a 12-minute film) clues us into human intervention. If the artist can stand outside the material, it seems to say, so can the viewer.
A title card flashes "The End" between Conner's name and the found footage. This is a joke, Conner claiming the movie like conquering governments claim nations, but it's also a statement on how most films are finished (dead) before the viewer's seen them. Whether through music, through editing, or through the viewer's awareness of the author, Conner tried to keep life in his art by pointing to the world outside the screen.
This was certainly the case with 1967's Report, a film about the JFK assassination. Conner couldn't acquire footage of the actual death, which works to the movie's advantage. The more he repeats a close-up shot of the Dallas motorcade, the more aware we grow of what's coming, which we finally hear on the newscast soundtrack playing over a reel countdown: "It's official now. The president is dead." Prior to that, we've seen an intense black-and-white flicker that stabilizes only once we are told that Kennedy's body has been picked up. Several critics have claimed that this flicker mirrors a dying man's fading consciousness, but it also has the much more intriguing effect of booting us out of the narrative: We can't watch Kennedy anymore, because there's nothing left to see. The film tries to return to the motorcade, but the image stays stuck on repeat. Report then simultaneously moves backward and forward, to images of a living Kennedy at ceremonial functions and of his funeral procession, with the voiceover switched from news of his death to his Dallas arrival. Meanwhile, a matador stabs a bull, and a light bulb shatters; footage of the Bride of Frankenstein's creation alternates with JFK's American flag-draped coffin and TV commercial images of a housewife shilling soap. Melancholy fades in favor of anger, familiar televised images of the president's life and death transitioning to a final shot of an IBM girl hitting a button: SELL.
It's impossible to do justice to Report's dense interplay of images, nor to the way those images interact with the soundtrack—"the gunmetal gray" of the motorcade car with a policeman carrying Oswald's sniper rifle, a description of Air Force One's doors opening with a cheesy ad of a full refrigerator opening offering food. The film unveils Kennedy as a commercial product. In intricate, carefully sustained fashion, the 13-minute film moves from elegy to "fuck this."
Conner was a "fuck this" artist, not just for savage cultural criticism lightly guised as celebration, but because of the myriad ways in which he offered it, shifting style as soon as it bored him. His early found-footage assemblies—A Movie, Cosmic Ray, and Report—distinguished him as an avant-gardist (they're the three Conner films in Anthology Film Archives's Essential Cinema collection), but he changed his game once he saw imitators. The year of Report's completion, 1967, also saw The White Rose, an original-footage film Conner shot on occasion of the removal of a friend's painting from her loft. A Miles Davis piece plays as workers dismantle it, successive shots showing it carried out hunk by hunk. While the success of the assemblage films lies primarily in editing, this film's greatest achievement is its lighting: Workers, almost completely shadowed, tearing down a wall of stunning white.
Conner's later films aren't as sexy as his earlier ones, nor typically as funny—though 1978's Mongoloid, in which a Devo song about a high-functioning office worker with Down's Syndrome plays over '50s sci-fi movie footage, proves a hoot. But many are as dense, in a more lyrical, less overtly dialectical way. Valse Triste, from 1978, glides from a boy dreaming, to train wheels turning, to a worker pushing coal, to a globe spinning, to clouds passing, to sheep grazing, to a truck driving toward Kansas, to farmer and son burning straw, to wife folding a sheet, to a flower blooming, to a model opening her coat on a fashion show runway, to an office worker staring at a train photo, to a real train churning, to a paper boy bicycling, to kids crossing a small town street, to a troupe of ladies stretching their legs, to an unattended hose spraying the ground, to a farm family gathering, to rocks falling, to a train driving fast, to a train slowing, then stopping, to a black screen, to cars leaving town, to a sign with stars and stripes, a bald eagle, and THE END, all sepia-tinted, all set to Sibelius. Why not?
Perhaps because it's limiting. Conner's consistently musical films are celebrated as precursors to music videos ("MTV should have paid him royalties," Manohla Dargis wrote after his death), but for all the rewards the juxtaposition of sound and image can provide, they can also have the unfortunate consequence of fixing meanings. The intricate multiple screen-score relations in Report offset the (admittedly pleasurable) literal-mindedness of Breakaway's title song accompanying a woman's dance. The beautiful Terry Riley and Patrick Gleeson scores that Conner used for many of his later films, like Looking for Mushrooms and Easter Morning, can overwhelm them. The slowed-down images in these films—a mushroom hunt, flowers smeared to look like stained glass, a naked woman in a room—live in the quotidian domain of Conner's avant-garde peer Stan Brakhage, who generally disdained sound. The frequent result with Brakhage (and it helped that he and his wife were fine camera operators) was that their images escaped commentary. Conner and Brakhage can both masterfully explore how perception works; the difference between the two, perhaps, is that one teaches the audience how to read, the other how to see. But ditch the quibbles. Conner's films are still essential.