BY MIKE HALE
The words that hover around Bruce Conner — avant-garde, experimental, collage, Beat, artist — aren’t likely to get the average moviegoer out the door and into a theater seat. Neither is the title of the current Film Forum retrospective devoted to him, “Bruce Conner: The Art of Montage.” But there is no reason for anyone to dread the two alternating programs of Conner shorts, 70 and 75 minutes long. There is plenty of pure pleasure to be had from these films, for the eye and the heart as well as for the brain.
The tributes to Mr. Conner on the occasion of his death in 2008 spelled out his significance as sculptor, filmmaker and draftsman. On this occasion it seems sufficient to point out the aching, unsettling beauty of “Valse Triste” and “Take the 5:10 to Dreamland,” sepia-toned dreamscapes that refer to his Midwestern upbringing; the cool abandon of “Breakaway,” the proto-music video featuring a young Toni Basil; and the humor mixed with longing in the stops and starts of the extended striptease “Marilyn Times Five.”
Meanwhile, the more famous exercises in rapid-fire montage, like “A Movie” and “America Is Waiting,” with their politically suggestive juxtapositions, look a little dated. “Crossroads” still resonates because its repeated slow-motion images of a hydrogen bomb test in the South Pacific, seen from every angle and elevation, are simply gorgeous; it seems impossible to turn away from them.
Most accessible, and perhaps most moving, is “The White Rose,” near the beginning of Film Forum’s Program A. It stands out for having actually been filmed by Mr. Conner rather than assembled from found footage. Documenting the removal, by chainsaw and crane, of the notorious painting “The Rose” from the apartment of the artist Jay DeFeo in San Francisco in 1967, the black-and-white film, jazzy yet deeply melancholy, anticipates the work of Bruce Weber 20 years later.
The huge canvas is never seen whole. Looming over the Bekins movers or spread out on the apartment floor, it resembles the “2001” monolith or a corpse lying in state. Ms. DeFeo lies on the painting like a lover, then sits alone by the hole where her window used to be, watching it go. Helped by Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” on the soundtrack, this is as powerful an evocation of love and loss as Hollywood has ever given us.