ARTWEEK | Bruce Conner's New Films


April 3, 1976
Volume 7, Number 14

With the continuing democratization of the “nuclear club” on the international relations scene, perhaps it is only a matter of time before a few bombs fall into the itchy hands of some of our busy conceptual artists. You’ll have to admit that an atomic explosion would make a memorable happening (I’ll skip the opening, thank you), atmospheric sculpture or…something to wrap, by Christo! The artist who has come closest to seriously treating this material, this stuff of Armageddon, is Bruce Conner with his long-awaited new film Crossroads. As Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1934-36) was political theatre introducing the adamantine unity of Nazi Germany to the world, so was Operation: Crossroads America’s raised gauntlet to the postwar era. The U.S. Air Force photographed this first underwater Atomic Bomb Test at Bikini Atoll on July 25, 1946. The bomb is viewed from land-based cameras, aerial shots from drone airplanes, B-29’s and boats as it erupts in the center of ninety Japanese and United States warships…a sacrificial extravaganza marking the official death by firing squad of conventional warfare. Clips of this footage were given global visibility as the U.S. added the mushroom cloud (gris-rampant-dexter) to its heraldry. Like Triumph of the Will, it was one of history’s most expensive, effective and irrevocable screen commercials.

What Conner has done with this ominously gravid imagery is to give it meaningful shape and structure. In twenty-seven shots spanning thirty-six minutes, the multifold aspects of the event in space, time and energy are visually expressed perhaps for the first time. With his obsessive persistence, Conner ferreted out footage from the National Archives, much of which (after a generation) had to be declassified for his use. The first section of Crossroads is twelve minutes of successive views and angles of the detonation in normal speed. The nature of the event is such that it is equally awesome and unbelievable each time. The soundtrack of the bomb’s planetary reverberations was orchestrated by Patrick “ Gleeson on the Moog Synthesizer. “The Government,” reports Conner, “didn’t have any recordings of the blast. The recording devices of the time overloaded and couldn’t get it. In all the releases, for seven or eight years, they used fake sound, like thunder, to what people would expect it to sound like.”  Gleeson’s track is as much like the remembered real thing as is possible. I, for one, hope never to be able to tell the difference. 

The last twenty-four minutes evoke an elegiac majesty as slow motion takes are shown, with the cataclysm reaching skyward like a million mad Niagras in revolt. Terry Riley composed the numbing, ethereal score for this section on a Yamaha electric organ in a sixteen track recording. As the takes extend to super slow motion, the whole sense of the scale of the action comes into perception, which was never possible with the short clips we have all seen. The ships—they become cities, they become toys as they are inexorably engulfed in the glacial tsunami. The last, long scene, shot from eye/ground level, fills with the deadly radioactive mist which was Crossroads’ tactical triumph. Designed to be dropped in a harbor, like, say, San Francisco, it would kill all the people while leaving the important property unharmed. At this terminal stage of the movie, the very grain of the motion picture film executes a glowing Totentanz as it flickers and swims on the screen. 

Bruce Conner’s new short film, 5:10 to Dreamland, is a jewel-like collage film of the highest craftsmanship. As in his A Movie, it is constructed of footage found, kept and crystallized, whose original sources were from stock footage, newsreels and educational films. But what elevates these images is the choices of fragments and their liberation within Conner’s structuring of the work, Fleeting glimpses of such things as a woodland stream, a man’s face, a white rabbit, a moving plumb bob are connected and yet separated by dark hyphens of fade-out, blackness and fade-in. The scenes are innocent on the surface, but disturbingly evocative at heart. The bars of black leader become brief chambers of memory for those pictures that remind us of…something. We see a brief flash of a white radiator against a white wall. We return and hold as a girl slowly walks up to it carrying a white feather. She releases it above the radiator. The camera hypnotically tracks it as it levitates up the wall. Fade-out. In a cinematic form of magic realism, these sequences here exert visual meanings never permitted within the didactic contexts of the sci-ed film. The five minutes and ten seconds running time of the film is given a flow of psychic resonance by Patrick Gleeson’s music of haunting, glimmering chords which, indeed, track it to Dreamland.

Bruce Conner, one of the world’s best-known independent filmmakers (A Movie, 1958, Cosmic Ray, 1961, Report, 1963-67), had at one point given up filmmaking for printmaking because of the inordinate proportion of his time that increasingly evaporated in fundraising. Not the least of his efforts for Crossroads was the successful winning of grants from the American Film Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts to make this work possible. It is to our mutual good fortune that he is making movies again. 

Bruce Conner’s new films will have Bay Area exhibitions at the Canyon Cinematheque, San Francisco Art Institute, at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 1; at the Pacific Film Archive, University Art Museum, Berkeley, at 9:15 p.m. on Wednesday, April 7; and at the Oakland Museum at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, April 30.