BERKELEY BARB | Bruce Conner’s Yogic Study Of The Bomb


March 26, 1976, pg. 11

… It has been three years since Marilyn premiered. Conner returned to print-making for a while and last year collaborated with Photographer Edmond Shea on photo-print sculptural pieces entitled “Angels.”  During this time Conner scored an American Film Institute grant and he began a new project in collaboration with composers Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley. That film is Crossroads.

Crossroads is yet another contemplation on a post-WW II icon, the atomic bomb. Conner bases his film on government footage of the first underwater A-bomb test, July 25, 1946 at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. Five hundred cameras recorded the event from practically every angle and speeds ranging from normal to super slow motion. The first 12 minutes of the film are accompanied by Gleeson’s Moog synthesizer which acts more as sound effect rather than melodic score: bird calls, airplane drones, explosive bursts and roars. There is a break where two white lines intersect against black at right angles, forming a “crossroads” or crosshairs on a sight. 

Then the remaining 24 minutes are filled with more detailed shots of the blast and Terry Riley’s intricately woven performance on electric organ in a 16-track recording studio. Riley’s playing eschews sound effects and instead releases ever increasing concentric waves of melodic fragments as the sea erupts into that familiar death cloud mushroom image, graceful and awesome against the scale of battleships huddled like toys around the bomb site.

As the film went on I thought of Moby Dick and Melville’s contemplation of the great whale’s brow:  “Read it, if you can.” Reading the swirling configurations of this collusion between the scientific and the demonic is less revealing and humbling than looking into the face of Melville’s beast-deity creation. Knowing that this fascinating image – an elemental sculpture of time, water and mist which dwarfs anything done by such Earth-Work artists as Christo or Robert Smithson – was once dropped on humans causes the mind to repeat the mantra “Death. Death. Death.” with each frame.

Conner’s film is almost yogic, without any Eastern religious overtones, in it’s effect of meditative visualization. The bomb is like a great exhalation of man’s dichotomy of beauty and destruction. Riley’s music underscores this as it rides a time based on the breath. The bomb appears as a golem, a clay figure into which man has blown his breath, giving life itself. And like the golem the bomb has, for all purposes, gone out of control and became a terrifying force threatening the life of its creator. Crossroads invokes seemingly endless visual/mental/mythical connections as it unreels itself on the screen, sometimes looking like a charcoal study by Turner and at other times, one by Ryder.

Someone said after the screening that they thought the music made it “easier” to take and could have done without it. But I don’t think Conner was trying to make it difficult to “see” but more accessible. And the accessibility is heightened by Gleeson’s and Riley’s scores, creating a strata which can include the dichotomy mentioned earlier. The idea that art should be “difficult” in order to be serious is absurd. In fact it is time for it to move to the mainstream, as Ishmael Reed said. Conner has always been able to do this, even while pushing film into new areas of perception. It has been a quality that has marked most of San Francisco’s experimental filmmakers since the early Sixties.