FILM CULTURE | Three Films by Bruce Conner

BY CARL I. BELZ

No. 44, Spring 1967, pgs. 56-59

 Bruce Conner, REPORT (1963-1967, 16mm, b&w/sound, 13min), © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, California

Bruce Conner, REPORT (1963-1967, 16mm, b&w/sound, 13min), © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, California

The experimental film movement in the United States – a reality for over two decades – has, until recently, remained a largely underground phenomenon. For the inquiring spectator who sought more than the routine fare of Hollywood and/or European “art” products, the opportunities to view this underground cinema were few and far between. With regard to such sporadic viewing, the situation has not changed dramatically, although multiplying film groups within the colleges and universities suggest increasingly favorable circumstances for screenings. The award, in 1964, of twelve grants by the Ford Foundation for the experimental film medium seems to have enhanced the growing public awareness of this idiom. However, this growing recognition of an avant-garde cinema will undoubtedly be accompanied by growing problems of a historical and critical nature as well. The relationships between contemporary painting or sculpture and cinema is such a problem. The relationship is actually suggested by the artists themselves, especially individuals like Bruce Conner who, during the past five years, has made contributions of dramatic significance to both media.

Recipient of one of the Ford grants, Conner is best known to the art world for his assemblage constructions and, in cinema, for three works: A MOVIE, COSMIC RAY, and REPORT. The latter film, produced with the Ford funds, deals with the Kennedy assassination. All three films, however, are closely related to Conner’s work in assemblage. They draw their inspiration from the world of contemporary realities and issues: not only Kennedy, but in general death, violence, sex, and destruction. Like his objects, Conner’s films constantly weave the current issues with elements of a more nostalgic cast: film-clips from an old western, a snapshot of Jean Harlow, any material which might be found in the trim bin or an old suitcase. Consistent too is Conner’s humor: a combination of grim satire and morbid irony. No subject is immune to this humor: the former president, the newscaster, the church, the state. Like his objects, Conner’s films present a severe challenge to any kind of traditional formal analysis. First viewings give the impression that a number of pre-existing clips have simply been thrown together in almost random fashion, or that the work has somehow grown organically. Within any one work, whether film or object, the various parts intersect one another and rupture the separate identities of individual elements. But these apparently brutal combinations and juxtapositions also enable Conner to liberate any single item from an existence on only one level, whether formal or contextual. The result is a highly fluid work to which additional parts could seemingly be grafted or even eliminated. Conner’s art contains no straight lines and nothing predictable in the sense of self-conscious “good design.” The works seem always to be in the state of becoming or growing bigger and more powerful. 

Despite the apparent non-formality of Conner’s films, we would be overlooking a fundamental aspect of his cinema contribution if we were to dismiss this side of his art. The format concerns of the medium never become ends in themselves, but Conner seems aware of them to the extent that their manipulation constantly intensifies the personal statement of content. Of paramount concern with regard to the medium per se is Conner’s awareness of the screen as an isolated thing. He rarely permits the screen to function illusionistically as a window device. In COSMIC RAY, he emphasizes this limitation of the medium by so cramming the screen with flashing images that the eye is hardly permitted to roam to any imaginary off-screen space. In both A MOVIE and REPORT, Conner reminds the viewer of the artificiality of the medium by projecting words or numbers onto the screen. Again and again the title A MOVIE BY BRUCE CONNER punctuates the film just as the leader numbers, “10, 9, 8, 7, etc.” constitute an entire section of REPORT.  Such devices seem to prohibit the spectator from becoming absorbed in the pictures as subjects alone. Conner’s ability to make the screen a physical thing is nowhere more apparent than in REPORT in which he includes a section, about four or five minutes long, of “blank” footage. Of course, the screen is never actually “blank,” as a constant grey flutter vibrates upon it throughout the entire sequence. This flickering effect is so intense and so rapid that it can create a literally painful response in the viewer, at the same-time causing a dizzying or hypnotic effect as with an alpha wave phenomenon. For the viewer who endures this machine gun flashing of grays, the screen may actually glow or vibrate into space, like an object charged by some powerful, yet mysterious, magnetic force. REPORT further emphasizes Conner’s “on-screen” orientation by its constant repetition of images. In other words, he takes one second of footage – for instance, an excerpt of the passing Kennedy limousine – and repeats it from eight or ten times without interruption. Consequently, what was originally a panning camera sequence becomes, with this editing, something radically different. A fragment of illusionistic movement has actually been arrested, isolated, and pinned upon a two-dimensional surface.

Conner’s filmic sensibilities are again apparent in his sheer ability to see and make visual relationships. His thorough understanding of montage enables him to produce numerous visual gags: a periscope sequence form an old war film brackets the view of a sparsely clad woman and concludes with the firing of the torpedo. A MOVIE also contains the richest store of visually related objects and sequences. In the very beginning of the film, for example, a series of objects are projected directly at the viewer: a band of cowboys and Indians, an elephant, a racing car; a second section relates floating or falling objects: a blimp, a tightrope walker, a parachute jumper. But for this writer, one of the most provocative sequences occurred at the conclusion of A MOVIE when the elliptical form of a burning blimp is juxtaposed to an underwater sequence of sunfish, and these sections are interlocked with a quick look at a beaver and a disarmingly similar view of a skin diver. Each of these sections underscore Conner’s visual acuteness: shapes, movements, speeds, and even identities are connected to provide a broad panorama of optical variety and insight. A further index of Conner’s understanding of the formal problems of film making lies in his use of the soundtrack. In each film he employs a pre-existing score: for A MOVIE the track consists of Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” for COSMIC RAY it is Ray Charles’ “What Did I Say,” and for REPORT he uses the actual radio broadcast describing Kennedy’s arrival, motorcade, and assassination. In each work Conner achieves a remarkable synthesis of sound and picture although he never violates what might be called the integrity of either element. If the music – whether actually “musical” or otherwise – was created as a self-contained entity, the films seem to match this independence of structure: There exist moments when sound and picture appear synchronized: the climactic portions of the Respighi piece coincide with similarly dramatic sections in A MOVIE; the Ray Charles lyrics more then once refer to specific moments on the screen; and we actually see many of the events which the newscaster describes in REPORT. But such passages of tightly synchronized sound and images are rare within the totality of any one film. As often as he matches these elements Conner contrasts them: as the caisson rolls away from the Capitol we are told this is “one of those impromptu moments for which the President has become known"; and as the broadcast describes the route of the presidential motorcade so that everyone can be in the “proper location,” the camera stops motion on Oswald. Always, however, Conner matches the total aesthetics of sound and picture in such a way that the two exist as parallel but separate realities. Behind the moments of synchronization and ironic contrast lies an understanding of the content of both sound and picture: Conner penetrates the feeling of Ray Charles and the picture presents in its own terms all of the funky rhythms, the gritty sexiness and the raw emotion of the rocking song.

The above discussion should serve to suggest that Bruce Conner, in terms of the formal and structural problems of film making alone, is an artist of the highest order within contemporary American Cinema. In other words, the artistic problems raised by his films stand comparison with the most adventurous experiments of other artists both within and outside the medium. Unlike other ”experimental” film artists – for instance Kenneth Anger or Stan Brakhage – Conner’s art builds on the discoveries of contemporary expression in general. He avoids completely the now trite vocabulary of Surrealism and abstraction, as well as the heavy-handed symbolism and fetishistic devices which still seem to plague so much current work. 

The mention of contemporary media apart form cinema might well provoke, in Conner’s case, thoughts of Pop Art. Brian O’Dohery has in fact called COSMIC RAY a “Pop Art masterpiece.” A masterpiece it may well be, but it is questionably, and at best, peripherally, Pop. In the first place, Conner is only occasionally interested in overt Pop materials: the TV ad of a young woman opening a new refrigerator in REPORT, a section of an early Mickey Mouse cartoon in COSMIC RAY, or a similarly dated excerpt from a Hopalong Cassidy western in A MOVIE. But more significant in this regard is his eschewal of Pop’s deadpan and aloof stance. The use of discarded materials from the nostalgic-past, whether post cards or film clips, gives the work a partially campy look; but the statements into which such items are incorporated are always more direct and ferocious, more engaged with the subject then is camp’s suave elegance.

Just how aggressive Conner’s films are might be better revealed by examining the content of the individual works. Of the three, A MOVIE offers the least ambiguous statement of content. Here Conner presents death, destruction, and violence on a cosmic scale: the film clips skip to practically every corner of the globe and include almost every type of human and natural catastrophe. It is as if he takes the old notion of earth, air, fire and water as the basic elements and then presents physical chaos in terms of each. Racing cars crash in the dust, planes catapult from the sky, water skiers spill over and over, a great blimp or plane bursts into flames and tumbles to the earth. By the latter stages of the film, the carnage mounts to undeniable proportions, and it is here that Conner returns to the water imagery which was earlier anticipated by the falling skiers and the submarine sequence that produced the great mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb. The final shots take the viewer under water with the beaver-blimp-sunfish-skindiver sequence already mentioned. In this section, the beaver appears like some unknown creature, mysterious and unidentifiable. When the diver then appears, he too assumes some of the features of the unknown and unfathomable. The diver finally sinks into the wreckage of an encrusted ship, and the film closes with a simple shot of light flickering upon the surface of the water. It seems that the totality of destructive forces, by earth, air, fire, or water, has led us back to a strange and unknown world, a kind of primordial stuff with neither shape nor identity. Man and matter seem to dissolve into that shapeless fluidity of the basic and elemental, the stuff which preceded creation. So Conner’s theme in A MOVIE is violence, destruction and death, and the film documents a kind of reversal of the evolutionary process. The style of the film equals the rawness of the subjects themselves. Conner cuts sharply to produce a highly accelerated visual pace, subjects existing on the screen only long enough to explode, crash or die. But the style – the structure and editing of the material – does not moralize such subjects. The world presented is certainly not an attractive one; its chaos is hardly mollified when man’s self destruction is presented with morbid humor. The film, however, does not pass judgement on the events it documents: unlike a film such as MONDO CANE it does not point a finger of bogus accusation at the “haves” by juxtaposing them with the “have-nots.” A MOVIE powerfully, convincingly and consistently depicts an aspect of the modern world, but it leaves the viewer to conclude what is his own relationship to this world and how he feels about it. Conner’s personal stance remains open. In fact, he presents the subjects of destruction with a sense of editorial verve and dramatic pace that might be thought to actually make them attractive. They are, in any event, visually exciting in their presentation and, perhaps in this, Conner is saying something about our own ambivalent response to catastrophe. This avoidance of moralistic axe-grinding enables the work to exist on different contextual levels and to create an impact for any open-minded viewer despite the latter’s personal stand on the issues cited.

COSMIC RAY, only four minutes long, is less “issue-oriented” than either A MOVIE or REPORT, although guns, soldiers, and the rape of war are used. Even more than A MOVIE, COSMIC RAY seems like a reckless collage of fast moving parts; cosmic strips, dancing girls, flashing lights. It is the dancing girl – hardly dressed, stripping, or nude – which provides the leitmotiv for the film. Again and again she appears – sandwiched between soldiers, guns, and even death in the form of a skull positioned between her legs. And if the statement equates sex with destruction, the cataclysm is a brilliant one, like an exploding firecracker, and one which ends the world with a cosmic bang. Of curse, the title also refers to musician Ray Charles whose art Conner visually transcribes onto film; however, he does not satirize this music or look upon it condescendingly as does Kenneth Anger in SCORPIO RISING. The film interprets Charles’ sound as a potent reality, tough and penetrating in its ability to affect some pretty basic animal instincts. But if such is the content of the film – that much of our behavior consists of beastiality – the work as a whole stands as insight rather than indictment. Conner isn’t complaining. COSMIC RAY’S world is at once nasty and alluring, death-tinged and yet alive with a driving spontaneity.

Death, of course, is very pointedly the theme of the Kennedy film. In many ways REPORT is the most formal of Conner’s productions. At the same time, it is perhaps the most difficult to come to grips with, dealing as it does with a subject still “touchy” and highly ambitious. The first half or two-thirds of REPORT is, in a manner of speaking, “empty” cinema. Herein are contained the sections of “blank” footage and the repeating leader numbers. This use of repetitious, beating images is also imposed upon the newsreel sections as already cited. In combination with the sound track – the arrival of the President, the description of the motorcade, the assassination and death – these passages begin to assume dramatic import. The section of “blank” footage occurs, for instance, just after “something has happened” to the motorcade and during the chaotic and foggy moments which followed. In other words, as the “live” action vanished into a veil of unknowable disorder, the visual material likewise blanks out. The newscaster’s words “something has happened” then take on multiple implications. As the flashing grays persist upon the screen, people in the audience actually begin to wonder if “something has happened," not only to the President, but to the film itself. With such a device, Conner seems to bring the film experience directly into the viewing audience, much as the pulsating screen seems to breathe and expand into the spectator’s space. The vibrations may even assume the function of a visual pun, however ironic, in the way they suggest a heartbeat rhythm – of the viewer, the newscaster, of a dying man. The same interpretation might be suggested for the sequence of numbers, during which the narration tells that the death is official.

Conner’s use of repetition might be viewed in other ways. On a superficial level they might provoke the sensation of visual boredom, hum-drum repetition with little or no letup. On such a level the aesthetic might be thought to match the aesthetic of “life” as it existed in the few days after the assassination: that is, when living quite literally stopped, when it fell into a day and night cycle of waiting, watching, grief, and perhaps even boredom. Ordinary functions and entertainments like radio and television halted their usual programming and gave themselves over to this cycle of monotonous description of death events. These were days which seem to have been “made” for Conner’s personal orientation and aesthetic, and he fully capitalizes upon them with the driving, incessant, dirge-like rhythm of REPORT. This level of interpretation should not imply that the repetitious sections are in fact boring. Quite the contrary seems true since the “blank” screen is actually alive with constant activity – not only the incessant flashing, but the fabric of the screen itself with its spots and textures, elements, in other words, which literally change in each place the film is projected. Furthermore, with the blank screen and repeating numbers a rather powerful tension mounts as the viewer anticipates “something happening” or “about to happen,” as if to ask when will the real film resume. Such sections of REPORT seem to bear comparison with certain attitudes in contemporary painting, especially the aesthetic of Warhol’s Pop, though certainly in spite of their obvious differences in both content and subject. In the latter’s 100 CANS OF CAMPBELL’S SOUP and BLACK AND WHITE DISASTER paintings, as well as in the SLEEP or KISS films, we see that the same kind of superficial “boredom” appears and indirectly forces the viewer to look further, longer and harder for what the differences in the individual images, however subtle, actually are. In view of this approach, we can again underscore Conner’s interest in visual problems and in seeing, and again his assemblage objects are brought into focus. For the latter likewise demand close scrutiny, revealing a buried thread or splinter as the eye moves past larger and more apparent forms. A final suggestion might be made regarding the use of repeating images, in particular those which are representational, that is, the newsreels. When the Kennedy limousine comes toward the camera again and again, but doesn’t pass, Conner really seems to be suggesting a new kind of time structure. The film seems to be pushing, or trying to push time back, to resist its passage, to detain the movements and the course of events, perhaps to even suggest what Eisenstein suggested in the famous Odessa Steps sequence, that under conditions of tremendous emotional strain time does change, that seconds become minutes and minutes hours. The sheer frustration of these passages becomes at times poignantly and ironically expressive, as when Jacqueline Kennedy tries five or six times to enter the car and accompany the dead body of her husband to the airport. In the last third of the film Conner accelerates his piercing satire and ironic humor. The soundtrack here moves back to the beginning of the day in Dallas and the visual images begin to roam afield – to a bull fight, a TV advertisement, a crowd of protestors, Kennedy’s audience with the Pope, a sequence of circus animals. It is here that Kennedy’s “impromptu” movements into the crowd and the newscaster’s directions for being in the “right location” occur. Similarly ironic combinations include: the falling bull while we hear that the secret service has taken every precaution; a description of the President’s steak dinner while we see the dead bull in the center of the arena; words like “the police are trying to keep the people from the fence” (at the airport) while we view some clips of machine-gun fire from an old war film; or finally, “the police are forcing the first couple away from the crowd” – words combined with a short scene of a lion and tiger, within a cage, being driven from the bars with a large and powerful water hose. It seems impossible to isolate precisely what their different identities and cross references might imply. An acid with seems apparent, but like the content of A MOVIE or COSMIC RAY Conner maintains an aura of ambiguity that allows his material multiple interpretations, as even the title suggests several references. This ambiguity seems in fact to be in the nature of the world he presents, as the President, for instance, in one moment here, the proud matador, and in the next he becomes the beast at the mercy of an anonymous crowd. Moralizations seem to be beside the point; Conner documents, in such a way, and with however much grotesqueness, satire, and irony, what could be said to have “really” happened. In the case of REPORT his art deals as much with the spectator as with any external subject. 

We might suggest in conclusion, and in view of all three films, that Conner stands as a kind of twentieth century Peter Breughel. For like the great Flemish master he distorts the visible world in order to penetrate a reality of being rather than appearances; his vision is cosmic in breadth; he deals with some of the most provocative issues, both artistic and otherwise, of his time; and finally, with an evocative ambiguity and painful irony he touches something which we sometimes call the human experience.