SF EXAMINER | Film study of an atomic mushroom


Friday, March 26, 1976, THE ARTS, pg. 25

There seems to be no bounds to Bruce Conner’s vision. The noted San Francisco artist, who works both as a painter and film-maker is one of our most tirelessly creative experimentalists and proves it again in his latest film, “Crossroads,” a poetic study of the mushroom-cloud formations of an atomic bomb.

It is Conner’s most eccentrically imaginative work – a 36-minute, black-and-white mood piece, which is, in effect, an awesome and fearsome poem to a nuclear explosion.

I’m not sure it will please everybody, including those who count themselves among Conner’s fans. But it’s worth looking at next week in premiere showings scheduled Tuesday (7:30 p.m.) at the S.F. Museum of Modern Art and Thursday (8:30p.m.) at the S.F. Art Institute. The same program featuring other works by Conner, will have a third showing on Wednesday, April 7 (9:30 p.m.), at the Pacific Film Archive, UC Berkeley.

“Crossroads” is exceptional not just for the subject matter but for the use Conner made of government footage of the first underwater atomic-bomb test at Bikini Atoll on July 25, 1946. The event was photographed by cameras of the Air Force, Navy and Atomic Energy Commission from 27 different vantage points. The test area was dotted with 90 retired warships that saw service in World War II for Japan and the United States. 

From some 7 1/2 hours of film that was declassified and placed in the National Archive, Conner chose 2 1/2 hours and got permission to bring back the footage from Washington for his project.

“I studied it and played around with it for a year,” said Conner. “It was all a matter of editing and adding sound.”

The American Film Institute financed the film with a $10,000 grant. Conner got Patrick Gleeson to create realistic sound effects (wind, water, explosion, etc.) on a Moog Synthesizer. He then commissioned Terry Riley to compose a background score of electric-organ music.

The work is richly atmospheric, even brutally beautiful in its relentless examination of the mushroom cloud exploding from the sea with unaccountable destructive force. 

One does, however, question Conner’s near-obsession with the explosion, which is seen again and again until the repetition becomes an indulgence.

I asked the film-maker why he’d repressed any political comment. No strong message is communicated, such ad the effect of the bomb on the warships. The Saratoga, for example, was sunk in the test, but her destruction isn’t shown.

Conner conceded that he was carried away with the beauty of the mushroom cloud. “There was enough footage of the ships for a whole other film,” he said. “Maybe I’ll make it one day.”

The 42-year-old artist, who has worked in San Francisco since 1956, has another new film, “Take the 5:10 to Dreamland,” for the program.

The 6-minute piece is a whimsical abstraction with soundtrack music by Patrick Gleeson. 

Conner is also showing what he calls “a cinema sculpture” – a 12-minute stop-frame study of events in Dallas entitled “Television Assassination.” Which he shot from a TV set at the time of President Kennedy’s and Oswald’s double slaying.