SF SUNDAY EXAMINER & CHRONICLE | Bruce Conner — The Master of The Non-Narrative Movie


Sunday, March 28, 1976

BRUCE CONNER is a filmmaker who hasn't owned a movie camera in four or five years, but that hasn't prevented him from making two new films, one of which is a major masterpiece of the genre known variously as the non-narrative movie, the New American Cinema or the "underground."

"Crossroads," a 36-minute sound film based on images of an atomic bomb explosion, and "Take the 5:10 to Dreamland," a five-minute "short," will be publicly premiered at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in a program that will also include four of Conner's earlier films. The two new works will also be featured in programs at Canyon Cinematheque, 800 Chestnut Street, at 8:30 p.m. Thursday and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, at 9:30 p.m. April 7.

Like most of Conner’s earlier films — which include such “underground” classics as “Cosmic Ray,” “A Movie” and “Report” (based on the assassination of John F. Kennedy) — “Crossroads” is a moving “collage” of spliced and edited footage, although in this case of a highly unusual kind: Working with a grant from the American Film Institute, Conner gained access to film depicting the first underwater A-bomb test at Bikini in July, 1946, now housed at the National Archive in Washington. Much of it was declassified for his use. 

After viewing some four-and-a-half hours of footage, Conner obtained about two-and-a-half hours of reprinted film, spent six or seven months “looking at it over and over,” and assembled the “first draft” of his 36-minute film. Two sound tracks were composed — the first 12 minutes by Patrick Gleeson, on Moog synthesizer, the last 24-minute segment written and preformed in a 16-track recording by Terry Riley on electric organ. Then the film was re-cut to synchronize with the recorded sound.

For Conner, 36 minutes is virtually feature-length. His previous films, most of which have won prestigious art film awards and are included in major public and private collections, range from ten seconds to 13 minutes in length. But he has handled this epic scale as magnificently as he did the rapid-fire, fractured flicker rhythms of his earlier films. 

The same explosion is seen 27 different times — from the air, from boats and land-based cameras; distant and close-up; at normal speed, slow motion and super slow-motion. The opening segment emphasizes the awesome grandeur of the explosion — the destructiveness, as well as the dramatic spectacle and beauty — over an orchestration of “natural” sounds. Birds, airplane engines, the thunderous roar — sometimes delayed, sometimes immediate — of the detonation itself.

As the repetition builds, however, the explosion is gradually removed from the realm of historic phenomena, assuming the dimensions of a universal, cosmic force. And in the film’s second section — which emphasizes slowly flowing white clouds and vapors rather than the explosion itself, over Riley’s mantra-like sound track — this force is brought into a kind of cosmic harmony, part of the lyrically indifferent ebb and flow of life that one sees in a lingering, elegiac view of the ocean, a ship slowly moving into view across the rippling water, with which the film ends. 

In some ways, the evolution represented in “Crossroads” seems to parallel the artistic metamorphosis of Conner himself, who first gained recognition in the late ‘50’s as one of the most horrific of San Francisco’s “funk” artists. A native of Kansas City with a degree in fine arts from the University of Nebraska, Conner first moved to San Francisco in 1957, and soon began to shock the art world with macabre assemblages of discarded found objects and such sculptures as “Child” containing a grotesquely ravaged doll in a high chair dedicated to Caryl Chessman. 

Conner’s first film, “A Movie” was made in 1958, originally planned as part of an assemblage, “a very funky little theater.” Other short films followed, and after receiving a Ford Foundation film grant in 1964, Conner abandoned assemblage altogether to devote full-time to making films. More precisely, “I stopped gluing it down.”

Conner has now made a total of 11 different public films. Some are shot live, others are composed solely of “found footage.” Overtones of social comment — sex and violence — are often prominent, but Conner’s films always transcend merely topical concerns, creating extraordinary fusions of medium and message.

Meanwhile, Conner has returned to the art gallery and museum world in recent years, but with intricate abstract paintings and ink-drawings in which symbolic forms — mandalas, radiant orbs —move through fields of tiny particles that seem charged with magnetic energy. If his assemblages dealt primarily with the energies of destruction and decay, these are alive with a dynamic, high-voltage harmony.

The lyrical mood prevails in Conner's new, five-minute film, a spin-off of "Crossroads" that came about when Gleeson's sound track suggested images from stock film that Conner had "sitting around the house." Pastoral views of nature alternate with scenes of destruction, absurdity and purely abstract conflicts of forces in a series of dissolves over another Gleeson sound synthesis.