BY A. L. REES
Director: Bruce Conner
A young boy gets into bed and falls asleep, as the camera closes in and the image fades. This prologue introduces Kansas landscapes, small towns and homesteads, in a montage of low-key but evocative shots seemingly culled from 1940s educational movies like the Encyclopaedia Brittanica series. Slightly slowed, they appear and fade in rhythms guided by the stately Sibelius soundtrack. The strongly associative but non-narrative montage hints that the dreamer's unconscious is structured like a film, if not like a language. Following the prologue are two shots—a heavy steam train and a miner pushing a coaltruck—which set up contrasts of direction, over and under, coal and steam, machine and man. The elemental theme is picked up in a spinning globe, a sunlit cloudy sky, a field of sheep, and then the great open farmlands with their woodframe houses.
A later sequence of close-up hands smoothing a satin cloth, a flower opening, and a fashion model parting her long cape all suggest the act of unfolding. After a fade, a man at a desk turns to look at the framed photo of a train; in a subsequent shot, a similar but moving train emerges from darkness, as if unfolding (like a surrealist idea) from the thought of its static image. Throughout the film, links are set up between objects, actions and places. Conner's necessary fiction, a boy's dream, leads him to end the film suitably with a field of girls doing calisthenics, followed by a rapid montage of water, falling rocks and speeding train wheels, which slow down and fade before subsiding into a final shot of cars drifting along a flooded road.
Valse Triste is a homage to surrealist cinema and a belated trance-film (the psychodramas of Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger and Sidney Peterson date from the 1940s, the time of Conner's adolescence and this film's footage). It also reworks the debased popular 'dream sequence', principally by imitating one of its cliche-prone situations—a boy's dream about steam engines, daily chores, home travel and girls. Shorn of context, ordinary images keep their typicality but gain uniqueness, mystery and the aura of memory; a paperboy cycles down a street, a couple in overcoats enter a taxi, cars crawl down long roads, a man and a boy build a bonfire, a family pose by their farm. This material is renewed, or redeemed, by stripping it of sentimentality and information.
Beneath the period charm are disturbing ripples. Conner's imitation of the dream form is not a parody or a mockery, but it frames ironies as complex as in his other films, as deeply rooted in American social life. Each item of the collage retains something of its former identity—the footage of battered trucks, floods, a stolid family who might be out of Walker Evans, and the pervading melancholic mood, all evoke a very undreamlike social fact, the stubborn survival of life after a recent past of poverty and depression.
The residual objectivity of each shot also asserts that Valse Triste is a fiction, and that no dream corresponds to its images. The viewer who detects or creates a web of relations will dream the film more than its assumed protagonist. Even the guess that the film is autobiographical is still an assumption, however reasonable, since Conner repeatedly presses his documentary footage to serve subjective imaginary events which only took place in the making of the film. The dream is produced by Valse Triste alone. It is pure artifice.
By relating the pace and tone of editing to the rhythms of a 'ready-made' score, Conner affirms the film as artifact, especially as the wistful lyricism of images and sound follows a classic form: the introduction of a theme, its development, and a climax punned by the film's culmination in an erotic metaphor. This leads to a further irony in which the dream-theme threatens to collapse under self-interrogation. For if dreams transform their real repressed meanings, are the frequent transitional fades to be read as jumps or gaps? What do they conceal? More worryingly, any visible connecting threads which we do manage to construct must surely be taken from misleading images that substitute for ideas which the dream works to hide. Against this cinematic paradox of interpretation, the dream-metaphor forms and dissolves, like the montage itself; but leaves a film of memory as poignant and surprising as a waltz by Sibelius.