FILM QUARTERLY | Fallout: Some Notes on the Films of Bruce Conner

BY WILLIAM MORITZ & BEVERLY O'NEILL

Vol. 31, No. 4 (Summer, 1978), pp. 36-42

 Bruce Conner, CROSSROADS (1976, 35mm, b&w/sound, 37min); © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, California

Bruce Conner, CROSSROADS (1976, 35mm, b&w/sound, 37min); © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, California

Although we're accustomed to nuclear power's presence in our daily lives, we have had to awaken to the realization that yesterday's dream of "Atoms for Peace" is today's nightmare. This last decade has seen nuclear opposition grow world-wide: from the organized protest of the Japanese hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) to the actions of farmer Sam Lovejoy in Massachusetts, who single-handedly tore down a $75,000 structure that marked the early building of two nuclear reactors.

It is becoming clear, with many alarming details already at hand, that nuclear energy is an unsafe technology. No safe system for disposing of dangerous radioactive wastes is in existence, and they are already being produced in enormous quantities. Even low-level radiation from nuclear power stations has now been implicated in increased levels of leukemia. Most spectacularly of all, both controlled and uncontrolled proliferation of weapons is underway: the number of countries that "have the bomb" grows steadily; alarming quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium have mysteriously "disappeared"; and the construction of workable if unsophisticated bombs is the subject of undergraduate term papers. Weapons testing in Nevada and a nuclear accident in the Soviet Union have left huge areas of land uninhabitable.

Given the concern for our present and future ecological welfare, it is timely and brilliant of Bruce Conner to have selected the birth of the Atomic Age as the subject of his newest film, Crossroads. From material recently declassified by the Defense Department, Conner has constructed a 36-minute work, editing together 23 different takes of the early atomic explosions at Bikini, all un-altered found footage in its original black and white. The film is without dialogue or descriptive factual detail. It consists simply of the visual record of these first bombs' destructive capability.

In his researching, Conner uncovered a vivid historical account of the Bikini tests written for the Joint Task Force (Army and Navy) by W. A. Shurcliff. Interestingly, what one would expect to be a dry, methodical description is in fact dramatic and fascinating, revealing how impossible it was to suppress the bomb's overwhelming power. This original state of consciousness is what Conner wants us to re-experience in his film. What were the circumstances surrounding these tests, as described by Shurcliff?

Just a few months after bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, our Army and Navy conducted Operation Crossroads, to study the actual scope and after-effects of a nuclear detonation. Two tests were made several weeks apart. During the first, in which an A-bomb was exploded in air, only a small number of test ships were sunk, and the blast proved less impressive than had been expected from reports of the Japanese bombings. But the second test, whose footage Conner uses, was a spectacular underwater blast, broadcast to radio listeners around the world. It apparently produced the most severe shock wave felt on earth within recorded history. Two million tons of water were tossed to an altitude of one and a half miles, creating a "cauliflower" cloud which would have dwarfed the island of Manhattan, according to a mock-up photo prepared by the Task Force and illustrated in Shurcliff's text.

This second test bomb had been suspended on a ship which was so "atomized" in the explosion that no significant particle was ever found. Nine of the largest and sturdiest carriers and submarines available (including the captured Japanese Nagato) sank, and 65 other battleships anchored at varying degrees of distance within a one-mile radius from the target point were damaged and contaminated by radioactivity. Conner includes many takes of these scenes, and their scale is nearly incomprehensible. 200 pigs (chosen because their skin and hair approximated that of humans) stationed on ships died instantly; many rats, goats, and guinea pigs, however, survived for almost two months after the blast while scientists checked them for radiation poisoning.

Extensive photographic documentation was at the heart of this operation. 500 cameras, trained on the event from drone planes and boats near the blast as well as in high-altitude aircraft and at more distant vantage points on sea and land, provided the Defense Department – and finally Conner and us – with an opportunity to appraise the nature of this new force.

As he opens the film, Conner first shows us the detonation from a distant vantage point, that cliché perspective on the event, with the blast forming the classic "mushroom" cloud. During this initial take, we spend a long period watching an almost still seascape with no intimation of what will occur. This quiet prelude heightens the violence and florid display of the unexpected explosion. The next shot, taken from a plane flying high over the dwarfed boats, also begins with a long, tranquil pre-bomb period, but now our knowledge of the previous shot makes us anxious, amplifying the shocking impact of the blast. The pace then quickens, with shorter shots, cut irregularly nearer to the time of the detonations, so that Conner virtually throws explosions at the audience. Some adjacent shots appear almost alike, as if looped; others seem radically different – such as an enormous column of water spurting side jets, each jet large as the battleship this water-wall washes over.

So overexposed are we to the mushroom-cloud icon, that initially we assume we are seeing the same footage every time, even though each shot contains hundreds of fine scientific distinctions, imperceptible to the layman – as they once were to scientists as well. Shurcliff noted this as he documented conditions after the blast:

Things happened so fast in the next five seconds that few eyewitnesses could afterwards recall the full scope and sequence of the phenomena. By studying slow-motion films ... the scientists eventually pieced together the full story. Without question one reason why observers had so much trouble in retaining a clear impression of the explosion phenomena was the lack of appropriate words and concepts. The explosion phenomena abounded in absolutely unprecedented inventions in solid geometry. No adequate vocabulary existed for these novelties. The vocabulary bottleneck continued for months even among scientific groups. Finally after two months of verbal groping, a conference was held and over thirty special terms, with carefully drawn definitions, were agreed upon. Among these terms were the following: dome, fillet, side jets, bright tracks, cauliflower cloud, fallout, air shock disc, water shock disc, base surge, water mound, uprush, aftercloud. 1

After a minute or two this imagery's time and space factors come into question. What is the source of the material? The ships appear so diminutive in comparison with the enormity of the blast; are we seeing a trick model shot from a Hollywood war movie? Are all these shots of the same blast? What kind of blast? (A-bomb? H-bomb?) Each seems different in length; Are we seeing slow-motion shots? Are we seeing different camera-speed shots? Are we seeing any real-time (whatever that is) shots?

The "local color" of Patrick Gleeson's sound track is further provoking. Accompanying the first shot of the pre-blast period we hear birds twittering and a subdued voice in count-down. The subsequent roar of "airplane engines" and "explosions" is so close to traditional sound effects for fictional war movies that we never assume it is electronic music; rather, in realistic terms, it adds to our confusion about the "facts" of the event or events we are watching. If the visual images are in slow-motion, are these sounds also slowed down? Some sounds synch directly with blasts; would there not be a delay comparable to the lightning-thunder displacement? Pondering this, we become sensitized to the shock waves that visibly shake the camera a moment after each detonation; but are these shock waves sounds?

Unexpectedly, the sound track pops to silence, and the rhythmic turmoil of the explosion scenes is replaced by a still image of two intersecting white lines that divide the screen into four equal rectangles. The suggestion of the cross-hairs in a gun or bomb sight is unavoidable in this context, but after a moment we realize that, ironically, this emblem also represents addition and crucifixion, and even the tree of life in arcane lore.

Conner now switches mode completely, exposing us to one of the most complex and problematic uses of the atomic icon. We hear a lush, repetitive meditation music specially composed and performed for the remainder of the film, by Terry Riley. 2 Initially the combination disturbs because we have been suddenly stripped of the familiar contexts (just exploited in the first section) in which we are habituated to dispose of this information. The serene music allows, in fact, forces us to contemplate the images with an almost unbearable concentration. We see close-up sections of portions of the blast in such detail that we can no longer doubt that the destruction of these "real" boats is a documentation of a "real" event. Released from the simulated "realism" of the Gleeson sound track "synch," some of the shock of the explosion dissipates. The viewer's situation changes from one of watching mimetic theater with social values dominant, to one of watching formalist painting with advanced aesthetic concerns. The film becomes a "piece," displaying an environmental series of transitions, much like Michael Snow's Wavelength. It slips away from the conventional film program, and now would be better suited to the purity of a white-walled gallery.

We become aware of the devices and techniques of the photography itself – wide-angle lenses, flicker of high-speed prism rotation, and infra-red film. We begin to observe lingering shots filled with little except lethargic, voluptuous cloud formations, which fade up into white, and eventually become so slow and ambiguous as to lose entirely the sensation of violence to the point of fatigue. Ironically, we are suspended in calm displays of cloud and water, reminiscent of oriental landscape painting, Bernini's fountains and Baroque aureoles. Do we feel guilty for enjoying it? Do we feel bored because fiction seemed more spectacular?

The final shot is the longest in the whole film: in extreme slow-motion we watch as a huge tidal wave washes over and completely obscures a battleship, leaving the screen above the horizon line blank-white except for grain pattern; finally, after several minutes the ship reemerges, fading in slowly as the tidal wave apparently passes by. After the slow process of the boat's re-definition in sharp, dark tones, the image cuts to blackness which is held on-screen for several minutes while the music finishes.

The duration of this shot is crucial. The screen remains neutralized for so long we suffer excruciating resentment, ennui, and helpless rage. The reappearance of the ship provides a sense of psychic closure, a cathartic sense of relief that something man-made can survive. But Conner underscores the naivety of this easy hopefulness by maintaining the true "nothingness" of the black screen until it mitigates this climactic flood of emotion and re-establishes the meditation's balance.

The title Crossroads fades onto the screen. Evidently the Bikini project's use of the name "Crossroads" had no special metaphysical significance, since other similar ventures bore such titles as "Manhattan" and "Greenhouse"; however, after living with a chronic anxiety about nuclear mishap, we all share Conner's implied belief that this project constituted a turning point in human possibilities. A traditional folk belief holds that suicides' graves and gallows should be placed at crossroads.

Assessing the meaning of Conner's films requires a working knowledge of his background as a major West Coast assemblagist. His film work is firmly grounded in the visual arts and here he resembles Michael Snow, another multi-media genius – their best audience being one schooled in the complexities of modern object-making – from cubism to minimalism. Within this realm, though, Conner's identity is complicated by serious discomfort most modern artists have had with overt subject matter.

Formalism's dominance in painting and sculpture for the past several decades certainly relegated the handling of "hot content" to the status of an unfortunate irrelevancy or a bizarre regional backwater. The possibilities of critical misapprehension here has affected the intelligibility of artists whose work is as varied as Rauschenberg's or Conner's. Fortunately, this major new film, Crossroads, arrives at a time when the acceptance of subject matters including psychological narrativity (along with the politicizing of the art world at large: the positing of a feminist iconography, the growth of neo-Marxist criticism, etc.) has created a new arena engaging with formerly denied issues.

New American art has never been self-assured on a psychological terrain. We know that the "expressionism" tag for the New York School was an inexplicable appendage. (How are Rothko, Newman, Reinhardt expressionists?) We have consistently given prestige to a refined plasticity, consciously breeding out the emotional narrative.

For over twenty years, Conner's art has defined a trend in American expressionism. His early subjects often were saturated with intense emotion, and thus easy to dismiss as too blatant. Phil Leider characterized his sensibility in the early sixties: "He can visualize the loveliest flesh charred beyond recognition. The data which inform his work is that of the extermination camps, Hiroshima, horror comics, sexual psychopathology, lunatic feminine adornment." While Leider suspected Conner's motivations, he conceded that there existed "works in which his genuine sense of pity, terror and outrage is not hidden." 4

Today, a careful scrutiny of his total output – especially the films – reveals Conner, the humanist. His work functions as a warning system, sensitizing us through his brilliant use of manipulated found footage, to the nature of public media's entropic vision. "We are in the era of information overload and it means information retrieval is more tricky than information recording ..." (Nam June Paik) Conner is a genius at this kind of retrieval, as his first film A Movie (1958) proved. During the opening portion, he constructs a series of mini-films, each beginning and ending with titles, some ascribed to Bruce Conner, and each parodying one common expectation that people have about the nature of movies. One shows an excerpt from a cowboy fiction film, another a snippet of a girlie-porno movie, another the technical identity of film itself (an emblematic use of leader), another a fragment of documentary or newsreel footage. Some are informed by ruthless satire, and all are distanced by a certain datedness. Thus, using these devices, Conner establishes a sense of critical perspective at the film's beginning.

His skill at blending ready-made sound sources with visuals is evident in all the films. The track for A Movie, Respighi's Pines of Rome, with its romantic, emotional dynamism, could easily destroy the potency and coherence of image; but instead Conner's judicious choice of sound excerpts enhances the drama inherent in each found scene. In the tight-rope walking sequence, for example, the fear the acrobats will fall is allayed by the music's delicate, mysterious tones emphasizing the moment's truly magical and gravity-defying properties. Some of the terrifying shots (a sinking ship, car crashes with drivers dismembered and mutilated, malaria victims pathetically shivering, Mussolini's body being hung up in a city square, a firing-squad execution, etc.) are given a sense of tragic dignity by the swell of the symphonic sound, but this feeling in turn is undercut by the interjection of absurd shots: a grotesque bicycle race or motorcycles plowing through mud.

In the hands of another artist, A Movie might have become didactic, apocalyptic message film, but Conner managers to open up his material to richer meanings, rather than pull in tight on a single denotation. For his concluding sequence, Conner chooses shots of a deep-sea diver exploring submarine ruins, an ambiguous (eerie but sensuous somewhat exotic but also commonplace, etc.) image open to several interpretations – the archeologist, the survivor, the escapist, the news-reporter, the criminologist, etc. Conner manipulates the polyvalence, and our reflexive assumption that we are the survivors, to create some sense of hope and transcendence.

Similarly, the last scene in Cosmic Ray is rather a charming sequence showing a girl changing into numerous imaginative and delightful costumes, stressing her creative adaptability; the final image in the series shows someone holding up an American flag behind her head, a direct reference to the famous flag-raising at Iwo Jima, which was quoted earlier in the film. 5

The subject matter of each shot in Cosmic Ray is only one (and often the lesser) part of its value, and often the content of the imagery is placed in subverted, satirical contexts. The basic metaphor of the film (if we can indeed assume that there is only one) should be the adage (fresher in 1961) "Make Love, Not War," rather than the mere structure of a sexual encounter. The irony of shooting guns is actively parodied by its juxtaposition with a cartoon image of a gun-orgasm, and, along with the pejorative verbal connotations of "mickey mouse," comes the shock of finding that this ready-made is actually a perverse tool for indoctrinating (or propagandizing) children. This tension is mirrored in the parallel shot which we could read as either a skull devouring the heroine's crotch or her giving birth to death, an ambiguity made both funnier and more grisly by her otherwise unstinted positive energy.

Indeed, the formal qualities of Cosmic Ray are at least as important as any content it may have. Throughout, the movie displays a raw, informal vigor. Images are superimposed several times, each element hand-held and rhythmically moving. Scratches and punch holes perforate the image, which is often "out of focus," streaked from loss of loop or "excessive" camera movement, and otherwise unacceptable by professional, establishment film standards. In the midst of this joyous riot of energy (with its fireworks and animated pearls) the interpolated found footage – whether hitch-hiking Indian chief, or no-brushing toothpaste commercial, or marching troops or Disney cartoons – seems very artificial, the static camera positions, well-composed and well-exposed takes seeming to betray the kiss of death. Thus, on a purely formal level, Conner has achieved an antithesis between vitality and morbidity, and the vital trend definitely rises triumphant in the end.

In Report, the formal values again provide major support for the central idea expressed, namely that there is in fact no separation possible between a public event and the media through which we come to know if it. Conner emphasizes the ambivalence of the situation by flashing the title Report on the screen for only a few frames at the beginning of the film, reminding us that this word has two meanings, one of which (a gun shot) constitutes an event that lasts only a second, while the other meaning (the recounting of details about the event) will go on forever.

The first part of the film, accompanied by the sound of live radio commentary running in a credible chronological sequence from a moment before the assassination to the announcement of the President's death, is accompanied largely by looped images, but each loop is substantially different in effect, and rather than distancing us against the material, these repetitions engage (like the mini-movies prefacing A Movie) our critical perspectives to involve us in the incident, finally recreating, in a very intense fashion, the actual feeling of receiving that news for the first time. One of the loops, the basic motorcade shot of the Kennedy car passing while Jack and Jackie wave, is repeated in such a way that each time it progresses slightly beyond the previous run, and each time cuts back to a proportionately later starting point; this hypnotic vortex of re-surging action is counterpointed by one man's account of seeing the assassination, which takes him several minutes to re-tell, even though the event itself must have taken only the short moment comparable to the un-looped version of the footage we are watching. Another loop, showing exactly the same footage of Oswald's gun being carried past the camera, is counterpointed by a newscaster enumerating the different types of policemen's weapons at the scene, thus emphasizing the simplicity of the image opposed to the multiplicity of the verbal description. The long flicker sequence shows alternating frames of black and white gradually modulating to pulsating half-frames of grey and white that finally flutter out to simple grey; as we listen to the description of the President's car rushing off to the hospital, we realize that these throbbing vibrations function both photokinetically to engage us directly in the shock of the occasion, and also in a fictional mode to represent the waning and dying life-force of the victim. Academy leader, which ordinarily provides a measured count-down interval before the picture itself begins, is repeated precisely because "the picture itself" (i.e. substantial information about the events of the shooting, news of the President's death, etc.) has not yet taken shape, and we hear on the track a newsman who is biding his time, treading water, struggling to occupy the air-report time with some words that will fill in until the full picture is assembled.

By the time the second portion of the film begins, the viewer has been so sensitized that even the briefest fragments of film in the caustic collage have telling impact. The nature of the collage the – merging of the special, stellar event into the mainstream of media programming. Conner uses pieces of commercials, newsreels, a bullfight "travelogue," and other imagery common to television in order to counterpoint an account of the Kennedy arrival in Dallas, suggesting by precise synchronization and juxtaposition that the materialistic elements in society have ritually slain the hero. In this context, Report, despite its bitter sarcasm, manages to establish itself as a heartfelt elegy.

Though A Movie, Cosmic Ray, and Report are the most frequently discussed of Conner's films, it is important to remember that a whole second trend co-exists in his artistic output, balancing the cynicism of the baby burned in its high-chair with a globe covered in delicate mandala patterns, balancing the violence and shock of A Movie and Report with purely sensuous films like Breakaway, lyrical and meditative films like Looking for Mushrooms and Easter Morning Raga, and simply comic films like Permian Strata. In terms of his personal activities one can also counter Conner the political activist with Conner the light-show performer. Thus, it seems worthy to keep in mind that Crossroads was released simultaneously with a short film, 5:10 to Dreamland, which is also composed of black-and-white found footage but which, unlike the most bombastic grandeur of Crossroads, concentrates on gentle, exquisite images (a feather borne aloft by the hot air of a radiator, a high-school gym girl reflected in a mirror, etc.) blended in a tranquil fashion reminiscent of the work of Joseph Cornell and Peter Hutton. The persistence of these two side-by-side trends in Conner's work tends to validate the contemplative stance of the closing portion of Crossroads, which we might be suspicious of if we had access only to the more scathing aspects.

Crossroads also represents (as does Five Times Marilyn) extensive reworking of material used fragmentarily in A Movie. After coming to know the nature and importance of the imagery in Crossroads our appreciation of the implications of the montage in A Movie and Report becomes more acute. Half a dozen short takes from the Crossroads footage occur during a central section of A Movie: a submarine submerges; a captain looks through the periscope; Marilyn Monroe is seen vamping on a bed; the captain seems excited and pushes a button; a torpedo shoots through the water; an A-bomb goes off in several different takes, ending with the shot of the tidal wave engulfing a battleship (from the closing sequence of Crossroads); a surfer is wiped out by a modest breaker; fishing boats are overturned by waves; etc. The closing collage of Report presents the bomb blast with the commentary "we have a brilliant sun today," reminding us of Conner's political awareness. He avoids the pitfalls of apocalyptic thinking by mingling the smaller-scale human foibles (perverse sexuality, thrill sports) together with medium-size (submarine warfare) and gigantic (A-bomb warfare) events, through humor rather than terrorism, placing the responsibility directly on the humans who create these phenomena for themselves, and challenging us to draw from this nuclear slapstick an expanded compassion commensurate with our technological crossroads.

One has the impression that it is not too crude a simplification of the state of affairs to assert that for the first time in the course of history man on earth faces only himself, that he finds no longer any other partner or foe. – Werner Heisenberg

NOTES

  1. W.A. Shurcliff. Bombs at Bikini, The Official Report of Operation Crossroads, New York, 1947. pp. 151-52.
  2. Terry Riley. RAINBOW IN CURVED AIR, Columbia Records, New York.
  3. Rosalind Krauss. Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism, October, Spring, 1976, New York. Krauss acknowledges that the last fifteen years of art writing has not comprehensively examined a body of work "which conflates psychologistic and formal means to achieve very particular ends. The art of Robert Rauchenberg is a case in point."
  4. Philip Leider. "Bruce Conner: A New Sensibility," Artforum, Nov.-Dec. 1962.
  5. In its original version, this last sequence is in color, further emphasizing or re-enforcing its positive creative triumph; Conner also prepared the film originally as a three-screen loop event, so that two supportive side panels flanked the movie as it is most often shown, and the whole length of the film was repeated several times. Conner hardly thinks of the film in any definitive or superior state, and sold the three-screen reels in 8mm so that they could be projected at 5-frame-per-second speeds with separate sounds. RANDAL