FILM COMMENT | Bruce Conner: A Discussion at the 1968 Flaherty Film Seminar

Film Comment, Vol. 5, No. 4, (Winter 1969), pp. 16-25

This discussion with Bruce Conner took place at the 1968 Flaherty Seminar, after he had screened all his films for the Seminar participants. A portion of this discussion appears in FILM LIBRARY QUARTERLY.

Bruce Conner, New York Film Festival poster of TEN SECOND FILM, 1965; Collection of Steven Fama; © 2016 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo: Ben Blackwell

Bruce Conner, New York Film Festival poster of TEN SECOND FILM, 1965; Collection of Steven Fama; © 2016 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo: Ben Blackwell

MODERATOR: One thing that was not mentioned about Mr. Conner that, in addition to being an artist and filmmaker of considerable note, he also has been rather active in the political scene in San Francisco; and in fact, ran for supervisor as I recall. Although personally all I can say is that I am delighted that artists are taking a role in politics these days. Maybe it's a California phenomenon. I don't know.

AUDIENCE: Did he get elected?

BRUCE CONNER: No. I got 5400 votes.

MODERATOR: You didn't do badly, you certainly had the most elegant posters of any of the artists. I have no introductory remarks with respect to the definition of the experimental films or the history of experimental films, or what have you. But I could try. No.

AUDIENCE: I was going to say—I have always thought that COMSIC RAY and A MOVIE were two of the best and most beautiful works of art I've ever seen but to that I think I would now add THE WHITE ROSE.  The simple moving of the painting transformed it into a religious ritual for me. It was very beautiful indeed.

BRUCE CONNER: Thank you.

AUDIENCE: I understand that COSMIC RAY is available in a silent version for 8mm. And the question that I want to ask you is that it apparently works with lots of other music besides what you cut it for. Would you like to comment on that?

BRUCE CONNER: Yes it works with a variety of music. It was edited specifically for that music that was with it and in my mind, very precisely so. Part of that precision was purposely adding those things which did not absolutely synchronize with the music or accurately reflect exactly what the music was saying. I felt that I was, presenting the eyes for Ray Charles who is a blind musician. That this was his... I was supplying his vision. The 8mm prints you are talking about... come about—I was having a show at Brandeis Museum in Waltham, Massachusetts. Part of the exhibition was to include my films. We built a small room containing 8mm cartridge projectors. The cartridges have about three minutes of film spliced head to tail.  I edited the film so it would have no beginning or end and I worked on a version of COSMIC RAY for this purpose. I made three films. The first one, COSMIC RAY #1 is made up of the last two-thirds of COSMIC RAY and it is a color print. There's about five seconds of color film and other gradations of print material. There's sepia and varieties of black and gray. COSMIC RAY #2 had the remaining third of COSMIC RAY plus new material, that I edited to go with it which continues the movement: TV commercials, leader numbers, etc. COSMIC RAY #3 was completely new material. It was footage of the same girl that was in the 16mm film—plus other material. All three of them were to be projected in a cinemascope version 1,2,3. And it was very impressive to have three of them going at once. The three films are projected side by side in an area proportioned like a cinemascope screen. There was no point where you could see when it began or ended.

AUDIENCE: A lot of your films are in different versions. I know I saw a completely different version of REPORT and on the way over, Arnold Eagle said he has seen a different different version and there have been dirty rumors that you have been making 10 or 20 different versions of that film.

BRUCE CONNER: There are eight. The one you saw was the last one and it was solidified into a negative and I haven't changed it. Which each of those other versions there was one print only and I don't know exactly where they are. They have been sent out.

AUDIENCE: Did you get bored having the same film?

BRUCE CONNER: No I was obsessed.

AUDIENCE: These are chronological... you made one then and another a little later or made eight simultaneously?

BRUCE CONNER: One after the other. I would take a print and then I would take the footage and change it and I would make another print. It was always the same length. It always had the same soundtrack and proportion of events was the same. The first part, which was the death of President Kennedy, had similar treatment of repetitive images. The second part, which is the epilogue also remained basically similar. There would be shot changes from one place to another—something taken out and something put in. The thing that changed completely was the first eight minutes. The first four versions were repeats of the same image over and over. The repeats were for the whole eight minutes—like the one shot which was in this film: carrying the rifle down the hallway. The shot which follows that was in another version: Jacqueline Kennedy going up to the door of the ambulance to open the door, the door is locked, she steps back. A third one was the motorcade coming by. A fourth one was a scene of Jacqueline Kennedy in Washington where the casket is in state. She walks up to the caskets, kneels, kisses the casket, walks away. At the same point where she starts towards the caskets it repeats over and over. There was another one that was made of the leader numbers and I think there was also another one which has the strobe effect happening in it. All those things started getting mixed up again later. And now this print is where it got to. I thought I'd better stop before it got too artistic.

AUDIENCE: How have audiences reacted to the film?

BRUCE CONNER: They never applaud at the end. They laugh nervously at two points. One is: "Children try to get across the fence," and maybe a couple titters during the Frankenstein scene. Sometimes they get very upset—violent.

AUDIENCE: They wanted to kill you, as I recall, when they saw the version in Boston.

BRUCE CONNER: Yeah, I showed it to Al's class. I think it was one of the first times it was shown.

AUDIENCE: Why did Al's class want to kill you?

BRUCE CONNER: Well the most violent reactions I have gotten from REPORT was from one of the people who was there; and he said it was sacrilegious, immoral and quite a few other things. And he said, "I didn't vote for that man, but I think what you've done is terrible." The people who were most upset about this were people who said that never voted for the man; "I've never really agreed with his politics; I never really agreed with him as a living being." When he died that made some sort of thing change there. It altered their relationship to him. And that's what the film is about. The first part of REPORT—there is no real film there—it's the sound of a man dying. The second part of REPORT is after the man has died: the exploitation of his death, all the grotesque and sacrilegious and immoral things that were done. And the excuse was that it was respect for the dead or his memory and stuff. Jack Kennedy banks, and all sorts of memorabilia and nonsense documentaries and gooey posters.

AUDIENCE: There's a postcard that's on sale in Love Field in Dallas which has a picture of the School Book Depository on it.

AUDIENCE: What do you mean by nonsense documentaries?

BRUCE CONNER: Well... First thing is—it was repeated when Bobby Kennedy was killed. I was watching television when it happened and the information you were getting was as confused as the information that was coming out at the end of REPORT. It continued that way except it became formalized into the form of media. They tried as hard as they could to control what was coming across. The announcer in the ballroom was still trying to maintain a stance in front of the camera even though the lights were going off. The quality of the color image decayed, it became black and white and the only color that was coming in were the flesh colors, which were green, pulsating on and off. They interviewed a witness who was in another studio and they tried to do the split screen thing and it wasn't synchronized. And then they started the repeats—they replayed the most popular scene, until finally there was practically only one image which you related to. And, even more obvious, the offensiveness of the media—the men who were there to record what was happening. Ethel Kennedy saying, "Go away. Get out of the way. He has to be helped." And they stand there with their eyes like this. They don't move. They stick the microphone in the dying man's mouth. You know this sort of thing. I don't know if that answers any question anybody asked.

AUDIENCE: There's another one from me in any case. If you felt this strongly about all of this was it your intention in your film to parody this or to put the material together in another way so it will have an effect on people, or what? Or do you know?

BRUCE CONNER: Yes, I know what I was doing. I was obsessed. I was living in Brookline, Massachusetts which was the birthplace of President Kennedy. He has reserved a plot in a graveyard in Brookline to be buried. His children were already buried there. He was assassinated. I lived seven blocks from where he was born. I decided then that I would dedicate myself to recording what had happened and what would happen in Brookline because he was going to be buried there and I would live there for the next two or three years to work on that film and make a pilgrimage to the grave every day with my camera and show what had happened. Well, then they took him away from me. I then decided that since I'd gotten the Ford Foundation grant I could make a film with stock footage. When I started the big problem was I had to show what has happened: the exploitation of a man's death. That's what I had to show. That's what I wanted to show and I had to show it because no one else was. There was tons of information coming through the media—but this exploitation was the most obvious thing to me. On his birthday, which was about five months after his assassination, at the hour and the minute he was born, I went to the house where he was born. I stood in front of the house. On the way there I was listening to the radio: "Today we are putting out commemorative stamps of Kennedy." Everybody knew that it was his birthday. Hundreds of people went to the grave. Hundreds of people appeared in Dallas and I was the only person standing in front of the house in Brookline, Massachusetts at that moment. That impressed on me that I had some responsibility there. It appeared that I was the only person who would relate to President Kennedy in this way.

The problem in making the film was that in order for me to do the film I would also have to go through the same processes that those people were using to exploit Kennedy. If the film was completed then he was as dead as they had made him and so it took me 2½ years to finish the film. That had something to do with why it changed. Part of the reason why it changed was I didn't want to stop the changes... life is change and when REPORT was finished then he was dead, so it took 2½ years for me to acknowledge that he was dead.

AUDIENCE: I would like to say why I think I like your films so much and I like them very much and maybe you can tell me I like them for all the wrong reasons. What fascinates me, I think in all of them, is first of all your love of the material, of the physical stuff itself. Love of the grain. Love of those stencil perforation marks, your obsession with leader and letting us see the splices and how they're put together and then with this a very acute awareness of how a film works on perception—stock, shots, loops, the way when you repeat a scene we see it differently each time you bring more to it, it changes, though it is the same. In all, this is a kind of fascination with the process of how film works and I see that too in your sculpture where there's a process of decay, the effect on forces on objects to change them and transmute them and so forth. Do you feel you're aware of being interested in this process both handling material and the process of perception of images on film?

BRUCE CONNER: Well, I think the process I'm involved in (in these things which change) is that I am asking you to help me see. With some of the films I've made I expect people to react differently to what is happening there and I get information from the people who see these films. I feel that a great work of art is a great communication. It is a certain level of communication wherein it can be reflected back in many forms. I'm very involved in what communication is about.

COSMIC RAY is about censorship. That is just one of the things it is about.

To talk about censorship you have to show someone of what is being censored. What I think censorship is—is death against life and that those forms which are used to kill people are those which are used for censorship. The organization which creates war—creates the army—is opposed to sex; they're opposed to procreation. The army is the largest homosexual organization in the United States. They not only re-channel the creativity of men toward death by withdrawing them from the society of women, but they kill the fruit of the womb. This has something to do with the images in the film—the numbered leader, the information which you are not supposed to see. The projectionist who controls the projector is not supposed to allow you to see that. It's verboten.

I don't know if you are aware of this but this afternoon you did not see all of my films. The projectionist covered up the last second or so of the 10 second film and when COSMIC RAY came on he covered up the numbers—It sort of freaked him out.

AUDIENCE: I don't know if you would like my connecting you with something that Henry said in the morning session.

BRUCE CONNER: I wasn't in the morning session.

AUDIENCE: He was talking about propaganda films and he said that they were an attempt to change somebody's predisposition to behave and to the way they see the world. My feeling from looking at your films is that they really change the way I see an event. That REPORT. Each version—that's what was so powerful about REPORT—I've seen two versions—you were trying to do the same thing, you did the same thing, but it was different—I really saw it two ways. That's never happened to me—where I have seen a film which has made me think and feel about an event one way and then you take the same material and such a complex change occurs in my own perception that as far as I'm concerned—those are propaganda films for me, if you want to label it. I just think they are great because they really do make me think about the world differently. And also, I don't know if you are aware, but there was a nun picking flowers right behind you outside the window, while you were talking about Kennedy.

ROBERT NELSON: I just wanted to ask something general—I think I've seen your films about 15 times. Of all the audience situations I have been in with your films and with mine—last night I've never felt like this before—a very unusual thing. I feel that both of the films, particularly with your and mine, and at meeting afterwards there's some kind of light treading. Maybe because it has something to do with some kind of respect or reverence for art with a capital "A" in people's minds or whatever it is but somehow it's quite disturbing to me I don't know if you're feeling this or not but it seems as though everybody is holding back and everybody is treating all this in an entirely different way than any of the other kinds of films that we've talked about and I was wondering if anybody had any ideas about that or what it is that's choking everybody up.

AUDIENCE: Again—the presence of a new vision. I think the problem is that the same question has kind of been asked about a number of films I've begun to learn that questions aren't supposed to be asked and if they are the answer becomes something I don't understand like the film that came from my soul down here and I had to do it and then I don't know quite what to say. I'd love to ask questions like what in the world you made that film about the girl for.

BRUCE CONNER: Which girl? Vivian? You want to know why I made it?


BRUCE CONNER: Oh that's another long story.

AUDIENCE: We love the stories.

BRUCE CONNER: Well Vivian is a very good friend of mine. I only make films about people I love. Not all that I love would I make a film about. I have a son that is five years old and I haven't made a movie of him yet. When I got the Ford Foundation grant I made a trip to California (I was in Boston, I'd been there for about a year and a half, after being in Mexico for about a year and previously being in San Francisco.) And I had several things to do there. I was going to make film and recordings of Michael McClure, and I was going to have a show at the Batman Gallery. I started to organize the Batman Gallery show by making 13 paintings one of which I touched and 12 of which I did not touch. The canvas was pre-stretched. I had a friend of mine who used to live in Wichita do the work for me. He made the frames. He transferred the art lettering on to the center of the ones that said "DO NOT TOUCH." I transferred the lettering on that painting that said "TOUCH." This was the exhibition that I wanted to have. And I didn't touch any of those that said "DO NOT TOUCH." And the one that says "TOUCH" had glass on it. Then I also wanted something less formal and something to relate to other things I'd done so I put the sculptures in the show. And I got this big glass case. I had a suitcase with 7000 marbles in it. The marbles would get transferred around the gallery on top of case, inside the case and so on. The case was there for people to get into—just in case. And it appealed to some people to go in there. It was there for women to go in, basically. And Vivian was there that summer in San Francisco (I think she was going to school someplace) and she had been living in Massachusetts at the time, I knew her before the Batman show. The show was on for three days, 24 hours a day. And I was there all the time. I started shooting the film of the exhibition and what was going on there, from the moment that it opened. While I was shooting pictures of the sculptures I saw Vivian taking pictures of me. While she was doing that and while I was continuing to take the shots she walked around and got into the glass case (which is on camera) and I started shooting pictures of her in the case. And so that was what happened there. I had footage of the gallery of Vivian in the case and the show. "TOUCH"—"DO NOT TOUCH"—the art gallery. Something is real, you put it in a museum and you don't touch it. Somehow that is supposed to make it safe—so it doesn't mean anything, or, at least, what is in a collection of the San Francisco Museum of Art which, definitely, I want people to touch. It's got fur on it and beads and all sorts of things. I saw an exhibition there about three years ago. They had it out with other works in their collection and it was the only one that had a big sign by it saying "DO NOT TOUCH THE PAINTINGS."

AUDIENCE: I was there I saw the exhibition and you know people were sort of sneaking up and touching it.

BRUCE CONNER: Well when I got back to Massachusetts I shot some film of Vivian in her room where she lived and we were very good friends. Then life became very difficult with Vivian and became very difficult with my wife. It was decided that I would not see Vivian for about a month and during that month when I would not see Vivian I made that film. I looked at Vivian every day.

AUDIENCE: To another subject. I had trouble in LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS and BREAKAWAY on several occasions just physically with my eyes in looking at it. I realize that this is intentional but it's very difficult sometimes to physically see.

AUDIENCE: See you optometrist.

BRUCE CONNER: No, it's not the optometrist's problem. It's training. The 10 second film which you did not see all of was a poster for the New York Film Festival in 1964. It was 10 strips of film each 24 frames and each lasting a second. It includes, numbers, leaders, various things which would be cut out of films, and the information about the date, the place, and the name of the New York Film Festival. This poster was supposed to come out in all the subways and everywhere and I, on my own, spliced the film together (after the process of making the poster) to make it into ten 16mm prints and five 35mm prints. I gave them to the New York Film Festival so they could use them as 10 second commercials in motion picture theaters and on television. My purpose there was that all these people who would be going to see the movie every day for two weeks would see the poster everyday and, hopefully, they would use this as an emblem to start each program. There are things that you can see in the poster, because it was a physical film reproduced, which was difficult to see in film, because of the time, and there were things in the film that weren't in the poster—movement that you were not aware of if you didn't see the film. I was hoping to have an interaction between these two media. By seeing the film regularly and by seeing the poster regularly people would see like: "Oh, there's this thing and I don't remember seeing that." The next time they see it—they would see it. It would be like speed racing training. This was like the process I used in COSMIC RAY. I felt that I would retrain the vision of a lot of people and that the style that films would be made with in the future would alter considerably. However, the film festival officially decided that they weren't going to use the film for commercials because it went too fast. I asked them to show it as an emblematic device and they didn't want to do that. I asked them to put the projectors out in the lobby (which I would supply) which would have a film loop and they would not do that because problems with the union about doing a similar thing the year before. I said "Please just show it once." It wasn't an official entry to the New York Film Festival so it was never shown. Now I think that has something to do with why it is difficult to see LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS and the other film. People are not trained to retain that kind of information. I see everything that is in there. If one thing is altered, I'll catch it. If there is a scratch across it. I'll catch it.

AUDIENCE: Bruce, I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that the Free Press announced today that they were going to close down the New York Film Festival.

BRUCE CONNER: Oh, they did? Gosh. There have been considerable problems with artist relating to festivals and exhibitions of all kinds. I think that these people who organize these things have defeated their purpose. I think I once entered a film festival personally. Cinema 16 or Bob Pike or some other distributor might send one of my films to a festival but I've never sent one. The kind of relationship that I've found in those organizations causes me a great deal of pain. To go to an exhibition where I am involved and be treated as much of an alien as you are treated at these places doesn't encourage me to participate. The only function that I see in them is the commercial function and although I like to eat I do not like to be unhappy. A lot of people have worked very hard doing things that they didn't like so that they can get the money to buy something that's supposed to make them happy. And I think that's the wrong way around. 

AUDIENCE: Why are you here?

BRUCE CONNER: Ah, Al asked me why I'm here. I've cut off a lot of things that I've done. I stopped painting about 10 years ago. I stopped making collages and sculptures in 1964. I dropped out of the art scene entirely. I will not show in any museums or galleries, because my involvement in that had made me so upset over a period of time that I became physically ill. My involvement with film more or less went out of the way when I got involved in the light show in San Francisco. I felt it was the next application, a much fuller application of communication using group relationships, music. There were eight people in the light show working as a group—with six overhead projectors, strobe lights, a dozen slide machines (with 60 slides in each), and five movie projectors, etc. It was, at times, the ecstatic experience, just simply beautiful. But then that experience resolved itself. The scene changed and, also, the organization of that group of people. (This variably happens with any creative group—same reason why musical groups come and go. Rock and Roll groups, people in jazz groups, groups that improvise together.) The direction that I wanted to take that kind of activity was no longer possible; to extend the boundaries and to make a collective whole. When that happened I found myself at the end of the process of cutting off my whole art scene and having no definite relationship to films. THE WHITE ROSE is here because I shot it three years ago and I finally finished the editing about seven months ago. (I continue to play around with the 8mm which is home movie expressly. I generally think of my work as home movies anyway. They should be shown in people's homes many times.) I found that I was doing nothing and I was very unhappy about it. I played myself off into a corner where I was going back and forth (a point where you have a balance of players and the rules of the game only permit you to keep repeating the same motions). Now I'm working at a job 5-6 hours a day on Haight Street in San Francisco where I run a cash register and I do displays in the window and show people things and they buy things. I say "thank you" and a lot of times they say "thank you" to me. I was asked to come here. I would not have been able to or wanted to make the trip here but the foundation offered to pay my plane fare and to feed me and put me in here and I could then see where I was as far as film. In the last few months I felt that there was something I wanted to do in film but I wasn't sure exactly what it was. I really don't want to go back to what I've done before. I don't want to work on the same basis that I did before. I can only go back to that basis by using some form that I was working with before. (Like using collage in some part of film) but beyond that I also don't watch movies, I don't think I've gone to a movie theater in more than 8 or 9 times in the last year. I watch television a lot and I hardly ever see any films by filmmakers that are intended as a very strong communication or relating to filmmakers. I felt that if I came here that I could be in the crucible and that the combination of these forces would do something for me. 

SCOTT BARTLETT: I want to thank Bruce for something because I didn't know how to relate myself to a situation like this, a new experience for me. The first night we were down in the kitchen and Bruce asked if he could have my name and I could have his and we traded tags and that broke the ice.