Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A B(ruce) C(onner)

(UPDATE NOTE: Per the comment request by the Conner estate attorney, all links to online video version or embedded versions of Conner's films have been removed.)

One of the least known and most pivotal filmmakers of the mid-20th Century, a maker of shorts, generally assemblages from found footage, and a ground-breaking artist in other media, Bruce Conner just died yesterday in San Francisco, age 74.

I was introduced to Conner in college, and it's not really possible to describe the experience of seeing one of Conner's films projected, in 16mm, with an audience even if in a classroom, a special retrospective at a film festival, or in a room off the main gallery displaying his life-sized radiogram photography, sculptures and drawings. It's like taking the David Lynch theatrical experience, then dialing it back to Eraserhead, then dialing it back another ten fathoms into our collective unconscious.

The monument and best introduction is, of course, A Movie:

A Movie is a 1958 experimental, or avant-garde film in which Bruce Conner put together snippets of found footage, taken from B-movies, newsreels, soft-core pornography, novelty shorts and other sources, to a musical score. The film is associational, in which a number of narratively and spatially unrelated shots from a number of sources are edited together to evoke emotions and make thematic points. A Movie consists of many shots of animals and people moving quickly, precariously balanced objects, cars and people crashing, and, perhaps most importantly, violence and war. This film is generally viewed as a metaphorical commentary on humanity's violent nature. The film has also been described as a metaphor for sex where the men traveling are the sperm, ending with a scuba diver, representing the sperm reaching the egg.

In 1991, A Movie was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

The "A" is both minimal, indicating a starting or origin point, whether for Conner's practice or cinema itself, stripped of new production down to disparate found footage knitted together and intention found by dint of the new filmmaker's will. And, in the middle of the film, it becomes clear that "A" has a more disturbing, catastrophic meaning, A-tomic Movie, as it were.

This archival-seeming film, a fragment from a secret past seems to reveal our future, a gathering storm, primitive and sophisticated civilizations growing aware of the oncoming annihilation, and someone ending with an Adam & Eve heading into sanctuary deep under the sea, escaping history in hope of emerging someday to build a new one, from square "A."

Conner was a Kansas boy who found his wife early, moved to San Francisco, participated heavily the the 1960's counterculture there including a lifelong friendship with Dennis Hopper. His art:
Gathering scraps from abandoned buildings, women’s undergarments (including nylon stockings), pieces of old dolls and Victoriana, he created gauzy assemblages which garnered his first art-world attention. These assemblages represented what Conner saw as the discarded beauty of modern America. They deal will issues like the atom bomb, violence against women, and consumerism. Social commentary and dissension remained a common theme among his later works.
Here's a partial descriptive filmography, here's a great interview transcript. I had the great fortune of seeing Conner speak about ten years ago at the San Francisco Film Festival. He seemed as ascetic as aesthetic, artistically firm, physically tall and spare. Cleanshaved as a youth with round spectacles, he looked something like an intellectual, counterculture Harold Lloyd, as in my favorite photo by Dennis Hopper ever, Conner with Toni Basel and Teri Garr (I can't recall the third woman's name). He also announced his own death (prank) on two different occasions:
Mr. Conner announced his own death erroneously on two occasions, once sending an obituary to a national art magazine, and later writing a self-description for the biographical encyclopedia Who Was Who in America.

Ironically, for such a subversive, non-corporate artist who was at times in dire financial straits, Conner may ultimately get credited as the father of the music video, with his visionary, hypnotic 1966 music short, Breakaway, featuring a young, sometimes naked Antonia Christina Basilotta (later Toni Basil, who has an early MTV hit with the New Wavey "Mickey"). And later, still anticipating MTV by several punky years, another assemblage, this time in service of Devo's most excellent "Mongoloid". No band shots. No specially shot "scenes." Just more found, alarming narrative freakiness.

And that specialty of Conner's, the impossibly long-tail nostalgia, for a time that could have only existed in our heads, not real enough to be called reality, but all too stark and aching to be entirely fake; dreamscapes, worlds turned upside down.

And now Conner himself joining his images in memory.


Steven Fama said...

Thank you, Mark, for your appreciative comments on Bruce Conner's work, and in particular your concise memory of Bruce speaking in SF about ten years ago.
Your thoughts about Bruce are appreciated.

I write at the request of the copyright holder of Bruce's films to request and demand that you remove all postings, embedded, linked, or otherwise, of those films your blog site.

Bruce was adamant that his films not be shown or seen on-line. His wife and widow, Jean, who now is the copyright holder for Bruce’s movies, is of the exact same view and has directed that I take all action necessary to have postings of Bruce’s films taken down.

I hope you will promptly comply with this request.

Thank you,

Steven Fama

Gus said...

Nice work, Fama. Now I'm suddenly not interested in seeing any of the guy's work.