The convulsive lyricism of Bruce Conner

A still from 'CROSSROADS.' (Courtesy of The Conner Family Trust.)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once used a phrase to describe the climactic passages of the indie film "The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein": "convulsive lyricism." Lovely choice of words. Moments of convulsive lyricism, where the narrative gives way to exultant, despairing or hallucinatory abandon expressed in a dam-burst of images, are to the history of cinema what births, deaths and weddings are to a life. They are markers, and milestones, and the tentpoles that lend shape and purpose beyond the pragmatic. They are the dream.

Experimental filmmaker Bruce Conner cut to the chase. His films (which are collected in Film Forum's retrospective, opening next Wednesday) convulse and sing from the first frame to last, no preamble necessary.  Working from pre-existing newsreel, B-movie, public service announcement and stag-film footage, Conner cut together ecstatic visual riffs on the expanding American empire-as-movie. A MOVIE, his most famous work, sends out an APB to every vehicle or instrument of death on the planet, coaxing them via frenetic editing to converge first upon the American frontier then on the high seas to assault a common enemy: pin-up girls. The first girl, peeling off her stockings while topless, appears during a flood of garbled film credits. This provokes the U.S. Cavalry, homesteader wagon parties, Native American warriors, a wild elephant, a locomotive, race cars, and a battle tank into a wild stampede. Jubliant orchestral music urges them on, but the mad dash ends in calamity. The second girl, spied through a submariner's periscope, spurs nothing less than nuclear holocaust. The sub ejaculates a missile that bobs like a sperm cell to its target, creating a watery mushroom cloud with shockwaves big enough to topple surfers and jet skiers all over the world. The music is tender, somber. Then comes a free-for-all of ski-jump accidents, motorcycle crashes, air catastrophes, natural disasters and Teddy Roosevelt. On to aerial combat, sinking ships, genocides, our beloved mushroom cloud, elephant poachers,famines, a manatee, the Hindenburg aflame, a scuba diver disappearing into a sunken vessel.

That was 1958.

Conner was one of those cinema pioneers who helped invent the stylistic future, for better or worse. You want to celebrate his genius but also lament the fact that MTV and contemporary Ho'wood have adapted his visual inventions (along with those of Kenneth Anger, The French New Wave, Cinema du Look, you name it)  for crass, artless salesmanship. In contrast to the sly intelligence that went into every raggedy splice of Conner's work, we live in a world of precision-engineered images strung together with ragged imagination. Conner's pastiches float like a butterfly but sit heavy in your thoughts long afterward; mainstream media's use of his techniques land with a heavy thud, then float away like dust bunnies.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

Aside from other artists (Conner started out in paintings, drawings, prints, collages and sculpture) the real heirs to his work are the mashup fiends on YouTube. Many of them may be just as heavily influenced of mainstream fashions as they are devoted to Conner-like metamedia visual critiques of same, but I figure the latter redeems the former.

All those kids should watch REPORT (1963-67), which remixes news footage and audio associated with John F. Kennedy's assassination to a quietly spastic rhythm. Film reel leader countdowns, flash frames and other celluloid markers punch through shots of Kennedy's Dallas motorcade minutes before his murder. Kennedy's car lurches forward repeatedly (in the same manner as "Marilyn Monroe" posing in Conner's MARILYN TIMES FIVE (1968-73), also screening in this series). The pope, a bullfighter and TV commercials further complicate the tragedy. Forty-three years later, there's hardly a film that does a better job of reviving a terrible event with full force while brutally deconstructing the media response to it. American television comes off as a cheerful set of blinders to the violence lurking all over the land.

Conner was a product of the Beat generation, which shows in the shaggy countercultural mischief he brings to official images but is even more vibrant in the films he shot himself. In his hyperkinetic portraits of women, deep affection and short attention span fuse as in Jack Kerouac's aching, glancing celebrations of pretty gals in On the Road. In VIVIAN (1964), the camera flits around the titular pixie as she preens, dances and pretends to be one of the exhibits in a gallery while Conway Twitty sings a rockabilly "Mona Lisa." Jump cuts and flash frames adorn the pixilated bohemian cutie pie like costume jewelry. In BREAKAWAY (1966), pixilation also graces future pop star Toni Basil as she dances, sometimes naked, to her own sassy music in a series of smeared snap-zooms. Either of these films could pass for an HBO series opening credit sequence or a cutting-edge music video of today. Not coincidentally, he was responsible for the videos for Devo's"Mongoloid" (1978), and David Byrne's "Mea Culpa," (1981), two shorts that snyc 50's educational film clips to New Wave.

Yet Conner's films aren't all supercharged pastiche. THE WHITE ROSE (1967), documents a stone sculpture's careful removal from an artist's studio, and, emotionally, it's the saddest, sweetest funeral you ever saw. Miles Davis blows a disconsolate horn while Conner's camera darts to capture each stage of the wall-sized artwork's departure. A sculptor himself, he feels her pain. Anyone who doesn't understand the parental attachment that an artist can have toward her work will get it after seeing this movie.

When I first heard about the Conner retrospective, I emailed the news to some filmmaker-critic friends, who were excited at the opportunity to see 17 of his films. Like me, they consider themseves to be working in Conner's playful, searching, archive-raiding shadow when creating critical video essays. We flatter ourselves. Conner wasn't an essayist, but a visual musician. You will hear some of the world's great music at this retrospective, from Ray Charles to Jean Sibelius, but don't neglect the rhythms and melodies convulsing right on the screen.