Before There Was MTV, There Was Bruce Conner


Bruce Conner (1933–2008) was a film artist who changed the game with his first movie, titled A Movie (1958). Every image in this 12-minute assemblage, except the title card (“A Movie by Bruce Conner”) is secondhand—drawn from newsreels, travelogues, stag films, and academy leaders. Premiered at a San Francisco gallery as part of the sculptor’s first one-man show, Conner’s Movie was a true film object—as well as a self-reflexive exercise in academic montage, a joke on the power of background music (in this case, Respighi’s sprightly “Pines of Rome”), a high-concept/low-rent disaster film and a pop art masterpiece.

A Movie is canonical, and the rest of Conner’s oeuvre—at Film Forum this week and next in two 70-minute-plus programs—holds up as well. The five-minute Cosmic Ray (1961), a frantic found-footage-plus-gyrating-naked-chick montage set to Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say,” was the original underground blockbuster—an anticipation of the MTV aesthetic that established Conner as the poet of sexual frenzy. Program A includes several examples: Vivian (1964), a kinetic portrait set to Conway Twitty’s “Mona Lisa”; the go-go structural striptease Breakaway (1965), with dancer Toni Basil; and a hypnotic exercise in recycling recycled footage, Marilyn Times Five (1968–73), with Marilyn Monroe. Conner’s other name stars included JFK, the subject of Report (1963–67), and the Atomic Bomb, as featured in his longest and most majestic film, the 36-minute Crossroads (1976), both showing on Program B.

Having more or less invented the music video, Conner produced some stellar examples, fashioning short collage films around Devo’s Mongoloid (1978) and two David Byrne–Brian Eno compositions, Mea Culpa (1981) and America Is Waiting (1981); he also edited found footage to more lyrical ends, notably in 5:10 to Dreamland (1976) and Valse Triste (1978). In the latter, images evocative of Conner’s Kansas boyhood are sepia-tinted, linked within a series of slow dissolves and, mixed with ghostly bird calls and rumbling thunder, set to the theme from the radio show I Love a Mystery. The powerful sense of imminence evokes both a fading personal memory and an entire world on the brink of obliteration.

Conner made several (relatively) conventional documentaries—The White Rose (1967), on painter Jay De Feo’s legendary canvas, and His Eye Is on the Sparrow (2006), interviewing two veteran gospel performers—as well as a few ecstatic hippie home movies. The lush, joyously pixilated Looking for Mushrooms (1959–1967) is screening in its 1996 version, which substitutes a spacey Terry Riley composition for the Beatles’ avant-pop “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Also scored by Riley (but performed by the Shanghai Film Orchestra), Conner’s final film, Easter Morning (2008), having its theatrical premiere on Program A, digitalizes 1966 8mm footage to marvelous effect. Close-ups of flowers and foliage, burning candles, a nude, the San Francisco skyline are transformed into grainy rhythmic smears of reflected and refracted light. Trippy as it is, Conner’s last movie has the same subject as his first—the phenomenon of motion pictures.

‘Bruce Conner: The Art of Montage,’ November 10 through 23, Film Forum