Revisiting the flickering poetry of Bruce Conner
In a two-night event at separate venues, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, REDCAT and the Los Angeles Filmforum present two programs of the film work of artist Bruce Conner, who passed away in 2008 at 74. This is an increasingly rare opportunity to see the work of this deeply influential filmmaker, who was a notorious stickler regarding the exhibition of his films. The artist’s widow, Jean Conner, and longtime friend Dennis Hopper will attend both events.
While Conner’s films -- with their kaleidoscope collage of imagery, ideas and pop music -- have long been cast as progenitors of the music video, it is also possible to see his work as forecasting the DIY aesthetic of much of what can now be found on YouTube. Starting with his 1958 debut, “A Movie,” his filmmaking would align with the collages and combines he was already creating for gallery exhibitions and collectors, as he would use “found” footage from preexisting sources. Putting him at the forefront of a continuum with other artist-filmmakers from Andy Warhol to Julian Schnabel, Conner’s filmmaking can be seen as an extension of his fine-art work.
“Bruce didn’t have a camera,” Jean Conner recalled of the impetus behind Conner’s unusual technique, “but he wanted to make films. And he didn’t have any money. So he bought some films at the photography store, sort of home movies, and [filmmaker] Larry Jordan showed him how to splice film. He borrowed a splicer from Larry and he just made a film, which he called ‘A Movie.’ ” Conner’s debut and his second film, “Cosmic Ray” (1961), which playfully used the music of Ray Charles, are landmark works in the history of experimental, non-narrative filmmaking.
At about that time, Hopper met Conner at Los Angeles’ Ferus Gallery. Both born in Kansas, they would become fast friends and remain so to the end of Conner’s life. Over the years, Hopper has often credited Conner’s work with influencing the editing style of his own “Easy Rider.”
“Bruce’s films are so extraordinary,” Hopper recalled recently. “I was just overwhelmed by them. And his tactile work. To me, it sounds a little corny, but he is by far my favorite artist.”
In “Report” (1967), Conner created a hypnotic meditation by interweaving footage and news reports of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy with film leader and flickering black-and-white frames. The cumulative effect is staggering.
Where many of his earlier works featured music, prefiguring MTV and its ilk, Conner eventually would craft films that were themselves, in essence, music videos. In “Mongoloid” (1978), Conner created a work around the Devo song of the same name, while for “Mea Culpa” (1981) and “America Is Waiting” (1982) he used the sonic collages from the David Byrne- Brian Eno record “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.”
If Conner’s films are often startling for their compactness -- the longest in the two programs is barely a half-hour and many are under 10 minutes -- they are also rich with a density of allusion and layered meaning. Though his found footage techniques may leave some thinking the films are haphazard and only partly the artist’s own, in reality they are carefully constructed with an unwavering exactitude.
“I think his precision in locating these moments, which he lifts from their original context and then places them with something that originally had no relation,” said REDCAT programmer Steve Anker, “in the course of creating a new meaning, this mosaic with hundreds of these moments, he’s not creating a singular, linear kind of film. He’s not after one overarching theme.
“They are complex in the way that poetry is. You can find multiple levels that also connect the same things in very different kinds of ways. There’s not a single message. He’s creating a texture.”
Conner’s films were not exclusively created from found footage. His 1966 film “Breakaway” features exquisite footage of Antonia Christina Basilotta -- who would later sing the pop hit “Mickey” as Toni Basil -- dancing wildly to her rendition of the eponymous pop song. With its rushing blur of editing and different film speeds, the movie captures perfectly the ecstatic bliss of movement and music. Hopper fondly recalled how he and actor Dean Stockwell helped with the lights on the day Conner shot the film in an apartment near the Santa Monica Pier.
What keeps Conner’s work fresh, UCLA programmer Timoleon Wilkins said, is that “it rose from a necessity within him, as opposed to something he saw going on in the world. It came as much from his own inner being as it did from his circumstance. He always told me he was a poverty filmmaker.”
Wilkins recalled the first time he saw one of Conner’s films and the feelings of inspiration and excitement it set free within himself.
“I don’t have to aspire to make ' Star Wars’ to do something that’s really meaningful with film,” Wilkins recalled, “meaningful in a visceral way, something you feel in your gut and also at the same time not manipulative like drama can be. It’s OK if you’re poor and don’t have a lot of film stock to waste, you can still go from the small to the big. That’s where your soul sings. I think anybody can find inspiration there.”
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