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October 18 - October 19

Bruce Conner, the Last Magician of the 20th Century

It is difficult to measure the profound impact of the late Bruce Conner's films (1933-2008) upon postwar American cinema and popular culture. Perhaps most influential was Conner's unique approach to montage and the almost uncanny editorial acumen that guided his work from his very first film, the found footage masterpiece A Movie (1959). From a strictly technical standpoint, Conner's precision cutting was easily as skillful and sophisticated as that of the great Soviet masters. And yet Conner used montage to explore a far more ambiguous and multivalent register than the often politically schematic work of the Russian avant-garde.  Rather than message-driven texts, Conner’s cinema refashions film and television images into haunting and illuminating textures that unleash and channel the inner, unconscious forces at work within cinema and popular media, releasing the ghosts of trauma and nostalgia from the machine. Films such as Report, Television Assassination and Crossroads repurpose iconic images and televisual events—JFK's assassination, the Bikini Atoll tests—into meditations at turns mournful and outraged, and always deeply insightful about the power and limits of the moving image’s capacity to tell and to show.

For their remarkable use of music to structure their energetic bricolage, early Conner films such as Cosmic Ray and Breakaway are frequently pointed to as important precursors to the modern music video. In Conner's late work the furious, pyrotechnical montage of the first films gives way to a restrained and lyrical editing style that fashions fewer images into immersive and hypnotic experiences. One later highlight of Conner's long career was his 1996 transformation of his first color film, the three minute Looking for Mushrooms, into a hallucinatory trance film made in collaboration with avant-garde composer Terry Riley.

A protean artist of almost overwhelming talent, Conner first made his name as a pioneer of assemblage art, crafting ethereal and ominous sculptures using raw materials gathered from San Francisco scrap heaps. Taking old cardboard boxes, broken dolls, pulp magazines, frayed string—and especially the torn women's stockings that became the signature element of his sculptures—Conner created a body of eerie, beautiful and sharply political sculptures that subtly address the rapacious appetite for sex and death driving much of postwar American popular culture.   

Rejecting the commodity drive of the art market, Conner abruptly ceased his assemblage work just as he began to achieve real recognition as an artist—turning instead to cinema and a mode of found footage filmmaking directly informed by his sculptural practice. Although superficially similar to Pop Art, the appropriation strategies behind Conner's films are notably distinct. Rather than the crisp, bright icons favored by Pop Art, Conner turned to dingy and degraded cinematic marginalia—condensed versions of B pictures, educational and industrial films, newsreels—for the source material in the majority of his films. Rejecting Pop Art's deadpan humor and cool detachment, Conner's films are inspired by the raw, abrasive energy of the television and movie trailer, in which the tragic and the absurd cruelly coexist within the same split-second. The scabrous humor of films such as Cosmic Ray and America Is Waiting is balanced by a gentler and often elegiac tone that drew upon Conner's barely repressed love of cinema and deep nostalgia for the childhood movie-going experiences that were a crucial touchstone for the later films Take the 5:10 to Dreamland and Valse Triste. A brave artist who encouraged us to look the apocalypse in the eye, Conner also reminded us that the magic and mystery of cinema allows us to share our memories with others in the dark.

The Harvard Film Archive is grateful to Jean Conner, Michelle Silva, and Henry S. Rosenthal for allowing this tribute and celebratory retrospective. 


Saturday October 18 at 7pm

Program One

Cosmic Ray

US 1961, 16mm, b/w, 4 min.

Channeling the “black magic” of Ray Charles’ music, Conner used occult symbols and mysterious images to create this nocturnal and raucous masterpiece.

Mea Culpa

US 1981, 16mm, b/w, 5 min.

In his first collaboration with David Byrne and Brian Eno, Conner used footage from educational films to create a rhythmically austere image-track for music from their pioneering “sampling” album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981).

A Movie

US 1958, 16mm, b/w, 12 min.

The ultimate found footage film, A MOVIE summarizes—and critiques— the history of modern cinema in just twelve minutes.

Marilyn Times Five

US 1968-73, 16mm, b/w, 14 min.

Conner’s response to structural cinema is at turns hilarious and sad, appropriating the strained performance of Marilyn Monroe imitator Arline Hunter.

Vivian

US 1964, 16mm, b/w, 4 min.

An ecstatic portrait of actress Vivian Kurtz that features footage of a 1964 Conner exhibition and couches a humorous critique of the art market.

Ten Second Film

US 1965, 16mm, b/w, silent, 10 sec.

Conner created a ten second scandal with this very short film, commissioned by the New York Film Festival as a “trailer” and promptly rejected for being simply “too fast.”

Take the 5:10 to Dreamland

US 1977, 16mm, color, 5 min.

An oneiric, autobiographic chapter in Conner’s cinema with a mysterious, evocative soundtrack by Patrick Gleeson.

Valse Triste

US 1979, 16mm, color, 5 min.

A lyrical companion piece to 5:10, this poetic found-footage memoir counts as one of Conner’s most intimate films.

Looking For Mushrooms

US 1996, 16mm, b/w, 15 min.

Conner returned to his first color footage of travels in Mexico and his early years in San Francisco, radically slowing down the original material—by adding five frames per shot—to craft a spellbinding and hypnotic superimposition of two worlds.

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Sunday October 19 at 3pm

Program Two

Report

US 1967, 16mm, b/w, 13 min.

Haunted by JFK’s assassination, Conner obsessively filmed television coverage of the killing, funeral and miscellaneous contemporary programming, repurposing the footage into both a sorrowful portrait of a lost hero—NB: Conner’s use of blank “leader”—and a blistering critique of postwar consumerism.

Crossroads

US 1976, 35mm, b/w, 36 min.

Conner followed his fascination with the atomic bomb to an absolutely brilliant furthest extreme, “expanding” 27 different shots of the 1946 Bikini Atoll a-bomb test footage into a mesmerizing two-part epic that juxtaposes the enhanced “realism” of Patrick Gleeson’s sound track in the first half against the hallucinatory trance music of Terry Riley that closes the film.

Television Assassination

US 1963-95, 16mm, b/w, 14 min.

Originally part of a sculpture in which the footage was projected onto a decrepit television set, Conner’s film offers a frightening meditation on the televisual spectacle of JFK’s assassination.

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Sunday Ocotber 19 at 7pm

Program Three

Cosmic Ray

US 1961, 16mm, b/w, 4 min.

Channeling the “black magic” of Ray Charles’ music, Conner used occult symbols and mysterious images to create this nocturnal and raucous masterpiece.

The White Rose

US 1967, 16mm, b/w, 7 min.

An elegiac musical documentary capturing the slow removal of Jay de Fayo’s iconic “painting” The White Rose from the San Francisco loft from which she had been evicted.

Breakaway

US 1966, 16mm, b/w, 5 min.

Shot at multiple speeds (and forwards and backwards), Conner’s dance film uses incredible rapid-fire montage to deliver a beautifully frenzied response to Maya Deren’s motion studies.

Permian Strata

US 1969, 16mm, b/w, 4 min.

Conner’s mordant gem discovers wonderfully strange and subversive subtexts at work within an obscure 1940s Biblical film.

Mongoloid

US 1978, 16mm, b/w, 4 min.

A hilarious “educational” film that features a pulsing Devo soundtrack.

America is Waiting

US 1981, 16mm, b/w, 4 min.

Working again with Byrne and Eno, Conner’s early music video offers a satire of patriotism and national security.

Mea Culpa

US 1981, 16mm, b/w, 5 min.

In his first collaboration with David Byrne and Brian Eno, Conner used footage from educational films to create a rhythmically austere image-track for music from their pioneering “sampling” album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981).

Luke

US 2004, video, color, 22 min.

For his first video work Conner slowed down 8mm footage shot in 1967 on the set of Cool Hand Luke into a meditation on the cinema and landscape that uses a beautiful Patrick Gleeson soundtrack.

His Eye Is On the Sparrow

US 2006, video, b/w and color, 4 min.

Conner distilled footage from his unfinished documentary on the gospel group The Soul Stirrers into a collage accompaniment to the group’s version of the classic spiritual His Eye Is On the Sparrow.

Easter Morning

US 2008, video, color, 10 min.

Conner’s exquisite final work is a step-printed reinterpretation of footage from his 1966 unreleased film, EASTER MORNING RAGA that further reveals his abiding interest in the psychedelic as an alternate way of seeing.

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