Bruce Conner (1933-2008)
Valse Triste (1977)
By the 1970s, other filmmakers had began working in Conner’s style and he lost interest, pursuing a radically different approach in three of his most famous works, Crossroads, Valse Triste and Take the 5:10 to Dreamland. These films, propelled by gentle, ambient soundtracks, abandoned the visually arresting, rapid-fire editing of his earlier works. Crossroads is a 36-minute montage of slowly shifting mushroom clouds cobbled from Defense Department footage of nuclear testing. Through 27 different takes of the tests, Conner edits a film of inharmonious emotions, creating a visual ode to an ultimately destructive power, tempting us with the beauty of its aftermath. Valse Triste and Take the 5:10 to Dreamland unveil a more meditative style. Simple and elusive in their nature, both invoke a dream-like state, providing a metaphor for reflective experience. Take the 5:10 to Dreamland weaves an ambiguously unstructured series of images, coincidental and meandering. While his early films highlighted the confines of the medium, 5:10 refuses it outright, denying the existence of a cinematic boundary. Valse Triste follows a similar pattern but with autobiographical undertones of a Kansas boyhood dream.
In 1978 Conner returned, in a way, to the spirit of his earlier interventions with Mongoloid, set to Devo’s song of the same name. Long before MTV, Conner produced a rhythmically and intellectually resonant relationship between music and the moving image. Mongoloid combines educational science videos, film clips and television advertisements to tell the story of a boy who conquers a mental disability to become a useful, even ideal, man. This film, along with his work for Brian Eno and David Byrne (Mea Culpa and America is Waiting) are the star witnesses in the case for Conner’s fathering of the music video. It is a vigorously contested paternity. Presented with the title, the artist, in a phrase doubly delightful for its reciprocal implications “demands a DNA test.”
Conner’s contributions to film are, in very real sense, undeniable. Since his early explorations, sampling and remixing have become mainstream, even traditional, in film and video. In unearthing a common cinematic and visual language, he charged the use of pre-existing and discarded imagery with an emotional and political power whose influence cannot be overstated. So long as repetition, saturation, and vapidity continue to characterize the lived experience of the moving image, the devastating simplicity of Conner’s deconstruction, de-contextualization and re-materialization will retain its urgency. No two viewings of a Conner film are the same, for as images relentlessly sediment the edges of our consciousness, his work persists in drawing our attention to the latest elsewhere of the everyday. New associations are made and new possibilities opened. Conner’s films are an enigmatic cancer of visual exchange, growing more vital with each encounter.
Still, his moment is not our own, and though this fact is often brandished to wish away the ghosts of didactics past, it is, itself, an opening. Just as coral reefs are so many skeletons, appearing only as a certain life departs, so too the form of art, its architecture, emerges only when its temporal surface turns to dust, burns off, and vanishes in the shifting wind. And so the audacity of Conner’s work takes place a second time, as it debuts its bones. That these are so familiar is to signal their significance, as evidence in the archive of our becoming.
In an interview with William C. Wees, Conner said, “I’ve always known that I was outside the main, mercantile stream. I have been placed in an environment that would have its name changed now and again: avant-garde film, experimental film, independent film etc. I have tried to create film work so that it is capable of communicating to people outside of a limited dialogue within an esoteric, avant-garde or a cultish social form. Jargon I don’t like.” Conner created a kaleidoscopic vision that interacts with any who agree to watch. A refreshing take on the sometimes cryptic genre of the ‘experimental’, his films are inviting, humorous, emotionally legible and dramatically charged. Literally written in a language everyone can understand, they can be superficially enjoyable or effectively inexhaustible. They offer as much as you want to take. --STEPHANIE HARRIS