A naked woman performs a striptease as fireworks burst. Mickey Mouse, looking off-screen left, shoots goo from one of his eyes while Minnie scowls. The end of the reel rolls. Then a close-up of the girl, breast to butt, with a bright lollipop of lights above her. A diagram of egg-like teeth appears with “No brushing” shown upside-down. Another reel starts. The upright lady dances, more fireworks. Reel end. She’s totally naked, and we can see all the sweet spots. Another reel mark, with a countdown. Soldiers march to war. Reel mark. Breasts, hand, and waist. Reel mark. Breasts and hair. Reel mark. The boys plant the flag at Iwo Jima. Breasts. Reel mark. Soldiers. Fireworks. Ray Charles, singing “What’d I Say” on the soundtrack, moans.
The first thing that you have to do with a Bruce Conner movie is figure out what you’re watching. As this sequence from Conner’s 1961 film Cosmic Ray progresses, soldiers marching before Mickey looks at wilting cartoon cannons before the dancing gal appears with a skull over her crotch, you get the idea that the film is about sex, in a way that simultaneously raises the flag and topples it. Conner tweaked the sex drive a lot. Consider a sequence from 1958’s A Movie: A man looks through a periscope, sees Marilyn Monroe in a bikini, and fires a torpedo. Or consider the whole of Marilyn Times Five, in which a Monroe impersonator fondles a Coke bottle while “I’m Through with Love” plays over and over, in a film that prolongs the male gaze until the eyes tire.
It’s true that some of Conner’s most famous films show pseudo-cheesecake spectacles of twirling girls. But Conner, who died in 2008 after 50 years of filmmaking, tweaked many drives. His oeuvre, the subject of a 17-film, two-program show running for two weeks at Film Forum, offers multiple levels of enjoyment, and not just because in films like 1966’s Breakaway the dancer writhes so energetically as to outrace even Conner’s sense of irony. Born in Wichita in 1933, he escaped to join an emerging arts scene in San Francisco during the Beat era of the late 1950s. Some of his first major artworks were nylon-encased three-dimensional assemblages that featured dolls, fur, feathers, dog tags, and a healthy heap of disorientation. The question loomed: How seriously should audiences take this stuff?
Totally and not at all, both at once. In a sculpture like 1960’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre/Homage to Errol Flynn, Conner created critical distance through physical distance—feathers prominently blocking images of half-naked girls and preventing the viewer from seeing the whole picture, which the cracked mirrors suggest is irretrievable anyway. When Conner turned from three-dimensional assemblage to film assemblage, he replaced the physical relation between objects with a temporal relation between images. What had once been a mirror placed strategically near a girl now became a cut from a soldier to a dame.
Conner prized the odds and ends of movies, literally. He tried and failed to obtain Hollywood studio prints, then found a bunch of chopped-up reel markers and B-movie outtakes and edited them together into the matter of A Movie—plane and car crashes, a Teddy Roosevelt speech, Indian uprisings, war deaths, elephant hunts, shivering natives, and a scuba dive into ancient ruins, all scored to Respighi’s triumphant Pines of Rome. The obscenely long opening director’s credit (well over 30 seconds, in a 12-minute film) clues us into human intervention. If the artist can stand outside the material, it seems to say, so can the viewer.
A title card flashes “The End” between Conner’s name and the found footage. This is a joke, Conner claiming the movie like conquering governments claim nations, but it’s also a statement on how most films are finished (dead) before the viewer’s seen them. Whether through music, through editing, or through the viewer’s awareness of the author, Conner tried to keep life in his art by pointing to the world outside the screen.
This was certainly the case with 1967’s Report, a film about the JFK assassination. Conner couldn’t acquire footage of the actual death, which works to the movie’s advantage. The more he repeats a close-up shot of the Dallas motorcade, the more aware we grow of what’s coming, which we finally hear on the newscast soundtrack playing over a reel countdown: “It’s official now. The president is dead.” Prior to that, we’ve seen an intense black-and-white flicker that stabilizes only once we are told that Kennedy’s body has been picked up. Several critics have claimed that this flicker mirrors a dying man’s fading consciousness, but it also has the much more intriguing effect of booting us out of the narrative: We can’t watch Kennedy anymore, because there’s nothing left to see. The film tries to return to the motorcade, but the image stays stuck on repeat. Report then simultaneously moves backward and forward, to images of a living Kennedy at ceremonial functions and of his funeral procession, with the voiceover switched from news of his death to his Dallas arrival. Meanwhile, a matador stabs a bull, and a light bulb shatters; footage of the Bride of Frankenstein’s creation alternates with JFK’s American flag-draped coffin and TV commercial images of a housewife shilling soap. Melancholy fades in favor of anger, familiar televised images of the president’s life and death transitioning to a final shot of an IBM girl hitting a button: SELL.