Friday, May 8, 2009

Bruce Conner: In Memorium (part 2)

This program fell into these three personally defined groupings–

Music Videos: Mongoloid and America is Waiting

Meditations on America: Crossroads, Take the 5:10 to Dreamland, Valse Triste

Abstract Incantations: Looking for Mushrooms (long version) and Easter Morning

It was fun to again see the first Conner films I ever saw, Mongoloid and America is Waiting. These works still stand out as exceptions to the rule as far as music videos go. As entertainment, I recommend them highly for their use of rhythm and humor. But in the context of the rest of the Conner films I've seen this weekend they are lightweight pieces. Fortunately they were grouped together at the beginning of the program as this allowed Crossroads, Take the 5:10 to Dreamland, Valse Triste, Looking for Mushrooms (long version) and Easter Morning to emerge as the completely unique and deeply powerful pieces they are. 

Following upon the Music Videos, the "Meditations," as I choose to call them, dramatically altered the mood of the evening. Each of these films passed along a somber, melancholy, and even a little bit of nostalgic energy. There is simply no more appropriate word I can use to describe Crossroads than somber. Conner seems to remove himself almost entirely from the editorial process with this film, at least in comparison to his other more kinetic films. It is as if he tapped into the National Archives and simply assembled, one after the other, multiple camera angles of a single event. The film is long, deliberately and appropriately so. The final shot is almost completely monotone, just a big wall of grey, though the dark shape of a ship eventually appears in the foreground as the camera recording the moment either drifts to the left or the ship drifts to the right. That the footage depicts military tests in the South Pacific, a place of intensely vibrant and verdant colors, only adds to the horror of such annihilating power. This version of the film contained only Terry Riley's music, though Patrick Gleeson's name remains in the credits (apparently a unique version of the film). Limiting the score to Riley's minimalist composition made the film feel like a single whole and I wonder if I would feel differently about the film seeing the music duties shared between two composers as it is usually shown. As it is, I loved this film and felt its placement in the program order helped me to gradually move into the headspace of the films which followed. Situating this film at this location in the program order is inspired programming.

I happened to be revisiting Raul Ruiz's Poetics of Cinema yesterday ( before I came into town for this second Conner screening. As Crossroads was screening two passages from Ruiz's book forcefully rose up in my mind:

"Don Ramon distinguishes between the historic and the legendary elements of this tale, and traces its origins to Italy and Syria; but in the end he decides that perhaps the story happened several times, in Syria, in Italy, and also in Spain. It is, in other words, what is known as an Immortal Story. It travels the centuries in search of victims in which to be embodied." [emphasis added]

"One of the most fertile inventions of our imagination is the figure we give to the cosmos, even though it loses its human substance to become a celestial form at one with the universe. How many simpler cases do we not find in nature? Faces appear in the clouds. the stars, the stones, sometimes in chemical reactions, in damp patches on walls. Wherever we turn, a human figure is composing or decomposing (as Blake says, 'All landscapes are a man seen from a distance.')" [emphasis added]

Apparently this latter thought also entered the minds of the group sitting behind me. As soon as the film ended they began talking about how they started looking for faces in the mushroom clouds. To my ears it seemed boredom provoked their mental wanderings. I'd like to think instead that Conner's pushing the limits of duration provoked them to a meditative state that will feed them ideas for a long time to come.

While the first quote mentioned above comes from Ruiz's discussion of a legend of murder and betrayal, I include it here because it sent a chill of predestination through my body. The thought that we, as a species, are trapped within a story we cannot escape is a frightening and incredibly bleak thought. What Conner achieves with Crossroads is the invention (acknowledgment?) of a new "Immortal Story," one that Robert Oppenheimer himself called forth when he quoted from the Bhagavad-gita after the first atomic explosion. "I have become death, the destroyer of worlds" he repeated to the rolling cameras ( If only those words had entered our cultural heritage and social conscience as decisively as that first atomic explosion....

Take the 5:10 to Dreamland and Valse Triste continued these meditations on American practices, cultural hegemony, and "lifestyle" desires. Take the 5:10 to Dreamland starts with a boy climbing into bed, turning off his light, and quickly going to sleep. Immediately we are dropped into what appear to be his night dreams, which depend entirely upon the world he inhabits and the culturally-defined images which have been passed along to him. One of the simple aspects of this film I liked most was that there was no "soft dissolve" or "blur the image" transition to signify entering the dream state. The shift was as sharp as an off/on switch. I think we like to believe every choice we make is conscious, if not deliberate–a manifestation of the desire to control our own existence rather than feeling controlled by the culture we inhabit and that inhabits us. 5:10 shows this to be the desire versus actuality it really is by revealing how everything we encounter and everything we experience comes to color our existence, often in ways we are never quite fully conscious of. In this sense, 5:10 struck me as an analysis of external influences. Valse Triste, which translates as Sad Waltzes, seemed a much more personal exploration. Compared to the descriptive and somewhat distanced qualities of 5:10, Valse Triste is defined through its experiential character in a present-tense exposition. While it too was concerned with a past–one of the reasons I bring up nostalgia–there was a geniality of presentation which differentiates Valse Trise from all Conner's previous work. Looking at this film from this vantage point marks Valse Triste as a significant shift in Conner's work, from outright critique to an attempt to share an essentially unique experience. It also offers a conceptual transition toward films to come, which in this program included Looking For Mushrooms (long version) and Easter Morning. If any of Conner's films suggest a naturally developing human being interested in discovery rather than riding upon achievements of the past, Valse Triste is the one that does this for me.

Which brings me to what I am calling the Abstract Incantations, the two films Looking For Mushrooms (long version) and Easter Morning. A friend studying Hinduism once summarized the four life stages of Vedic philosophy for me in a way I cannot even attempt to repeat with my limited knowledge of the subject. But as I watched these two films the memory of that summary reentered my consciousness. I have, however, discovered this description of these Stages (

1. Brahmacharya: - This stage is the first one and it begins at the age of 20 and extends up

to 25 years. This is the time when man leads the life of student and practices celibacy. The

motto of this phase is to train man to discipline himself. This is the perfect time to inculcate

values like self-restraint, knowledge and obedience.

2. Grihastha: - At this point of time man needs to pay heed to his social and family life. This

phase begins from 25 and lasts till 60 years. Grihastha is a crucial stage in one`s life where

man has to balance both his familial and social duties. He is married and manages his

household and at the same time looks after the needs of the world outside. This is the first

stage where he puts his knowledge to use. He has to discharge the duties of a son, brother,

husband, father and a member of the community. From here he moves onto the next stage.

3. Vanaprastha: - This is the step to Partial renunciation. This stage ushers in the life of man

at an age of 50 and lasts till he is 74. His children are grown up and he slowly moves away for

the material ties. It is his age for retirement and starts walking on a path that will lead him to

the Divine.

4. Sannyasa: The last stage in his life comes when he completely snaps off his worldly ties.

This phase begins at 74 and lasts till he dies. He is completely free from the emotional

attachments. It is at this age that he becomes an ascetic and completely dedicates his life to

serve God.

While I certainly don't wish to impose any religious doctrine upon Conner–his "beliefs" or lack thereof are none of my business and ultimately irrelevant to his work in my opinion–or apply some kind of beatific "sainthood" to his life and career, I do see some striking points of reference between these middle two Vedic Life Stages and Conner's film career.


1958-1976 - A Movie through Crossroads (25 years old to 43 years old)

1977-1982 - 5:10 through America Is Waiting (44 years old to 49 years old)


1995-2006 - Television Assassination through Easter Sunday (62 years old to 73 years old)

Searching for any specific meaning from these final two films in the program seems pointless. In making this assertion I don't mean to suggest the films are pointless or valueless. I would say the exact opposite is the case. Searching for Mushrooms (long version)  and Easter Sunday are gorgeous works, full of color, motion and, most importantly for me, an attempt to share firsthand experience rather than describe or critique it. There is, of course, no way for me to truly have shared the physical and mental experiences of the Bruce Conner who recorded the images which moved into the compositions these films became unless I had been there with him. And even then, I'd argue that such a sharing is ultimately impossible since our individual perceptions represent an accumulation of personal experience (as 5:10 and Valse Triste so magnificently demonstrate). In other words, the film I'd make, being in the same place at the same time as Conner was when he captured his images, would inevitably be different than his. But this is what attracts me to such personal cinematic output. Rather than seeking the "culturally shared" experience of a narrative thread that has existed for centuries (those Immortal Stories Ruiz mentions) as is the presupposition of narrative/commercial and much documentary cinema, works like these final two films by Conner push me to appreciate our individuality and uniqueness. In such a presentation I see potential rather than the trap of predestination. That, for me, is a revolutionary act which celebrates life rather than trying to control it.

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