Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Opening Night - Bruce Conner: In Memorium, part 1

The PDX Film Festival started tonight with the first of two programs concentrating on the film work of Bruce Conner. This post will likely ramble a bit, but that seems appropriate given Conner's penchant for deliberate contrariness (to be forthright, a trait I greatly admire).

I've seen most of the films screened tonight, some of them numerous times. In the past I have been most fond of the Conner films which I refer to as cinematically joyful. Included in this category are Cosmic Ray and, especially, Breakaway. I consider Breakaway to be one of the "freest" and most unabashedly joyful films I've encountered in 30 years of film viewing. To this day I want to get up and dance along with the film, and actually did so when I checked it out from the Donnell Library in the mid 80s. Yet, as much as I enjoyed seeing these two films again, tonight I found myself drawn to the more historically focused films, in particular, Report, Marilyn Times Five, and The White Rose.

Many of the films in the first program have entered the filmmaker's zeitgeist whether some of the filmmakers aping/echoing/honoring Conner's work realize the source of their inspiration or not. I find this reality simultaneously humorous and sad for a variety of reasons and this perception might explain why Conner once said to Michelle Silva, the representative of the Conner Family Trust in attendance at this screening, "I'm called the Father of MTV but I want a blood test; and if I am the father of MTV I should have used a thicker condom."

Conner's work, as could be said of MTV, epitomizes a societal gestalt, and a particularly America-centric one at that. But the difference between the two avenues of expression are extreme. Whereas MTV's agenda is commodity and commercialization, Conner's more contemplative films–among which I include A Movie, Report, and Marilyn Times Five–consciously mine (and undermine) images which at this point in time have become so iconic as to practically be mundane (which causes me to wonder whether someone first viewing his films today can truly appreciate the impact these films must have had during the early years of their existence). These two sources of imagistic bombast (Conner and MTV) also approach their subjects from opposite ends of the spectrum: MTV from emptiness and a "lack" needing to be filled, Conner from a fullness which easily displays an overabundance described with the determined patience of Georges Bataille's writings on religion, erotism, death and sacrifice. While both could be described as holding a mirror to society, Conner does not shy from the death mask which hovers behind the craving for eternal youth.

Perhaps this historical specificity is a conundrum Conner's work cannot escape, for cinema does exist within time and contextually shifts based upon events which occur between the time of the creation of a particular film and when we have an opportunity to see it. Does this mean Conner's films have or will become irrelevant as they age? Personally, I don't thinks so, though I do expect they will be appreciated for different reasons today than they were when they premiered, and tomorrow for different reasons than we might appreciate them for today. I don't believe they will become irrelevant because the heart behind the films is so clearly on display. These are not "objective" films. They are deeply personal films, which is striking considering how much of the content of several of the films draw upon pre-existing footage and events where Conner had no direct participation. For me this indicates a filmmaker trying to regain control of the depiction of historical events which have been reduced to news bites and fragments disassociated from any direct connection to the time in which they occurred. In other words, Conner's work is directly opposed to the emptiness I associate with the MTV-vised "surfacing" of such television series as CSI where death is just another event to montage the hell out of. Where those mediums of expression lay pavement, Conner tends a real garden containing weeds, flowers and food.

A syllogism of our time is that "History is Written by the Victors." It is apparent that Conner's was a voice decrying such cynicism, adamantly refusing to bow to or accept such a passive position. This perception might explain why the most surprising film of the evening for me was The White Rose

I am tempted to call The White Rose a devotional film, a phrase which sticks in my mouth because of the religious connotations typically associated with the word devotional. Yet, to rest for a moment upon the trenchant groundwork of Nathanial Dorsky's Devotional Cinema, this film is so full of love, loyalty and enthusiasm for its subject matter that devotional is perhaps the only appropriate word to apply. As with so many of Conner's films, this was made by a filmmaker who obviously and without apology cared deeply about the subject matter he chose to emphasize. He honors not only the art and the artist responsible for the painting being moved, but also the caretakers responsible for moving it. The shot of the moving van driving away near the end of the film, its crew lounging in the back after strenuous but delicate work, provokes a sense of longing, loss, and the changes that inevitably come with the passage of time (another ode to mortality?). As the truck pulls away one could be tempted to wave goodbye as if to a lover pursuing a new journey which does not include us. The imagery and dramatic progression are strong enough to evoke Brion Gysin's proclamation that we are all "Here To Go."

The subject of Conner's "fetishizing" the erotic came up during after show questions. All art making is fetishistic to some degree, but I suspect this is a question which comes up regularly with a number of Conner's films. Yet the posing of this question seems significantly if not completely off target in relation to the appearance of women in films such as Breakaway, Cosmic Ray, Marilyn Times Five and Vivian. I include Vivian in this quartet deliberately. Though it includes no nudity or "erotic" dancing Vivian does include similar visual tropes of dressing, costuming, "showing off" and even "encasing." However, from my point of view, Conner never fetishizes. He adores. And, in this adoration his films are liberating for his creative collaborators and the viewers of his films. I find absolutely nothing excessive or irrational in his depiction of nudity (both terms are part of the definition of fetishize). In three of the films mentioned it is quite obvious the women are experiencing as much joy in the act of creation as Conner is. And in the fourth mentioned–Marilyn Times Five, which is formed entirely from a pre-existing stripper film–Conner so deliberately interrupts flow and "climax" as to remind this viewer how prevalent, pervasive and predictable and required such depictions are. Each of these films is fully conscious, aware and alive, never merely subject to or victim of a demanding obsession. Marilyn does include elements of sensuality, but even sinking into that sensation is undermined through disruption, visual repetition and the repeated use, to the point of absurdity, of Marilyn Monroe singing I'm Through With Love. There is a suggestion of an untapped "more" in Marilyn Times Five that has more in common with Peggy Lee's Is That All There Is than it does with a Marilyn typically associated with I Want to Be Loved By You ("and nobody else but you"). These are intelligent films that dispute a victimized or victimizing objectification/subjectification. I consider them fully "conscious" films, perfectly aware of their intent and wholly comfortable in the body they inhabit. They certainly share more with films directed by Candida Royale or the writings of Susie Bright than they do with either a new VIVID release or psuedo-liberating film such as Thelma and Louise. I find it exhilarating that the women appearing in Conner's films needn't suffer the slap of an imposed and debilitating dose of narrative tragedy, that they can revel in their own joy without fear of punishment.

Due to the time I was born and came of age (I am a cusp child, half hippy, half punk) I've associated many of Conner's films with the nihilism of punk. And even though I adamantly take the position that the nihilistic energy of those late 70s/early 80s years provoked intensely positive results, in so narrowly contemplating Conner's films I believe I've done a disservice to him and his work. 


  1. David,

    This review is so right on, nice work.

  2. I started to comment about The White Rose, until I realized it had nothing to do with the anti-Nazi student movement within Germany during WWII, which your remarks, concerning the syllogistic qualities of history, had led me to expect. Still, some interesting observations are presented in a kind of stream of consciousness with almost no context for... Read More anyone who doesn't have the films fresh in their memories. This, perhaps, an attempt to evoke the anti or implied narrative spirit, characteristic of the films themselves?