It has been 50 years since artist and filmmaker Bruce Conner promoted his own exhibition at San Francisco’s Spatsa Gallery as featuring “works by the late Bruce Conner,” and a mere eight months since Conner officially joined the departed, dead at 74 of the rare liver disease that had threatened to kill him for years. In between those two deaths, Conner made art in a dizzying array of mediums, all of it forged from the detritus of pop culture and the American experience — to a body of work befitting a posthumous tribute if ever there was.
A Kansas native who studied art at Wichita University and eventually settled on the West Coast, Conner first caused a stir in the gallery world in the late 1950s, with a series of controversial assemblages (one of which, now in MoMA’s permanent collection, featured a sculpture of a screaming child bound by nylon stockings to a highchair). But it’s Conner’s film work — the subject of a two-night retrospective co-presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, REDCAT and Los Angeles Filmforum — that has cast the longest shadow, spanning six decades, and stretching from Conner’s San Francisco studio to the foothills of Hollywood. While future YouTubers were in the womb (or not even a thought in their parents’ heads), Conner saw the potential of throwaway images — movie countdown leaders, industrial films, TV commercials, softcore porn — to be forged into dazzlingly associative montages, rhetorical loops or subliminal blurs designed to dance upon the audience’s subconscious. MTV, it has been said, might never have existed without him.
Conner’s mix mastery was evident from his earliest foray into moving images. Made in 1958, A Movie is an impishly funny 12-minute history of Hollywood-cinema motifs, with an emphasis on our bottomless appetite for scenes of titillation and destruction — cowboys and indians, car crashes, naked girls and Conner’s beloved mushroom clouds — until the one becomes inseparable from the other. Made three years later, Cosmic Ray was the first of several Conner music-video prototypes, marrying another rapid-fire image collage to Ray Charles singing “What’d I Say?” In the subsequent Breakaway (1966), the performer of the title song — actress-singer Toni Basil — appears onscreen for the duration but is herself transformed into a fast-motion whir of blown kisses and gyrating body parts, cubism personified.
Like many of the key filmmakers in the American avant-garde (including his contemporaries Stan Brakhage and Ken Jacobs), Conner positioned himself at a cautious distance from mainstream cinema, even as he influenced it, and periodically appropriated it for his own purposes. Dennis Hopper, a friend and constant advocate, credited Conner with the editing style of Easy Rider. Four decades later, Conner fashioned 8mm behind-the-scenes footage he shot while visiting Hopper on the set of Cool Hand Luke into the haunting, slow-motion Luke (2004), which sees Hollywood film production — as Conner himself almost certainly did — as an enervating, caught-in-amber spectacle.
None other than Marilyn Monroe occupies the central role in Conner’s Marilyn x 5 (1968-73), in which found footage of the iconic star clad only in panties and rolling an apple suggestively about her chest is broken down into a series of seconds-long loops, each repeated five times, while Monroe plaintively sings “I’m Through With Love” on the soundtrack. The effect is at once intimate and abstracting, as Conner scrutinizes Monroe’s roboticized movements for her elemental Marilyn-ness. That some have suggested the actress in the nudie footage isn’t Monroe at all but rather look-alike Arline Hunter only adds a layer of simulated reality to a movie that is all about what performers project of themselves through the screen and what we project back onto them.
Conner had already made a loop film about erstwhile Monroe paramour John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Only, in Report (1963-67), the repetitions become quietly agonizing as Conner uses carefully repurposed TV coverage of the president’s assassination (intercut with a bullfight, combat footage and an ad for garbage disposals) to trace the fine line between true journalism and if-it-bleeds-it-leads exploitation.
True to his aesthetic, Conner was a restless spirit who regretted that so many of his artworks had made their way into the hands of museums and private collectors, thereby making it more difficult for him to alter them. He reinvented himself several times over, including as a photographer for the San Francisco punk fanzine Search and Destroy, and several times announced his retirement from art-making altogether. “Being an artist is like being a medieval craftsman,” he told interviewer Kristine McKenna in 1990. “You’re expected to do one thing only, and many artists function like someone producing a line of cars. For me, however, there’s a clear relationship between all these forms.”
Filmmaking, however, was a constant. Of the nearly two-dozen Conner movies that will be shown between UCLA and REDCAT, one of the most lasting is The White Rose (1967), a testament to the all-consuming and potentially destructive power of art, filmed in the apartment of painter Jay De Feo, as her unfinished two-ton canvas The Rose (which now hangs in the Whitney) was excavated by a team of Bekins movers. One of the loveliest, meanwhile, is Easter Morning, which begins in what feels like a living forest and ends in a spacious urban apartment where an ethereal nude woman emerges from an armoire. No matter that Conner himself completed the film only last spring, the abiding sensibility is one of renewal and rebirth.
Bruce Conner’s Explosive Cinema: A Tribute: Part 1 screens Saturday, February 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Billy Wilder Theater at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Part 2 screens Monday, March 2 at 8:30 p.m. at REDCAT.