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From the Archives: Bruce Conner

By Alice Centamore

Aug 18, 2016

In the current retrospective of experimental filmmaker Bruce Conner at the Museum of Modern Art, the film A Movie is the first work the viewer encounters. In 1980, during a festival entitled Filmworks , Conner's films were presented at The Kitchen for the first time. As part of this series, Bruce Conner (1933-2008) showed four of his works: A Movie (1958), Report (1963-1967), Mongoloid (1978), and Valse Trieste (1977), among which the first two are currently on view at MoMA. Filmworks introduced the work of nineteen other experimental filmmakers, including David Hazton with Painting Room Lights (1980), Janet Stein with God’s Police (1980), Yvonne Rainer with Kristina Talking Pictures (1976), and Peter Wollen with Riddles of the Sphinx (1976) among many others.

The Filmworks series was conceived in 1978 by curator Leonardo Katz with the goal of showing a variety of independent film productions and creating a discourse around them. In each edition of the festival, which continued through 1986, Katz (and subsequent curators) ensured a well-balanced combination of older and more recently produced films. By juxtaposing established and emerging filmmakers, Filmworks showed films which took on new perspectives and shapes, as well as drew elements from the more traditional models of poetry, painting, and music. The duality of this approach, which wrestled between convention and innovation, represented the true dimension that the medium of film could accomplish. In other words, films were not merely territories for aesthetic exploration; they became crucial vehicles for cultural change. Conner’s Report, which briefly features the funeral of the recently assassinated President Kennedy, is an excellent example of this: the film is a manifestation of a personal loss, as well as a public and communal moment of apprehension for what is to come.

By the beginning of Filmworks, Conner was already a relatively well-known artist compared to other filmmakers presented in the series. His work, therefore, served to establish the new direction that independent filmmaking was taking. Thanks to the decrease in price of synchronized sound recording equipment, image and sound were more easily merged in collages of found footages, pictures, and language. Kathleen Hulser’s quote from her review of Filmworks 1982—“the art film is like a mushroom: it grows in dark places, nourished by obscurity”—well embodies this period of artistic exploration, which vacillated between the excitement of the possibility of experimenting with new tools and the constraints of limited budgets. An additional challenge was accessibility to a venue that could emphasize the importance of their works and deliver an engaged audience. Filmworks had precisely the intent to unveil some of these underknown works and integrate them in a conversation with previously shown, more familiar films.

Including A Movie, one of Conner’s earlier pieces, in the film festival of 1980 identified it as a pivotal work that directed attention to the development of future American avant-garde filmmaking. In this work, Conner used found footages from newsreels and educational films to stage a humorous, but concerning image of the apocalypse. Conner frames the contradiction between tradition and progress, memories of the past and the energy of the present. 

Conner was a firm believer in the expression of human consciousness through artistic means. His footage offered condensed testimonies of the cultural and social atmosphere of the time in which they were shot, using a variety of images ranging from glimpses of media-dominated culture to official documentations of the launch of the atomic bomb. He created a collage of human perceptions and experiences by appropriating, manipulating, and remixing his own images alongside found footage, thus demystifying the concept of authorship and the ego of the artist. In a historical moment when the public was being overwhelmed by the commodities and comforts offered by the postwar economic regime, avant-garde filmmakers like Bruce Conner put the hurried world on pause, and required concentration and committed thought. Their films are not flashes of images meant to bypass the viewer; rather— in Hulser’s words— “they offer a place to linger.” 

For more information, visit our Archive Website.

Image: still from A Movie, 1958. Directed by Bruce Conner. 12 min, black and white.

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