Even now, film students regularly get their minds blown by Bruce Conner’s first major work: the 12-minute 1958 short “A Movie,” which splices pieces of film leader and end-credit cards together with images of mushroom clouds, crashing waves, and people performing feats of derring-do. It’s a film that rewards closer study of its structure, to note the way Conner matches movements and compositions as he cuts rapidly from one piece of found footage to the next. But it’s also exciting in its use of Respighi’s “Pines Of Rome” and its brief glimpses of heart-stopping action. So it goes with most of Conner’s films, from his chilling repetition of Kennedy assassination coverage in “Report” to the dreamy takes of a topless Norma Jeane Mortenson in “Marilyn Times Five.” Conner’s work frequently deals with attention-grabbing subject matter, in films awash with pop music, nudes, and hauntingly familiar visions of modern life.
“A Movie” and “Marilyn Times Five” appear in Program A of Film Forum’s two-part Bruce Conner: The Art Of Montage, along with the dazzlingly kinetic “Cosmic Ray” (featuring naked ladies dancing, superimposed over fireworks and carnival footage, all set to Ray Charles), the poignant “The White Rose” (which documents the removal of a 2,000-pound plaster painting from the apartment of Beat artist Jay DeFeo), and eight other films Conner made between 1958 and his death in 2008. The films in Program A tend to be on the short side, and focus more on the mysteries of art and beauty, whether Conner is comparing natural phenomena to human behavior in the lyrical, sepia-toned “Take The 5:10 To Dreamland” and “Valse Triste,” or exploring the explosive colors and deep shadows of plant life and human bodies in “Easter Morning.”
Program B contains “Report,” and is overall more challenging, both aesthetically and in its topics. It opens with a pair of ostensible music videos—one a study of scientists and freakishness set to Devo’s “Mongoloid,” the other a hodgepodge of images from patriotic and self-help films set to David Byrne and Brian Eno’s “America Is Waiting”—and ends with the hypnotic half-hour A-bomb study “Crossroads” and the psychedelic “Looking For Mushrooms.” In between lies “Report,” Conner’s most celebrated film for a reason: it takes historical moments that were replayed over and over on television, and repurposes them into a meditation on how the media tries to exert authority and apply a sense of order to the anarchic. And though it may sound perverse to say so, the film is also—not incidentally—a thrill to watch.