His greatest work plays all day every day in Minneapolis: Bruce Conner's "A Movie" unspools on an endless loop at the Walker Art Center, its stock-footage images of mid-century America accompanied by a trumpeting, equally stock-feeling score that recalls those long-ago This Week in the NFL shorts. Beer-and-pretzels is definitely Conner's chosen flavor in this brief but overpowering cyclone of incoherent montage. In a few brief moments, Conner manages to do for cinema--or rather, for the moving image, in all its many delivery systems--what Warhol did for the photographic image. As in Warhol's Green Stamp-like series of Jackie Os, Marilyns and Elvii, "A Movie" takes the standard-issue Life-magazine images of the 20th Century and turns them from proper to common nouns. The images take on pocket combs, rubber erasers, waterlogged matchbooks and de-fang them. At the end of the process, they're turned into the newsprint at the bottom of a birdcage.
"A Movie," and Conner's second most famous short, "Report," a brief and hysterical miscellany of images and reportage relating to the JFK assassination, have long tagged him as a fellow traveler with such Seventies structuralists as Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, and Chantal Akerman. The works of that unlively trio really are better read about than experienced--the long duration of their pictures is no more than a paltry illustration of what the scholarly reviews describe. But let it be said--and the artist would no doubt screech in pain at this--that Bruce Conner is really a Hollywood kind of guy. His movies pour out draughts of sensual pleasure that disguise layers of association and provocation--more like the Hollywood auteurism of Oliver Stone than the avant-garde outsiderism of Jonas Mekas. (Stone professes to never having seen Conner's "Report," which prefigures all of JFK--and the entirety of Stone's "vertical editing" style.)
2002 B.C. (think about it for a second) is a new DVD release that brings together eight 16mm Conner shorts. It is available only from the Michael Kohn Gallery in West Hollywood. With an admirable perversity, Conner insists that his fans donate 50 bucks to one of three L.A. charities to get the disc. (Philanthropic cineastes can dial 323.658.8088 to make the hookup.) B.C. is quite a corker, as it reveals a Conner not written about in the avant-garde history books, a Conner after my own heart: a guy who makes movies as mash notes to the women he loves.
The two masterpieces on 2002 B.C. are outpourings of affection, ten-trumpet tributes to women Conner is intrigued by, lusts after, envies, and emulates. In the five-minute-long "Breakaway," Conner lifts the formula of pop music and garishly overworked images that is Kenneth Anger's private domain into a new realm of dazzling slickness--and makes it clear that, for five minutes at least, Conner is a one-woman man. (Anger covers the waterfront; Conner is a serial monogamist.) The film consists of a young pop singer-cum-dancer named Antonia Christina Basilotta (that's Toni Basil to you) frugging, shimmying, and Isadora Duncaning her way naked around a black-on-black photographer's studio while Conner smacks her with a series of frenetic zoom-ins that mime the coarse sexuality of slam-dancing. The mix of manic editing, collision-oriented zoomage, Basil's own dreamy kinda-black voice, and 78 costume changes make this the most freakily un-tender Valentine ever written to a female movie star. The piece startlingly approximates the quality of a rough but totally awestruck fuck. You'll rewind it again and again.
The other top-shelf work, "Marilyn Times Five" (listed as "1968-1973"--whatever that means), strip-mines a stag reel of a supposedly pre-Hollywood Marilyn Monroe lolling about in luscious, Bacchic nudity. During its 13 minutes, Marilyn sings "I've Had Enough of Love" five times. On one level, like "Report," "Marilyn" is a sober-sided, JFK-style inquiry into a famous death, organized in a dizzyingly complex split-level fashion. The image of Marilyn sucking on a bottle of very black-looking Coke, or coming to rest in a state of fetal/toxic coma, resounds with the song to prompt multiple answers to the question "Why'd she do it?" At the same time, Conner can't resist the porno-ness of the raw material itself, which is somehow neutralized by the black frames he uses to punctuate the dirty bits and amplified by them at the same time. "Marilyn Times Five" gives us many experiences at once: a cold-blooded autopsy record using the warmest and most human of materials; a softcore smoker turned Brechtian Punch-and-Judy show; and a gentle meditation on cinema and mortality. Conner grants Marilyn immortality but, through the grainy deterioration of the film stock, allows her, too, to return to dust.
Corporeality, dirtiness, fragility, the aging process--they are all built into every Conner work. The most startling moments in the overly psychedelicized "Report" are the white expanses where we see hairs in the gate and wear and tear on the frames themselves. Meanwhile, a cast of Johnny-on-the-spot radio announcers narrates JFK's shooting, hospitalization, and death. In the bodiless digitized future as dreamt by George Lucas, those signs of the physicality of film will be banished: The new film frame will have the smooth, absent glow of a computer screen. In Conner's world, that carnality is a marker for the rush of lush sensuality and slippery slope of decay that is the universal timeline for being human.
What comes across strongest in 2002 B.C. is the sheer, sexy, stylish verve of Conner's shooting and editing style--and buckets and buckets of love. In "Vivian," a 1964 record of Conner's friend Vivian Kurz's art exhibit, Conner uses a speedy welter of angles and clumsy bits of face-making improv to douse Kurz with authorial affection. From what we see in the nearly three minutes of "Vivian," our subject is like many a young art student, striking Duchampian postures with more than a little insecurity while lying in a glass case. She seems to always be bunched up on the floor, shy and depressed, whether she is or not. But Conner illuminates her with rockets' red glare as if she were Liz Taylor striding down the carpet at Mann's Chinese. As much as the movies encourage multiple layers of interpretation, their most potent impression is a very personal, very individually directed amorousness. Conner's girl movies have the happy kamikaze dive of a great pop love song.
When Conner feels the need to be a deep-dish thinker, he generally comes off as an academic Warhol--Conner understands the images he's banalizing, which makes them less monumental, less imposingly empty than a Warhol canvas. His real gift is the troubadour's. He uses a blindingly elaborate (and devastatingly effective) film technique to spell out three little words. He radically discovers the leg up cinema has on sex: He makes you feel you're the lover and the beloved at once. You can't imagine how cool it feels.