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Last week San Francisco was treated to a nearly-complete retrospective of one of its hometown heroes of experimental film, Bruce Conner. Conner is perhaps best known for his first film, to quote the Cinema 16 program announcement for its screening in early 1961, "a pessimistic comedy of executions, catastrophes and sex" called a Movie. Later films like Cosmic Ray, Permian Strata and Mongoloid (with songs by Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Devo, respectively, as soundtracks) would inspire both the rapid-cutting and archive-excavating techniques now thought of as clichés in the music video form.
His films were split into two programs of shorts (most films run for 5-10 minutes or so) each broken up by an intermission q-and-a session with Conner, who is at 72 years of age very sprightly and just the slightest bit obstreperous when he doesn't like an interviewer's question. I attended the program focusing on the more rarely-screened films and versions of films; it was quite instructive to see two alternate versions of Report screened on a single program, and I was delighted to see material like 1981's not-in-the-imdb Mea Culpa (music by Brian Eno & David Byrne) and a new "remix" of Cosmic Ray using a digital split screen technique. It's exciting to see new material from this great filmmaker, even if it (like last year's Luke) is rooted in projects started decades ago. In the q-and-a Conner intimated that he doesn't need to continue making the fast-paced films he's famous for when so many others are doing it for him.
The highlight of the evening for me was finally seeing Conner's longest (at 37 minutes) and most leisurely paced film, Crossroads. Constructed out of footage taken from 27 different cameras watching the nuclear explosion at Bikini Atoll in July 1946, Conner's film forced me to contend with the beauty of its iconic mushroom cloud imagery and the concept of cinema as a record of destruction and decay. The division of the film into two halves, marked by the change of composer (Patrick Gleeson to Terry Riley) lends a taste of narrative structure that most of us expect from documentaries.
This year I was first exposed to the term "structuralist film" and the recent work of James Benning (13 Lakes and Ten Skies, each of which are composed of ten-minute-long static shots). Though I feel like I'm struggling to catch up to an understanding of this kind of filmmaking, I wonder why Crossroads, though made in a completely different manner, shouldn't be considered a sibling of this movement. It shares certain (at least surface) qualities, and I found myself contemplating the relationship between nature and the camera much as I did while watching a Benning film. At the same time, Riley's minimalist soundtrack accompanying images of destruction created a link in my mind to Godfrey Reggio's Philip Glass-infused Koyaanisqatsi and its decidedly non-structuralist progeny. I can't help but feel certain that Reggio was familiar with Bruce Conner's film. And I wonder if perhaps Conner hasn't made another like Crossroads because, again, others have been doing it for him.