Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Bruce Conner's Permian Strata


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I thought that these two posts would make up my entire reportage from last month's Silent Film Festival. I was wrong. As the preamble to my entry in Girish Shambu's Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon I want to revisit my too-brief mention of G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box, a film I'd never seen before, saving it for just such an occasion as a new print at the Castro Theatre. I don't think I've seen anything quite like it: a carnival of unending depravity both gaudier and gloomier than I had expected, this atmosphere driven on by Clark Wilson's superb Wurlitzer score. Making Louise Brooks the face of the festival, her image appearing on posters, T-Shirts and the festival program cover, surely helped make the screening the biggest audience must-see of the weekend. I only hope the folks who were turned away from the sold-out show can take some solace in the fact that, according to the Louise Brooks Society, the Balboa and the Rafael will be screening Louise Brooks films on the weekend before her centennial birthday November 14.

The screening was introduced by several people, but most notably Bruce Conner, filmmaker, artist, and on-off Frisco inhabitant since 1957. But like Louise Brooks, Conner was born in Kansas, and he related what it was like growing up in the same town as a retired Hollywood star, where he almost took dance classes at her studio, and almost got up the nerve to ring her doorbell once. You can see the beginning of Conner's intro at filmmaker Caveh Zahedi's blog. Zahedi mentions Conner's evidently declined health, something I too wondered about, as he seemed quite a bit less lively and comfortable speaking than he did even nine months ago at an SFMOMA appearance. I imagine that it might be easier to relax and naturally let a mischievous energy flow while speaking about one's own films in front of a few hundred people who have come because of their interest in your work, as opposed to speaking in front of 1400 silent film and Louise Brooks fans, some of whom might not even know who you are. But then Conner doesn't seem like the sort to be fazed by stage fright; he got 5,500 Frisco voters to mark his name in a 1967 Board of Supervisors campaign (perhaps won over by his campaign speech: a list of sweets). According to this interview he was diagnosed with a fatal illness twenty years ago. Perhaps it's simply a matter of having good days and bad days. At any rate it's great to see him still involved in Frisco's film and cultural scene.

But what I really want to talk about is not Conner's health, but his filmmaking. In particular, a film he made in 1969 that rarely gets discussed, and is only barely mentioned even in the monograph 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II. This excellent tome contains close analysis by Bruce Jenkins of film-school staples like A Movie and Looking For Mushrooms as well as of later works like Valse Triste and Take the 5:10 to Dreamland. The 1969 film is called Permian Strata, a title which works in conjunction with the images and the song that makes up the film's soundtrack to form a colossal pun. So often experimental film gets pigeonholed as overly serious, boring, stuffy, or requiring an expertise in filmmaking processes to fully appreciate. But a big part of my attraction to these films is that so many of them exhibit an accessible sense of humor more genuine than some so-called comedies stuffed with lines written by "professional" joke writers do. Few films have the belly laugh potential of Permian Strata. I'll try my best to talk about the film without giving away the all the humor for those who haven't seen it yet, and I won't reveal the song on the soundtrack by name (I won't be able to avoid leaving clues, though, so if you're really concerned about having the surprise spoiled read no further).

The humorous nature of Permian Strata may be why it hasn't been discussed much. Conner has called it a "bad joke movie", which sounds like a dismissal of a slight film. But is it? Conner has never avoided using humor as a part of his films, his sculptures, or his other art pieces. His first film, the 1958 A Movie, derived as inspiration for its clown-car-of-recycled-footage collage aesthetic the scene in Duck Soup where Rufus T. Firefly calls for forces to come to the aid of Fredonia, which is probably why it too feels like a comedy. Dada was another early influence on Conner, and somehow it seems natural to connect Permian Strata with a piece of "anti-art" like Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. Like Duchamp, Conner appropriates pre-existing artworks and alters them to create a new work satirizing the relationship we have to art and history.

One crucial difference between Permian Strata and the Duchamp parody is that (understatement alert!) Conner's film is appropriating far less well-known specific images than the Mona Lisa. It took me a fair bit of research into the fascinating history of Christian films for me to determine Conner's source: a 1949 Cathedral Films release the Life of Paul: On the Road to Damascus. Having not seen this 13-minute film parable yet, I don't know whether it is the origin for every image in Permian Strata (I'm not sure how the opening shot of a robed figure flicking powder into a cauldron would fit into the story of St. Paul, for example) but according to Conner lore it's one of his few collage films (along with Marilyn Times Five) in which all the images come from a single source. Judd Chesler has been quoted on this:
The style of Strata marks a departure from Conner's earlier collage forms. Conner chooses the significant footage from the found film and simply sets it off against the music. There's no cutting between the scenes.
This last sentence suggests that Conner simply took an intact excerpt from On The Road to Damascus and synched it against the chosen music track, but that surely isn't true. In fact Conner has carefully re-edited the shots so that the visual content lines up with certain lyrics in the song. Thus the narrative of Acts 9:1-18 is subverted by the "sound effects by Robert Zimmerman". For example, while we hear the words "walking on the street" we see the actor who plays Ananias doing precisely that. It gets a laugh every time I've seen it, whether at a public screening with strangers or when watching the now out-of-print Facets videocassette at home with friends. We may be responding to a "bad joke" or taking gleeful pleasure at the secular trumping the sacred. But I think there's something else going on. Though On the Road to Damascus has been all but forgotten, it unmistakably bears the symbols of something quite familiar: the historical/Biblical film. The appropriated images stand in for an entire genre, and one surely doesn't have to be a non-Christian to recognize the absurdity of the artifice of a low-budget period piece. In the context of the original film, this absurdity might well be overcome by strong narrative and/or direction, but when recontextualized (redirected) by Conner every gesture feels like a peek behind the puppeteer's curtain.

The moment when Ananias lays his hands on the unidentified blind Paul (it occurs at the end of On the Road to Damascus and the middle of Permian Strata) is particularly hilarious in light of the double-entendre of the song, which you may have guessed by now. Cinematic depictions of the blind being "healed" are invariably ludicrous (at least, I can't think of any that aren't, can you? Don't say At First Sight or I'll assume you're a Coca-Cola operative), but due to the temporal re-editing in Conner's film the viewer doesn't even know exactly what the actor playing Paul is trying to portray. He arches his shoulders, sucks in his chest, flutters his eye lashes, and suddenly his eyes pop wide open like he's just gone under the influence of a strange drug.

Permian Strata's final shots, in which Paul is struck blind, seem particularly significant in light of Conner's life and career. Conner had utilized themes of blindness before, most notable in a pair of pieces relating to Ray Charles he made in 1961: the sculpture Ray Charles/Snakeskin and the film Cosmic Ray. Regarding the latter, according to a quote Jenkins highlights from the transcript of the 1968 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, Conner "felt that I was, in a way, presenting the eyes for Ray Charles, who is a blind musician." Furthermore, Joan Rothfuss in her biographical section of 2000 BC quotes Conner relating an experience he had at age eleven that he'd unlocked from his unconscious upon first trying peyote in 1958:
I was home in the late afternoon with the sunlight coming through the window in my room. I was lying on the rug working on my homework. I decided to rest and I laid my head on the floor. The light started to change and became very bright....Shapes and sizes were changing. It seemed like they weren't inanimate. They were living things. I was part of them, and I was moving into them. I moved into a space that was incomprehensible to me....I went through things, and places, and spaces, and creatures. I became them, and I came back to myself....I went through all these changes until I was so old. I was so wrinkly. My bones were creaking and likely to break....Then I began to realize that I was on the floor, I was back....I became myself again, after eons of time....It was the same room. Only fifteen minutes had passed
I'm not sure what to make of this mystical experience, except to think such a memory surely is something Conner has carried with him through his artistic life, and to note certain parallels to the transformation the Paul character undergoes in the final minute of Permian Strata. At the moment he becomes blinded by a "very bright" light (in On the Road to Damascus it's Heavenly light accompanied by the voice of Jesus Christ), the soundtrack provides a couplet: "it's the end" rhymed with "come back again". I could be reading way too much into what was intended as nothing more than another synchronization joke like the one made at the line "walking on the street". But if Conner in 1969 remembered coming back again from exposure to a beam of light, it could be one reason why he responded to this particular 16mm footage strongly enough to make a film out of it.

Though Conner apparently believes that "Avant-Garde is a historical term. It doesn't exist anymore", here are some other pages to consult in today's Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon:

  • Acquarello at Strictly Film School.
  • Mubarak Ali at Supposed Aura.
  • Brendon Bouzard at My Five Year Plan.
  • Chris Cagle at Category D.
  • Zach Campbell at Elusive Lucidity.
  • Matthew Clayfield at Esoteric Rabbit.
  • Culture Snob.
  • Filmbrain at Like Anna Karina's Sweater.
  • Jim Flannery at A Placid Island of Ignorance.
  • Flickhead.
  • Richard Gibson.
  • girish.
  • Ed Gonzalez at Slant.
  • Michael Guillen at The Evening Class.
  • Tom Hall at The Back Row Manifesto.
  • Ian W. Hill at Collisionwork.
  • Andy Horbal at No More Marriages!
  • David Hudson at Greencine Daily.
  • Darren Hughes at Long Pauses.
  • Jennifer Macmillan at Invisible Cinema.
  • Peter Nellhaus at Coffee Coffee and More Coffee.
  • David Pratt-Robson at Videoarcadia.
  • Seadot at An Astronomer in Hollywood.
  • Michael Sicinski at The Academic Hack.
  • Michael S. Smith at Culturespace.
  • Squish at The Film Vituperatum.
  • Tom Sutpen at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger.
  • That Little Round-Headed Boy.
  • Thom at Film Of The Year.
  • Chuck Tryon at The Chutry Experiment.
  • Harry Tuttle at Screenville.
  • Walter at Quiet Bubble.