Tuesday, November 9, 2010

BRUCE CONNOR: THE ART OF MONTAGE opens two-week run at NYC's Film Forum

Just what is montage? Since even yours truly has been known to use the term incorrectly (at least according to the defini-tions he can now find), let's begin with the explanation found on Wikipedia:  a technique in film editing in which a series of short shots are edited into a sequence to condense space, time, and information. It is usually used to suggest the passage of time, rather than to create symbolic meaning as it does in Soviet montage theory. OK: good enough. Applying that definition, I'd say most montage used in mainstream film does indeed suggest time passing
/events happening rather than the creation of symbolic connection.

For mainstream symbolism montage, look to something like the "candidate recruiting" section of Alan Pakula's The Parallax View and especially to art/experimental film practitioners such as Jay Rosenblatt, Gustav Deutsch and Bruce Conner (shown at right), the artist who died in 2008 and whose filmed montages/collages are being given a two-week/two-program retrospective at New York City's Film Forum, starting tomorrow through November 23. The work of men like these three are said to have inspired the quick-cut, fast-paced music videos that pack as many rapid-editing "ideas" as possible into their short time frame. And so they do, but so -- one might ask -- what? Enough of these quick-connection movies, shown one after another, can leave a viewer feeling that he's stumbled into an attention-deficit-disorder film festival.

Watching the two series of Conner's work under the titile of BRUCE CONNER: THE ART OF MONTAGE has something of this effect, due to the filmmaker's love of repetition. There's a lot of it here. The artist's place in the annals of those who told us, early on, about our increasingly crazy consumer culture, is secure, I think -- even if watching the actual work can try one's patience. The still above is from Conner's Report, in which he purposely takes the hugely overused President Kennedy assassination footage and plays with it -- to sometimes interesting effect -- removing sound, using repetition, and then slicing in photos such as the above.

If I had to choose, due to time and/or money constraints, between the two programs, I'd opt for Program A (click and scroll down to see the complete programs for A and B), which contains probably Conner's most famous work (also his first), A Movie, in which the filmmaker strings together newsreels and old-movie clips with other found footage, attaching wildly appropriate music (or maybe it's appropriately inappropriate) to come up with something that veers between an idiot's delight and the shockingly thought-provoking. Among its images is the world's most popular "death" symbol, the mushroom cloud, which the artist would use again (and again) in his later Crossroads (below), which offers A-bomb detonations around the Bikini atoll in such luscious slo-mo, black-and-white photography that I suspect would give even Lucy Walker pleasurable goosebumps.  And yet 36 minutes of these explosions is simply way too many.

If you like naked ladies, you'll find plenty to ogle here -- artistically, of course!  Program A offers something I'd never seen in Marilyn Time Five: Miss Monroe, in her pre-plantinum days, clad in nothing but panties and  lolling around in very suggestive moving images -- all to the sound of her own quite lovely voice singing the Livington/Malneck/Kahn song I'm Through With Love. We literally get Marilyn doing this five times from different angles and in differing repetitions. Via this 13-1/2-minute film, you can see -- in a way that none of her Hollywood studio movies managed to capture quite as well -- why Monroe was the heterosexual male's delight. With her ample body (those breasts -- and way before augmentation came into vogue!), her softness (in appearance she seems to have almost no muscle) and her seemingly infinite pliability, she's a dream come true. In Program A, we also get 60s icon Toni Basil in Breakaway (below), a new kind of "liberated" woman, who, like Marilyn, sings her own song, but with very different results.

In The White Rose (7 minutes, from Program A), actually tells a kind of story: an artist who had been working on one enormous painting for something like 13 years and must finally have it removed from her apartment.  We watch it happen until, finally, the artist sits out on her fire escape surveying the moving company men as they cart her art away.

Most of Conner's work is in black-and-white but as he moved along, he also experimented with color and sepia. Around 50 minutes into Program A, just following the headache-inducing Mea Culpa (above), we see some of this. Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (below) is a welcome, quiet respite from all the freneticism, followed by the Valse Triste, also in sepia with a score by Sibelius, which tracks a lot of comings and goings. Conner's last film Easter Morning (in full color) offers images of leaves, flowers, color and light -- all stop-motion, fast editing, and (for me) not much meaning.

Program B begins with two short films set to modern music: Mongoloid (to DEVO's song) and America Is Waiting, to the song by Eno and Byrne.  Both are only 3-1/2 minutes long, and the latter, for me, offers some of the most interesting and thoughtful image juxtapositions of any of Conner's work (one of its images is shown below). The final fifteen-minute film in this program, Looking for Mushrooms, looks as if the filmmaker has found -- and then ingested -- some. Filled with jerky hand-held camera movements, the film follows the indigenous people of.... Mexico? For awhile, at least, and then we're clearly back in America -- with boobs, naked ladies, Tiffany lamps, light shows, dissolves, overlapping photos and some nearly subliminal images.

This is an odd ending to a mixed bag of movies. I'm glad I saw them, some of which I'll certainly remember and perhaps watch another time. Again, Bruce Conner: The Art of Montage will run through Tuesday, November 23 and perhaps eventually appear on DVD, where aficionados can play and replay until meaning becomes clear(er) and/or the repetition induces a pleasant, hypnotic and not unwelcome sleep.

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