Saturday, March 25, 2017
TONY CONRAD: COMPLETELY IN THE PRESENT Tyler Hubbard's doc about one of our lesser-known (and happy about it) cultural icons
What to make of Tony Conrad? If you were to judge by TONY CONRAD: COMPLETELY IN THE PRESENT, the new documentary from Tyler Hubby -- opening this coming Friday, March 31, at New York City's Anthology Film Archives -- Mr. Conrad was a nearly undiscovered and unheralded genius and multi-talented artist and musician. And yet the proof Hubby offers is as likely to have you rolling your eyes in annoyance or disbelief as climbing aboard his bandwagon. And yet, by the end of this rambling but occasionally charming and/or surprising doc, you will have to admit that Mr. Conrad was pretty much one-of-a-kind.
Hubby's movie (the filmmaker is shown at left) begins with a Conrad quote: History is like music. It's completely in the present. Which, of course, history is not. But this does make for an OK subtitle for the documentary, while also reflecting Mr. Conrad, who was, perhaps more than anything else, a big tease. At various times across his career, he was a musician, an artist, a filmmaker, but mostly and always a provocateur. What Hubby allows us to see and hear of Conrad's work will have all but the hardiest of experimental art and music lovers running for the hills.
Still, what an oddly compelling career this guy had! Together, Tyler and Tony give us some early history of Conrad, such as his time with The Primitives, a music group that included the likes of Tony (shown above, left), Lou Reed (center, left), Angus Maclise (center, right) and John Cale (right). And yet the limelight was evidently something that Conrad not only didn't wish to inhabit but actively disparaged. As someone notes about him in the course of the film, "Tony was the smartest guy in the room, but he had other things to do."
Indeed. Along the way, he and a few "minimalist" musicians make a recording of their own experimental music that never, until nearly the end of Conrad's life, saw the light of day, thanks to one of the group -- La Monte Young, who is clearly shown to be the villain of the movie -- refusing to share the only recorded copy with the other participants. Well, who much cares? As Conrad (shown above) notes, "They wanted to be composers. I wanted to end composing." Listening to some of this music, you can fully understand that desire.
Later, Conrad has a serious fling with both experimental filmmaking and another experimental filmmaker, Beverly Grant, which results in a marriage and even a child. But not a lot of memorable work. Watching Conrad in his youth and particularly in middle age and senior years, the impression here is of an immensely likable guy with minimal talent at just about everything he touches.
His gift, it would seem, lay in being against things (New York City's Lincoln Center, above, was one of these). As someone notes along the way: "He reacted, he pushed back." He did -- and most often in a funny, joking manner. Once he gets into the "teaching" trade, his gift is even more apparent. (And why not? Since all of U.S. education, art, politics and the rest has simply led us to the coronation of Donald Trump, why the fuck not be against?)
From teaching, Conrad moves into documentaries and man-on-the-street interviews, and then to a women-in-prison movie in which all the roles were played by men in drag. Conrad ran out of funds midway through this film, and it was never completed. Decades later, he wants to go back to it, using the same actors in their golden years. "That blows my mind," exclaims filmmaker Hubby, though some in the audience may feel less amazed.
Then the director does something odd and interesting -- going back to the 1970s and a group called Faust, and then to a certain record called Outside the Dream Syndicate, an example, I guess, of early minimalism in music (it's almost trance-like), followed by a fling with Pythagoras and some writing Conrad did in which, by god, he does seem awfully smart (from the little snatch we're allowed to read, anyway).
We see Tony diddling with an art project you might call The Incontinent Underwear (above) -- which seems relatively original and something that the New Tate in London might appreciate. And finally, we leave Conrad, in media res, doing some kind of film or sound project on a busy New York street (see photo at bottom) halting/directing traffic, of all things.
Conrad died one year ago this coming April and probably soon after this film was completed. If Hubby mentioned this in the film or during its end credits, I missed it, but discovered the fact when I went to Wikipedia.
So then, the film acts as a kind of oddball memorial to an even more oddball fellow who never made it into, nor ever even strove for, that much-ballyhooed limelight.