I started writing about film for CP in 1997, but it took me a while to warm to experimental work. For someone raised (like everyone else) on linear narrative and photographic realism, appreciating nonnarrative, conceptual and abstract stuff demanded study.
But now I can dig films like those of Bruce Conner, who pioneered the use of found and appropriated footage cut to his own ends, collage style. A free program at Pittsburgh Filmmakers on Oct. 16 and 17 included some of his best films, drawn from the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art. (Conner, whose photography is in the Carnegie International, used to visit the Carnegie's late, lamented film department back in the day; he died in July, at 74.)
"Cosmic Ray," for instance, is a wild montage of nude female dancers, stock artillery footage and Mickey Mouse cartoons, cut to live Ray Charles ("What I Say?"). Its MTV-rapid cutting must have seemed insane in 1962. (It was Conner's second film.) "A Movie" (inspired by the "war" montage in Duck Soup!), soundtracks anomalously ponderous music over such silly imagery as people riding tiny bicycles, and includes the famed comment on cinematic voyeurism in which a submarine periscope operator seems to be gawking at cheesecake footage of Marilyn Monroe. "Crossroads" (1976) is a contemplative 36-minute montage of the first underwater atomic tests, in 1946, on the Bikini Atoll.
But two instances really made clear to me Conner's skill and importance. One was a fascinating sequence in the 12-minute "A Movie" (1958): a platypus swimming underwater, shot from below; the Hindenburg collapsing in flames; a scuba diver; a school of fish; the scuba diver approaching a sunken ship and dissapearing headfirst into the dark hold; a sunburst as seen from underwater. Dreamlike, hypnotic, pregnant with meaning.
The pièce de résistance was the classic "Report" (1963-67). It's cut from footage of JFK's final motorcade, followed by images of his and Jackie's arrival in Dallas and a brilliantly edited sequence of shots from contemporary television ads and a bullfight. The soundtrack is just as good: a continuous chain of radio-news commentary full of bitter, wrenching irony, from the "every possible precaution has been taken" that's spoken as the first couple debark Air Force One to the account of the triumphal Dallas motorcade married to footage of Kennedy's funeral procession. It's wildly smart and inexpressibly poignant; I'd rank "A Report" among my favorite films.