The great beatnik filmmaker Bruce Conner has died at age 74. No director has surpassed Conner's ability to assemble found footage into something entirely new; in experimental movies ranging from his Zapruder-meets-Owsley short Television Assassination to his Devo video Mongoloid to his haunting dream-film Valse Triste, he laid the groundwork for the current explosion of remixes and mash-ups.
Other filmmakers have done it before. But mainly in a comic sort of way. I'd seen a Marx Brothers movie in which Groucho said to Harpo, "There's a revolution going on. We need help." Harpo goes out and pins a "Help Wanted" sign on the door. Suddenly you see tanks and airplanes and soldiers and elephants all coming to their aid. After that I started thinking…I became aware that putting in an image from a totally different movie you could make it more complex. Like taking the soundtrack from one film that was made in 1932 and put it on top of images from a movie made in 1948, and inter-cutting other images together with it. I had this tremendous, fantastic movie going in my head made up of all the scenes I'd seen…a three-hour spectacular. --Bruce Conner, 1974
He didn't just do this with film. He created weird, witty, sometimes Ernstian collages (like Bombhead, pictured to the right). And he made grotesque but transfixing assemblages -- sculptures, sort of -- out of stretched stockings, faded photos, beads, hair, and a host of found objects, from a suitcase to a high chair, a crucifix to a bicycle wheel. In some ways these resembled Joseph Cornell's shadow boxes, but they had a messier, more organic quality, as though they had been left in a garage rather than carefully preserved on a shelf.
Not all of Conner's art was assembled from preexisting material. Leafing through 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II, I see drawings, paintings, photograms, and forms I'm not sure I could describe with a single word. He also made some films the old-fashioned way, photographing them himself rather than compiling them from other people's images. (The best of those is probably Looking for Mushrooms, a mesmerizing movie shot in Mexico and California.) He seemed eager to try his hand at every conceivable medium -- he even spent a spell doing light shows for rock bands.
Now that you can pass off a prank as "conceptual art," I should probably mention that Conner was a great prankster as well. (He has his own chapter in the classic Re/Search anthology Pranks!) He loved to play with identity, and once plotted to present an exhibition of new collages that he would inaccurately attribute to Dennis Hopper. (The actor was a friend, and Conner was an informal consultant on Easy Rider. He made the collages, which are stunning, but the larger plan never came off.) In 1967 he ran a jape campaign for San Francisco City Supervisor, at one point giving a speech that consisted entirely of a long list of desserts. And as the San Francisco Chronicle's obituary reports,
Mr. Conner announced his own death erroneously on two occasions, once sending an obituary to a national art magazine, and later writing a self-description for the biographical encyclopedia Who Was Who in America.
I'd like to believe he's still alive this time too, sharing a beer somewhere with Andy Kaufman and chuckling at the gullible media.