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.