Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: A Movie (1958) & Report (1967)

A Movie (1958) and Report (1967)
Directed by: Bruce Conner.

Bruce Conner made over 20 shorts in his career, that spanned 50 years, and also saw him dabble in the other arts. His films are all (as far as I know anyway) are all montages, editing together pre-existing found footage in innovative, often brilliant ways. He has been referred to as the “father of MTV” (to which he responded, simply “Not my fault”) – and even directed a few music videos himself (like Mongoloid for Devo). Probably his two best known films are his debut – A Movie from 1958 and Report from 1967. A Movie is only 12 minutes long, Report only 13, but both are masterful, innovative and brilliant movies.

A Movie is Conner’s best known, and the most widely available (you kind find it on Youtube easily). The film combines stock footage from B movies, newsreels, soft core pornography, and other sources into a brilliant montage, that one supposes, tells mankind’s violent history, and then perhaps looks into the future.

It all starts out innocently enough, with shots of cowboys and Indians in battle from some old B-movie. Set to a wonderful score (Respighi’s Pines Of Rome), and featuring Conner’s brilliant montage editing, the film starts there, and then seamlessly transitions to other shots – an African epic with elephant instead of horses, scenes of a train racing, car crashes, onto daring water stunts, that all ends in spectacular wipeouts. This part of the movie is thrilling, and it must be said extremely entertaining. Conner is showing us cinema as spectacle, and just how exciting that can be.

And then, the film takes a much darker turn. He moves on from these “fun” scenes, in a brilliantly edited sequence that shows us a man in a submarine looking through a periscope and seeing a beautiful, scantily clad woman – and then we immediately cut to the first of many images of an atomic bomb exploding. This is when the movie gets much more serious, and darker. Conner uses the same music and the same editing technique that made the first half of the film so thrilling, but now his images are darker – not just the atom bomb, but shots of firing squads, shots of dead bodies in a huge pile, what I think is the Hindenburg, although it hardly matters, as it is once again a spectacle of death. His editing grows even more frantic, more “exciting”, but suddenly the audience is confronted with real world death and destruction – the cinema as spectacle can make anything exciting, if edited together properly.

And then A Movie ends on a much quieter note – that of a scuba diver swimming through the water, before disappearing into what appears to be a whole in the ocean floor. Mankind, having destroyed the earth with the atomic blasts we see, is returning to the sea.

A Movie is a masterpiece of editing that makes the audience confront the artifice of movies themselves – how the movies lie to us all the time, and most of the time we don’t even realize it. By using shocking imagery, but using the same editing technique that makes Hollywood spectacles so thrilling, and the same background music, the audience is forced to confront the reality of what movies show us all the time. It is a masterpiece of its kind.

Report, made nine years later, is an even darker, more disturbing movie – perhaps not as endlessly watchable as A Movie, but perhaps even more powerful. Report was made in 1967, and looks at the Kennedy assassination of four years prior. It starts with a wonderful montage of images from that day in Dallas on the President in his motorcade, slowly down the footage, and repeating it often, as we hear frantic radio reports of mass confusion as to what is happening. We never see any of the footage of the Kennedy assassination itself – Conner substitutes a brilliant image of a bullet passing through a light bulb in its place.

This sequence – roughly half the film – is brilliant in and of itself, a wonderful, powerful “recreation” of the frantic events of that day that Conner drills home with his images and the radio announcers voices. As much as any other depiction of the Kennedy assassination on film – from Oliver Stone’s three plus hour JFK, to Martin Scorsese’s own brilliant montage in the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home (set to Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall), Conner capture the mass confusion and sadness of the event.

Yet, I think it’s the second half of the film that is even more brilliant – and pushes Report into the realm of the best shorts of its kind ever made. After the depiction of the assassination itself, Conner flashes back to earlier in the trip to Dallas, with more calm new reports telling us mundane details – like what the President and First Lady are wearing, etc. In part, this seems like a more innocent time – if he had done this segment first, like many would have, it would be thick with foreshadowing, except of course, he also showed us what happened. What Conner also does is flash forward to the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination – Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing by Jack Ruby, the parading around of the gun that killed Kennedy, and splices these images together with ads from the time – a washing machine for example. By doing this, Conner is making clear how the media sells everything – they sold the image of the President and the First Lady, elevating their status, and then sold the President’s death – they do the same thing with the people we admire, and exploit their deaths, much like they sell anything else. This makes the film even more complex and fascinating.

Judging on these two films alone, Conner was a master at editing – taking images most people would not associate to each other, and making their connection clear. If his reputation isn’t quite on the level of some other avant-garde filmmakers of his day, it could be because he never liked his films shown on home video, or the internet. While many short films have found their way to Youtube, the only one of Conner’s that is readily available there is A Movie. (I also saw Report on Youtube, but when I went back the next day to watch it a second time, it had been removed – so I guess I watched a copy of Report that was illegally uploaded – although I did not know this at the time). Hopefully at some point, we will get a proper collection of Conner’s films for home viewing (if Criterion can do Brakhage and Frampton, why not Conner?). Reading about his other films – especially Cosmic Ray (1961), Luke (1967), Marilyn Times Five (1973), Crossroads (1976), Mongoloid (1976), Mea Culpa (1981) and America is Waiting (1982) all sound fascinating, but appear to be unavailable for any type of viewing. Here’s hoping that sooner or later, they are available for all to see. Conner was undoubtedly right – like all films, his are best seen in a theater – but the reality of the situation now is that if films aren’t available for home viewing, they run the risk of being forgotten.

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