Bruce Conner: crafting visions from film pieces

Bruce Conner is a filmmaker who hasn't owned a camera in 12 years. And the situation suits him fine. That's because Conner is cinema's great master of ''found footage'' - an artist who shapes fresh works from snippets of forgotten pieces of film spliced together in evocative new ways.

His films have been screened in museums, universities, and theaters ever since he completed his first one in 1958. All told, he has released less than two hours of work, but those painstakingly created reels have earned him a reputation as one of the most brilliant and influential of all movie poets.

Among his most celebrated films:

''Cosmic Ray,'' a sardonic statement on American obsessions with sex and violence, including grim cartoon footage and a Ray Charles song; ''Report,'' a fierce commentary on media manipulation of the John F. Kennedy assassination; ''Crossroads,'' footage of a bomb test edited into a meditation on the nightmarish power of nuclear weapons; ''Take the 5:10 to Dreamland'' and ''Valse Triste,'' visionary journeys through surreal American landscapes; and ''America Is Waiting,'' a look at the subtly destructive imagery of today's pop culture.

Such works have earned Conner a long list of honors, including Ford Foundation and Guggenheim Fellowships and grants from the American Film Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts. His films can be borrowed from libraries, seen at independent movie showcases in many cities, and rented directly from their distributor, Canyon Cinema in San Francisco, his home base.

How did Conner become an explorer of found footage, an archaeologist of bygone shots and scenes?

He started as an artist in other media: sculpture, painting, collage, assemblage, drawing, watercolor, printmaking, and more exotic categories like ''music-dance-performance'' and conceptual art.

But through it all, he loved movies. ''I was obsessed with them,'' he recalled in a recent interview. ''I grew up seeing them in the 1940s. In the '50 s I got involved in film societies so I could see the independent, surrealistic, experimental films you couldn't find anywhere else.

''And I kept seeing potentials for film in my mind that weren't being realized on the screen. I think the reason I've made every one of my movies is that nobody else was doing it. I'm just looking for the movie that I want to see!''

Through a film society he founded (still meeting almost 30 years later in Boulder, Colo.) he met practicing filmmakers ''and started to learn the rudimentaries of how to splice film together.'' His idea was to make a movie on a never-ending loop, to run continuously while outside sounds and lights constantly changed - a logical extension of the ''assemblage'' projects he was also working on.

But money was an obstacle. ''It was 1957,'' Conner recalls. ''I was a movie usher, my wife had a job as a secretary. As soon as I got into the film project, I realized this was a rich man's art form.''

Rather than quit in frustration, he made a virtue of necessity. ''I couldn't afford a camera,'' he says. ''But I could afford to buy 16-mm silent condensations of feature films at a camera store.'' He had always admired a ridiculous chase scene in the Marx Brothers comedy ''Duck Soup,'' with all kinds of vehicles converging into one impossible parade. He combed his collection for shots that might fit together in a similar way, and this became the germ of his first film, ''A Movie.''

The film, running about 12 minutes (since he couldn't afford the projector for his film-loop idea), is still a favorite at Conner retrospectives. ''I think I made it,'' he says, ''because I was tired of waiting for someone else to do what seemed so obvious to me - to bring together these bits and parts of other films.''

Conner did get his hands on a camera eventually and shot material for such films as ''Breakaway'' and ''White Rose.'' It dawned on him, though, that found footage could be the heart of a full-fledged style that suited his temperament and circumstances. ''I had lots of time and no money,'' he says. ''So I could spend very little on film, but take months editing it.'' Conner is certainly one of the most careful movie artists, never hurrying a project. ''Cosmic Ray,'' for example, took about four months to edit. It runs about four minutes.

Conner has a sense of humor about his films, which are sometimes very funny themselves. Among influences on his work, he lists ''coming attractions, TV commercials, and switching from one channel to another.'' Yet he's a thoroughly serious artist, and even his whimsies can lead to discoveries. ''I'd play games with TV and sound,'' he recalls, ''seeing how you could alter the images and discovering what effect this had on me. The way to make this a repeatable event would be to make a film.''

He was most fascinated by the results of seemingly accidental combinations. ''The discovery that random images or words had functional meaning was like a magical illumination,'' he says. ''In fact, I often feel the films I've made have magical sequences. It's so intuitive that at times I'm not entirely aware of what I've done. The process has started long before a print of the film is made, and even afterward the process goes on, as I find out more from the audience.''

Conner finds he is well served by the old film clips he manipulates. ''Black-and-white footage is advantageous to deal with,'' he says, ''because you can make an implied relationship between two images by shape, movement, subject, or the event that's taking place. It implies a narrative structure. There's a kind of universal style in many black-and-white movies of the '30s, '40s, and ' 50s. Look at a bunch of educational films, and it's almost as if the same cameraman shot them.''

Consistent as he is, Conner remains a versatile artist who's capable of pulling a stylistic surprise now and then. One such is his current project, a documentary feature to be called ''The Soul Stirrers: By and By.''

The subject is a black gospel-music group Conner has long admired. If adequate financing can be found, the film will be a full-length look at the musicians with interviews, archival footage, and music sequences from a reunion concert he helped sponsor early this year. He has enjoyed gospel music since listening to ''very faint radio stations from Texas and Tennessee'' during his teen years in Kansas. He feels the Soul Stirrers represent the best of the tradition, with their experience dating back to 1926 and their personnel having included the late Sam Cooke during the '50s. Thus his documentary will be yet another personal film, not a diversion from his main career.

Conner once said he edited some of his films ''until they went away.'' Others , he told me, ''I've run until they fell apart.'' Still others ''were portraits of people and I gave them to the people.'' A rare blend of visionary artist and exacting craftsman, he has made a unique contribution to world film.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.