Bright Lights Film Journal

Some Remarks on Bruce Conner and Report

Entering into negotiations with executives at Time, Inc. over the sale of a film he’d shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963, Abraham Zapruder was adamant that his 26.6 seconds of 8mm Kodachrome safety stock be used in the most dignified manner possible. He had visions, awful nightmare visions of seedy people ducking into some armpit of a movie theater in Times Square to watch the now-former President John F. Kennedy get his head blown apart in something more than living color; and the very notion of such a thing made him positively ill. But once he was given the proper assurances, the old man forked over both the film and all publication rights thereto for a final sum of two hundred grand.

Thus did Abraham Zapruder become the first man on earth to make a buck off of the Kennedy assassination.

At the time it would have been hard for American innocents (and they were still legion in ’63) to see it in those terms. I mean . . . think about it . . . surely, only the most curdled and irretrievably cynical could dare think that everything, even a filmed record of a political assassination, could become a creature of the marketplace, a mere commodity to be bought or sold. It would not, however, have been a revelation to Bruce Conner. Beginning in the mid 1950s this native of Kansas constructed a large measure of his creative identity through the simple act of gathering together what freedom’s land had seen fit to discard; incorporating a mass of found objects, like a Beat generation Duchamp, into a series of assemblages; enigmatic sculptures that, in the aggregate, acted as a critique of American life (among other themes) while investing the individual parts with an aesthetic force not one of them could have had on their own. Furniture pieces, rhinestone necklaces, doll limbs, once-fashionable ladies garments; they’d all been products at one time or another; things, objects, that people paid money to call their own. Now, after their liberation from the trash heap or the thrift shop, they stood transformed and resonant.

When he jumped into the realm of cinema, a move that was only inevitable, Bruce Conner employed a somewhat similar methodology. A Movie (1958), drew its substance from a variety of sources: stock footage, educational films, newsreels. Like the assemblages, there was little of significance in each individual snippet, but when joined together the effect was mordant . . . a term that could be spread evenly across virtually the entire spectrum of American avant-garde filmmaking of that time . . . and more than a little grim (1961’s Cosmic Ray utilized roughly the same technique, but to a more frenzied effect). For those who have need of such things, it was a landmark; a status underlined by its inclusion in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry . . . the same mortuary of American film where, coincidentally (?), Abraham Zapruder’s film now resides.

But while the earlier works could, as I say, be darkly humorous, 1967’s Report is simply dark. In its final form (the film endured numerous revisions over the years of its creation) it is a repetition of newsreel footage from that godawful Friday in Dallas . . . the motorcade, the limo, the chaos, the Mannlicher-Carcano held aloft for all to see, on and on . . . punctuated by long blasts of film leader and set to the song of overheated radio reports; eventually joined, in a terrible communion, by an avalanche of other media: TV commercials, industrial films, commercial cinema (ecstatic shots from James Whale’s Frankenstein and Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front), sport newsreels, footage of the Kennedys in better times; all of it creating, in its final moments, a bleak, if all-too-recognizable, vortex; as if the great national tragedy that had the world riveted for a time had been pulled down into the fever and ague of the hour and become just as matter of fact, and as marketable, as everything else.

Report is sensory overload with a conscience, but I seriously doubt if Bruce Conner, who passed away on July 7 at the age of 74, could have ever made much money off of it.