by Tanya Zimbardo
For me, Bruce has always been there. Preceded by nothing but his reputation as an inside agitator, he was there the night I took the projection booth of the Cinematheque in the name of malcontention everywhere. “Hey Buster Brown, sit down or I’ll punch your face in!” he warned an official trying desperately to regain control. He was at LaRocca’s bar after the one-reel revolution, sitting at the head of the conSPIRITors’ table, appropriately enough. Sick with a bad liver, he drank in only the air of our excitement. His presence was unrequested, inessential, but of great importance. I can see better now than then (trying to calm a pounding heart with innumerable shots and beers) his self, sitting across a smoky and booze-soaked way in quiet affirmation of our acts.
This was not the only time Bruce would support with his self. As in his work, Bruce became to us omnipresent in our cinematic convolutions, even in his absence. Always the master of deception, this (as we would later discover) dear, sweet man gave off the ominous feeling that, like a huge thunder cloud in a quiet sky, he was waiting, watching. —Dean Snider, 1992
Bruce Conner was there the night of July 12,1981 when a group of Bay Area filmmakers pulled the plug on the Cinematheque’s program and took over the screening. The “Emergency Filmmakers” largely took issue with how their short films weren’t being shown or were relegated to the Emerging Filmmakers series. While this legendary action mobilized by Snider did precipitate a few changes at the Cinematheque, the energy fueled a desire for a more open space with the ethos of being free and fun.
No Nothing Cinema was founded a year later in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. The flyer for its inaugural “Independents Day” screening underscored “No censorship, no cross, no crown, hot barbeque, cold drinks.” REVERSAL, “an open forum for Film as Art,” was independently published out of No Nothing Cinema’s home at 30 Berry Street.
As I was going through the San Francisco Cinematheque’s research archive, to learn more about the filmmakers associated with No Nothing, I came across the following two-part Conner interview by Kayhan Ghodsi. “With Bruce Conner” and “An Interview / Bruce Conner” appeared in the first and second edition of REVERSAL (1984). The Iranian filmmaker had studied at the San Francisco Art Institute as had many of the contributors.
Conner and Ghodsi’s conversation centers on the programming and audience for personal filmmaking in the Bay Area, noting Conner’s roles in co-founding the short-lived Camera Obscura Film Society with Lawrence Jordan in 1957, and the Canyon Cinema co-operative with several others a decade later. Conner refers to the irregular film program in between its heyday eras at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where his retrospective will be held this fall.
It is a pleasure to revisit this zine conversation here in OtherZine. With special thanks to Kayhan Ghodsi, The Conner Family Trust, and San Francisco Cinematheque.
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With Bruce Conner
Kayhan Ghodsi conducted the following interview on January 12, 1984.
Kayhan Ghodsi: What is the American “New Wave” in film? Do you think it really exists, or has it always been a myth? If it does exist, what distinguished it from other movements and schools in the history of filmmaking?
Bruce Conner: [Laughs] Well, you already said it all. What else can I say? People have been talking about “American New Wave,” patterning that phrase I assume after the French New Wave. And it was a popular phrase to use. I don’t know exactly what it means, where it applies to something in the last ten years, or before that. There seems to be a political thing that happened particularly in the sixties which was the New York Film Co-Op and Film Culture magazine. And very little of what was going on outside of New York was reflected there. My experience and the information I gathered from other people was that Film Culture magazine many times reflected more on who were the social lions of the New York film scene or who was a close friend of someone who was within this structure, this hierarchy, who had more or less self-appointed themselves as the spokesmen for filmmaking. I know, from my witnessing of Andy Warhol’s work in the art galleries and how he managed to manipulate the political structures and exploit concepts that had been around for some time. His way of advertising himself, since he did come out of the advertising business. I made a prediction to myself and a couple of friends that in a very short time he would probably dominate and take over the whole thing. Which he did in a certain respect. But New Wave at this time, I can’t even think that there’s anything called New Wave.
KG: OK, but at some point you were talking about the self-appointed new filmmakers. What was new about their work?
BC: On the large part I don’t think anything was really new. It’s just that a number of people were developing personal filmmaking in the United States. As opposed to, say, what was happening in the 1940s and 1950s, where you could really count on the fingers of two hands ten people who were acting out seriously the role of a personal film artist—dealing with images or symbols or filmic structures [that] were mostly personal or of a personal point of view. I think that what happened was, in any kind of situation where there’s a social phenomenon that might reflect economic or social power, there are always those individuals who will come in and pull it together and form it into a structure. It’s usually a structure, which reflects itself rather than the individuals. Because inevitably it becomes a power structure, political structure, economic structure, a self-protection structure. I think that kind of situation has gone on through the years. What happened in the 1970s was that this direction became even more solidified and academicized. The schools and colleges started taking over the turning it into an industry to placate and satisfy the fantasies of students who wanted to play at being movie-makers. They monopolized all of the funding through federal organizations and film societies and festivals. It became a monolith, and it was no fun anymore.
KG: So you don’t call it “new.” You don’t see anything different. But at one time it was different from other films. What was the difference?
BC: I’m talking about the artistry of filmmaking of the films I value myself. The economic level of the people who had interest in movies rose to the point where they could invest their time and money into what was basically a rich man’s art form. That, I think, was the basic change. You had more people with the opportunity and freedom to work and ignore the economic restrictions that are put onto moneymaking movies.
KG: OK, that’s the filmmaking side. What’s on the screen? What is different? Is it form or is it content? That’s what I want to know.
BC: Well, you can always see different form and content there because you have a multitude of different points of view. But if you are asking me if there is a form, a content, I don’t see that there is. I don’t see something that you can say is an overview.
KG: So what was the difference? Just the filmmaker? For an example: You and I don’t have billions of dollars we can go and buy a studio with. But suddenly because of the economic situation we are able to go and make these 24-frames-per-second things. What about these things that people made? What was different about them? I mean, was it like resentment of a kind of content? Or was it no-content film, or just a change of form?
BC: Well, I think you are asking me for an historical overview.
KG: I only want to know your point of view.
BC: I initially saw a world of “look-seeing” films, which would expand and change in a multitude of dimensions. Way out of format in the lengths of the films, the kind of images that would be presented, the character of the viewing place—films that could be used in unique situations. Films that became events in themselves, that were no longer a part of what you’d say was a continuing history of theatrical films and proscenium art. I was hoping and dreaming of a situation [that] would revolutionize the whole way that people would see movies and how they would relate to them. The enormous variety of points of view is vastly entertaining and [an] illuminating process. For me, I always thought of it as a big celebration that would change many things. The big celebration was gathering all these people together, but now it appears that everything is moving off into individual, isolated pockets of people making movies. They don’t communicate with each other. They become economically involved in producing sponsored films and other things. It became like an institutional national park financed by the government. Scholarly study [that] is rammed down people’s throats.
KG: It was your dream to see it as a celebration. Do you feel it didn’t happen like this? Like it was a huge, nice-looking castle that, after it was built, no one wanted to live in it anymore?
BC: Well, I don’t know if it ever got built that way. As all of these people were gathering together, I was seeing people who I felt were intent on revolutionizing the way people see, changing the way that people relate to each other—in other words, becoming a radical point of view and/or a revolutionary point of view. At the base was a fundamental, radical alteration of the economic and social character of the United States!
KG: Another historical question: Which group of people started, let’s keep calling it New Wave, in the Bay Area? What do you think they brought to the audience when they asked people to stop watching Hollywood films and come to their little movie theaters and watch their 16mm films? What did they bring to the audience?
BC: Well, first of all, I don’t think there are too many people who would say, “Stop going to the movies.”
KG: Well, not stop. What I mean is they brought something new and said, “Come and watch.”
BC: I can just think of the people I knew, that were so involved in images that had grown out of their personal experience. Whether they were people who previously had worked in poetry, painting, theatre, whatever, they started to find that working in film created possibilities of images and changes that did not exist before.
KG: Was it only form-wise?
BC: When I came out here in the 1950s, James Broughton had sort of stopped making movies. So had Sidney Peterson and a number of other people who had shown at the San Francisco Museum of Art. I think the 1950s had more or less hit a level where there were not a lot of films being produced. It was mostly because of a series of programs that had shown at the Museum of Modern Art. This was the first time anyone had put on a series of films like the Cinematheque, a survey of surrealist and independent films in the United States that caused a resurgence of filmmaking. James Broughton and the Whitney brothers and other people were a part of that. When I first came to San Francisco, that didn’t exist. There wasn’t a single film society in the whole of the Bay Area. Nobody was showing event silent movies, except that the San Francisco Museum was still showing some of the standard museum-of-modern-art movies once a month with an audience of four or five people. I had already started a group at the University of Colorado called the Experimental Cinema Group in 1957, which had like four hundred members. We showed [Stan] Brakhage’s films, Kenneth Anger’s films, Buster Keaton, Olympiad, Blood of the Beast. All kinds of films that I was fascinated to see, and the only way to see these movies in San Francisco was to start a film society. It was called Camera Obscura, and it was the only film society in the area. I was totally obsessed with movies at that time. We were able to put together film programs and also gather people from this area that we knew of. Now, at that time you could still say there were only seven or eight people you could consider to be someone worth putting on a show in this area. That was Larry Jordan, James Broughton, Jordan Belson, and a guy [Christopher Maclaine] who did a movie called The End. I had not made my first movie yet. But I started working on the concept of my first movie, A MOVIE. I lived here until 1961-62, and anyone who was doing film at that time I knew. That was the middle of the beatnik era. There wasn’t much filmmaking going on. It was mostly poetry and jazz. It had a lot to do with drugs, and a lifestyle [that] was totally different from the mainstream. At that time, a lifestyle even slightly different than the mainstream put you into a category of eccentric. And generally that category was either you were queer, you were crazy, or you were a communist.
When I moved back in ’65, I discovered Bruce Baillie and some other people were making films. Then the Canyon Cinema organization came up in the ’60s as a cooperative venture, where many people were working to gather all these films together in an uncritical structure; any film that came in could be distributed. In the later 1960s there were a lot of new and interesting things coming together, and there was lots of communication between people on the East Coast and the West Coast. The phenomenon [that] was happening with the new psychedelic community was in a way comparable to the phenomenon that happened ten years before with the beat. It became notorious, a national phenomenon, and it happened in San Francisco and grew out of a natural community of artists and individuals who were involved in many different ways of expanding the way you view the world, your consciousness, and how you might be able to alter the world around you. Canyon Cinema programs were happening every week, and many times it would be jam-packed to the rafters. Then, sometime in the 1970s, when more and more people were producing movies, it seemed like there were fewer and fewer individuals there. I would witness a film festival put on by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They would put together a jury of people who were uneducated in filmmaking and they would throw out the films of James Broughton, of Robert Nelson, and they would give first prize to someone who had taken a little bit of James Broughton, of Robert Nelson, a little bit of Bruce Conner, and a little of bit of someone else and packed it all into one movie and knocked over this naive audience, who had put itself in charge of promoting independent filmmaking. Homogenizing, not a commercial product that was part of a new industry of grantsmenships and teaching. And many of these people who were so adventurous before became entrenched in that and became the academy.
KG: Let’s stop with the history. What is the position of the artist? What is his function? What is his impact today?
BC: It’s hard for me to judge that, not only in filmmaking but in general. The role of the artist has been homogenized and mixed up with handicrafts and the concept that everyone is an artist. Like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art could care less really what they put into their museum. They have to change the show once every month or every two months just like Macy’s does. To bring in the crowds. I think the artist has become more of a commodity than ever before. I also feel that the environment that the artist is in, whether it be filmmaking or otherwise, their potentials are blunted by the very organizations they depend on!
My general position as an artist today is just not take part in a lot of it. I do not see anything new at this time. I am seeing what I see as overall patterns that I have seen repeated over my lifetime. And of course one of the basic patterns is the structure that you find politically and economically in the arts and any other kind of structure—of a burgeoning growth and then a kind of frozen solidification. Most people when they grow old become that way. They build a case around them and they can’t think of anything except what’s in the past. Most of my battle in recent years is to get out of the past. To not talk about it like I am now.
KG: That’s exactly what I wanted to talk about with this question: What is the impact and the function of artists living in this society right now?
BC: All I can say is that it is defined by each person. They define it themselves for themselves. I can’t say what the role of the artist in this society is. I think that as soon as I start defining things like that I’m going to be faced with myself rejecting that and not respecting it myself. Every time anybody, including myself, makes a definition like that I mistrust it. Because all it does is limit you. Art is one of those three-letter words that we have in English that like other three-letter words causes a great deal of misunderstanding and emotional involvement. Art, God, and sex. It’s sort of like an institutional national park.
KG: You have to admit that there is something different with this three-letter word.
BC: One of the things that I found is that there is a very structured and formalized national park system. You are allowed to be involved with whatever that concept of God is, and it’s part of the social structure, and the same thing with art. If it’s in this package and doesn’t hurt anything, doesn’t really change anything, then it’s called art.
KG: And if it does?
BC: And if it does then it’s insurrection and acts against the values that are in the society and it becomes defined otherwise.
BC: My concept initially was that I wanted to change the way people saw things, because I felt that I saw the world totally differently. That most people I knew were bullied and badgered into not acknowledging what it was that they saw, and the real things happening in front of them. They could just as well be blind, because by not acknowledging it, it didn’t exist.
KG: So you saw it as one of your functions to show them that?
BC: Well, one of my functions, if I was going to call myself an artist, was to try to alter or change the whole concept of what this art structure was—to subvert and alter the art museum and the concept by which art becomes an economic commodity. I kept on trying to push that environment out of the museum, out of the frame. I’ve discovered that I’ve not really changed that structure, and that that structure is now even stronger than it was before. Now, there is basically a corporate structure that has a great deal of influence on the shape of these arts organizations. If anything has any value as a work of art it should not make any difference whose name or ego is on it. My feeling was that if this thing that you make is so much a part of yourself, it should easily be recognizable without you turning it into a billboard.
KG: So do you mean that your next film is not going to have your name at the end of it?
BC: Oh, no; it’s all over the place now. In 1963-64, when I had an exhibition at the University of Chicago, I was taking down the show, packing it up to take back to Massachusetts, when a couple was just coming in to see my show because a friend of theirs was named Bruce Conner. And after I got back to Massachusetts, I got a news clipping from somebody in Lincoln, Nebraska, about somebody named Bruce Conner. So I decided that there were a lot of me all over the world! I went to the public library in Boston, looking through all the telephone directories for every state in the Union, looking up Bruce Conner. And I gathered at least a dozen of them before I stopped. My plan was to have a convention! And everyone would have name tags saying, “Hello, my name is Bruce Conner.” There would be a program of events: welcome to the delegates would be presented by Bruce Conner, who would then introduce the master of ceremonies, Bruce Conner, who would then introduce the main speaker, Bruce Conner!
But I still think it’s ludicrous. Ludicrous that some object that I have made has some value just because of some economic foolishness in the art world. So this movie, yes, my name will be on it.
KG: Where does the audience stand right now? Is the filmmaker responsible to the audience?
BC: Only if the audience makes him responsible. Or if the filmmaker thinks he’s responsible to the audience. They create their own images of each other, and the responsibilities that they expect from each other are whatever they created. It’s just as much a fantasy as the images that are real or unreal, that you identify on a movie screen. These are roles that keep fluctuating and changing all the time. I always see it as the audience and the filmmaker being balanced. One of them fills ups with a little more hot air than the other one, so they look bigger. But neither of them can exist without the other. The situation of putting them in the darkened auditorium, where you are basically sensorially deprived of sounds and images, and sitting and looking in one direction is such a great monopoly on people’s minds and bodies that it’s a unique way of dealing with an artist’s artistic audience.
KG: That’s exactly why I asked you this question. Because when people decide to be your audience, they decide to give you this monopoly. They decide to come and sit in the darkness and let you do something to them. Doesn’t that make the filmmaker responsible?
BC: If you have such a moral point of view and such a conscience, yes. I don’t feel that many of the situations where films are shown today show that conscience of that value.
KG: Well, I remember the night you had your show at the Castro. The last thing you said, which was about your film CROSSROADS, was that if you (the audience) don’t like this movie, if you get bored or whatever, please leave quietly. And you were saying that to someone like myself who came some distance, had to spend 45 minutes finding a parking place, had to spend $3.00, which is like a half hour of work somewhere, and had to sit and hear you tell me that if I get bored I should leave quietly. What is the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience?
BC: I think what I was saying was, “Don’t feel compelled to torture yourself by watching something you don’t want to watch.”
KG: Well, that people know already. But in a way, you were asking people to leave quietly and not stand up and protest or something. How is it that you ask some people to come spend time, money, and effort to see your work, and then you treat them like that?
BC: I think that it’s my attitude toward filmmaking. I feel that going to movies is just not that important. If you feel it’s so important, and you dedicate yourself so much to doing that, if you can’t just walk out of it like that, then I think you have a real problem.
KG: I’m asking this question to the filmmaker, and you’re answering me as the audience.
BC: No. But I can’t remember what I said. You tell me what you saw as an audience. What you said doesn’t seem to me what I remember my intent was or how I said it. And I can’t say exactly what I did say.
KG: I want to know what you think of the audience. What’s your attitude? Who do you think the audience is?
BC: I can never separate the audience from the film. The process is that I’m the audience all the time, and that I am involving other people into it. And part of the reason I’m involving other people into it is because this process I’m discovering is enhanced and develops itself into another dimension because people start telling me what I did. It’s certainly not like the movie makers who must preview their films and figure out where the big laugh is going to come, and then keep packaging it down so that you can expect the same laugh throughout the movie.
KG: Well, that’s their method of dealing with the audience. But when the new filmmaker decided he wanted to destroy that structure, he started disregarding the audience, too. It’s like you don’t want to make them laugh to sell more popcorn, so you just forget about them altogether.
BC: Well, you know what happened with the Cinematheque. It got to the place where somebody was running the films and almost having a private party, and speaking of it as, “I’m the curator,” and presenting things that are so serious and outside the experience of other people that they have to be subsidized as endangered species. I’m not quite sure what people are doing to their audience. The type of movies that are shown in those contexts have destroyed the audience. The people who presented the films and movies are not presenting them for an audience that is going to come time after time to see what’s happening, because they are abused and insulted and are not allowed to have a good time. They are not catered to in anyway whatsoever. That has never been my point of view.
At a certain point there were the people who were essentially very dull, uninteresting, uncreative people taking over control and direction of the way you saw independent films. And they are associated with universities and museums and film organizations. In those kinds of structures the people who are involved are not filmmakers or visual artists or performing artists at all! They’re the academics who happened to be teaching, say English, when there was going to be a film department. And they all fought tooth and nail to get that department under their control because it’s such a powerful tool.
Structuralists are the people who consider a good film one that you don’t see, but one that you write about. And the whole process of playing the verbal games is more important than the film. And they have gotten the upper hand, and they have destroyed an audience! The only audience they want is the one that is coerced by their textbooks and fills up their bank accounts with a regular salary and an honorarium for the rest of their lives!
KG: Thank you very much.
REVERSAL front covers, courtesy SF Cinematheque.
- Excerpt from Dean Snider, “The Importance of Being Bruce; An Unrequested Annotation” WIDE ANGLE, Volume 14, Numbers 3 & 4 (July – October 1992).
- For multiple perspectives on this event, see Steve Polta, “Emergency Cinema,” in Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945—2000, eds. Steve, Anker, Kathy Geritz, and Steve Seid (Berkeley: University of California Press / University of California, Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive, 2010), 228–234.
- REVERSAL was published by Kayhan Ghodsi. Contributors to drawings, layout, and general visual conception were Helen Almazan, LouAnn Columbo, Karem Jamshidi, Prussia Merritt, T. Prussiamerritt, Michael Rudnick, Mark Sterne, Marian Wallace, James Wagner, Margaret White and Karen Williams. Texts by Lynn Marie Kirby, Dean Snider, among others.
- Bruce Conner: It’s All True is currently on view at The Museum of Modern Art in New York through October 2, 2016; the retrospective will travel to SFMOMA (October 29, 2016–January 22, 2017) and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid (February 21–May 22, 2017).