Bruce Conner is in your head. How did he get there? Do not be alarmed, but there has been some seepage in the collective consciousness. Can you feel it? Yes. Yes you can. That name, Bruce Conner, is familiar. How do you know that name?
Not to be confused with memorably coiffed Olympic decathlete and game-show habitué Bruce Jenner, nor with mild-mannered, gamma-irradiated comic book character Bruce Banner, Bruce Conner was a San Francisco countercultural artist and filmmaker who came of age in the 1950s and '60s. And yet, it is not wrong to go rummaging through the absurd, amusing, appalling mental scrapbook of American cultural effluvia in order to track him down.
Conner died last fall, the newspapers say, but who knows how gone he really is? One time, many years ago, he gave notice of his own death to Who's Who, and hosted a solo art show called Works by the Late Bruce Conner.
More to the point of this discussion, though, are Conner's brilliantly inventive, highly kinetic and variously agitating films, which similarly imply an establishment-rattling trickster who could be very serious too. In 1958, he made a movie called A Movie. "My intent was to make an anti-movie," he later said. Later still, the San Francisco Chronicle described A Movie as "a sort of paean to human failure." For its maker, this lushly scored, sublimely funny yet also somehow dread-inducing 12-minute collage of found footage became definitive.
Conner's ironic selectivity and poetically intelligent editing became a way of feeding the pop-culture machine back to itself. It also became widely influential. "Do I like being tagged as the father of music videos?" he once said. "I would demand a DNA test." He was clever and creatively surly that way. (At least one of his sculptural artworks was directly inspired by his annoyance with a San Francisco museum's way of displaying another.) Other subjects of Conner's deftly cinematic social critiques include high-profile sex crimes, the Kennedy assassination, materialism, and pop art. "I get impassioned and that's not cool and cool was what pop art was all about," he said.
There is a time and a place to see Conner's films. The time is now. The place is not on DVD, because Conner films on DVD are rare, nor online, because, as an attorney for the Conner Family Trust once put it in a polite cease-and-desist notice, "Bruce was adamant that his films not be shown or seen on-line." So, given that the time is now, that leaves only one place: the Crossroads.
Not to be confused with The Crossroads Trading Company chain of clothing stores, which specializes in "recycled fashion," nor with the 1990 box set of music by Eric Clapton, which alludes to the mythically diabolical 1930s Delta blues musician Robert Johnson, Crossroads is, in fact, a two-day presentation of Conner's films, mounted by the San Francisco Cinematheque and beginning tonight.
It's also the title of one Conner films, a mesmerizing 1977 rhapsody on the H-Bomb obliteration of Bikini Atoll. If you can't fathom what could be so damned rhapsodic about nuclear doom, or, to your own horror, you can fathom it perfectly well, Crossroads, both the film and the event, is for you.
Bear in mind, too, that Conner's cultural significance is so wide-ranging that one evening's worth of his work will be introduced by an exceptional local essayist whose subjects include urbanism, the landscape of the American West and the invention of motion pictures (Rebecca Solnit); and the other will be handled by a local punk-drummer-cum-indie-movie producer (Henry S. Rosenthal).
Bruce Conner is already in your head. You might as well let him into your eyes and ears.
Crossroads: The Films of Bruce Conner screens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and 7:00 p.m., Thursday, March 19 at SFMOMA. For tickets and information, visit www.sfcinematheque.org.