May 13, 2008

SFIFF Dispatch. 9.

Brian Darr Bruce Conner's Cannes-bound - and possibly last - film.

Easter Morning According to the Walker Art Center's 1999 volume 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II (there is no Part I,) the first screening of Bruce Conner's first film, the seminal A Movie, was held in 1958 at the East and West Gallery in San Francisco. That year, the first West Coast solo exhibition of his painting, drawing and collage work was hung at the venue. Now, 50 years later, Conner's work is coming into the light once more. An exhibition of photographs he took in 1977-8 at the epicenter of San Francisco punk rock, Ness Aquino's Mabuhay Gardens, will display at the Berkeley Art Museum June 4 through August 3. And for the first time ever, a Bruce Conner film will be going to the Cannes Film Festival. Entitled Easter Morning, this 10-minute-long work takes a piece of 8mm film called Easter Morning Raga, which had been intended to be looped and projected at a variety of speeds in installation settings, and locks it to a newly-selected piece of music by Terry Riley. I had the good fortune to see it at the San Francisco International FIlm Festival in a program co-sponsored by SF Cinematheque entitled Alternate Geographies.

Like Looking for Mushrooms, a rare Conner foray into explorations of color, Easter Morning is a film about light. In its current, un-looped form it begins with the image of a candle flame rising through the center of the frame, separating a jungle of green as if Charlton Heston were parting the Red Sea. It reveals the world as a garden of both leaf and light, achieved through in-camera double- and triple-exposures that seem especially dazzling as the rhythmic patterns of these multicolored lights sync up to the Riley score added decades later. Riley's piece, a version of his groundbreaking "In C" as performed by the Shanghai Film Orchestra on traditional Chinese instruments, provides a soundtrack just as likely to sound otherworldly and exotic in the East as in the West. The light, color, and blurred motion of the rapidly advancing images may remind the viewer that at the time Conner shot this footage in 1966, he was also moonlighting at the Avalon Ballroom, putting together light shows with film, slides, and strobes. Easter Morning may be seen as a film extension of these psychedelic presentations.

Easter Morning

But an empty phantasmagoria it is not; there is definite structure and meaning to the piece. At some point near the halfway mark in the film, a bridge from the world of nature to that of the man-made is gently placed down, in the form of several shots of a floral-print carpet that leads to images of a loft - wooden floors and furniture, and a giant stone cross seen through the panes of the room's large windows. A nude woman emerges from a glass cabinet, as if reborn into a world of light. The morning rays shine into the room and onto her body as she sits upon a chair by the window, causing her skin to glow a bright golden hue. For those familiar with Conner lore, these images might recall a memory the filmmaker once related at a gallery lecture in 1990, as printed in 2000 BC. He remembered having a mystical experience at age eleven, in which a sudden change of the quality of sunlight coming through his bedroom window turned into a perceptual "trip" that would only become unlocked from his memory after trying peyote in 1958.

Easter Morning is the second new Conner film to screen at the SFIFF in as many years; last year the festival showed His Eye Is on the Sparrow, a lovely piece that combines the collage-film aesthetic that made Conner such an influence on the music video form, with a bit of documentary footage shot for his film on R.H. Harris and the legendary gospel group, the Soul Stirrers. One wonders if this is the only footage from that documentary, which, back in the 1980s, was planned as a feature-length film called By and By. As his current producer and caregiver Henry S Rosenthal explained at the SFIFF screening, Conner is now wheelchair-bound and busy preparing his legacy and protecting it from the "archeologists," whom he doesn't want tinkering with his unfinished works after he dies. In a recent profile on his family that describes showing the Cannes-bound film to his daughter's high school class, Rosenthal is quoted as saying that Easter Morning "is probably [Conner's] last film." A sad thought indeed, but if true, it's hard to imagine a more beautiful and poetic film to go out on.

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Posted by dwhudson at May 13, 2008 2:30 AM


So beautiful . . .

Posted by: jmac at May 13, 2008 8:36 AM

I hope you get a chance to see it for yourself, Jen. It played right before Observando del Cielo- quite the one-two punch for this longtime Conner fan and stargazer...

Posted by: Brian at May 13, 2008 6:00 PM