Wednesday, August 2


Bruce Conner's Permian Strata

I thought that these two posts would make up my entire reportage from last month's Silent Film Festival. I was wrong. As the preamble to my entry in Girish Shambu's Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon I want to revisit my too-brief mention of G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box, a film I'd never seen before, saving it for just such an occasion as a new print at the Castro Theatre. I don't think I've seen anything quite like it: a carnival of unending depravity both gaudier and gloomier than I had expected, this atmosphere driven on by Clark Wilson's superb Wurlitzer score. Making Louise Brooks the face of the festival, her image appearing on posters, T-Shirts and the festival program cover, surely helped make the screening the biggest audience must-see of the weekend. I only hope the folks who were turned away from the sold-out show can take some solace in the fact that, according to the Louise Brooks Society, the Balboa and the Rafael will be screening Louise Brooks films on the weekend before her centennial birthday November 14.

The screening was introduced by several people, but most notably Bruce Conner, filmmaker, artist, and on-off Frisco inhabitant since 1957. But like Louise Brooks, Conner was born in Kansas, and he related what it was like growing up in the same town as a retired Hollywood star, where he almost took dance classes at her studio, and almost got up the nerve to ring her doorbell once. You can see the beginning of Conner's intro at filmmaker Caveh Zahedi's blog. Zahedi mentions Conner's evidently declined health, something I too wondered about, as he seemed quite a bit less lively and comfortable speaking than he did even nine months ago at an SFMOMA appearance. I imagine that it might be easier to relax and naturally let a mischievous energy flow while speaking about one's own films in front of a few hundred people who have come because of their interest in your work, as opposed to speaking in front of 1400 silent film and Louise Brooks fans, some of whom might not even know who you are. But then Conner doesn't seem like the sort to be fazed by stage fright; he got 5,500 Frisco voters to mark his name in a 1967 Board of Supervisors campaign (perhaps won over by his campaign speech: a list of sweets). According to this interview he was diagnosed with a fatal illness twenty years ago. Perhaps it's simply a matter of having good days and bad days. At any rate it's great to see him still involved in Frisco's film and cultural scene.

But what I really want to talk about is not Conner's health, but his filmmaking. In particular, a film he made in 1969 that rarely gets discussed, and is only barely mentioned even in the monograph 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II. This excellent tome contains close analysis by Bruce Jenkins of film-school staples like A Movie and Looking For Mushrooms as well as of later works like Valse Triste and Take the 5:10 to Dreamland. The 1969 film is called Permian Strata, a title which works in conjunction with the images and the song that makes up the film's soundtrack to form a colossal pun. So often experimental film gets pigeonholed as overly serious, boring, stuffy, or requiring an expertise in filmmaking processes to fully appreciate. But a big part of my attraction to these films is that so many of them exhibit an accessible sense of humor more genuine than some so-called comedies stuffed with lines written by "professional" joke writers do. Few films have the belly laugh potential of Permian Strata. I'll try my best to talk about the film without giving away the all the humor for those who haven't seen it yet, and I won't reveal the song on the soundtrack by name (I won't be able to avoid leaving clues, though, so if you're really concerned about having the surprise spoiled read no further).

The humorous nature of Permian Strata may be why it hasn't been discussed much. Conner has called it a "bad joke movie", which sounds like a dismissal of a slight film. But is it? Conner has never avoided using humor as a part of his films, his sculptures, or his other art pieces. His first film, the 1958 A Movie, derived as inspiration for its clown-car-of-recycled-footage collage aesthetic the scene in Duck Soup where Rufus T. Firefly calls for forces to come to the aid of Fredonia, which is probably why it too feels like a comedy. Dada was another early influence on Conner, and somehow it seems natural to connect Permian Strata with a piece of "anti-art" like Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. Like Duchamp, Conner appropriates pre-existing artworks and alters them to create a new work satirizing the relationship we have to art and history.

One crucial difference between Permian Strata and the Duchamp parody is that (understatement alert!) Conner's film is appropriating far less well-known specific images than the Mona Lisa. It took me a fair bit of research into the fascinating history of Christian films for me to determine Conner's source: a 1949 Cathedral Films release the Life of Paul: On the Road to Damascus. Having not seen this 13-minute film parable yet, I don't know whether it is the origin for every image in Permian Strata (I'm not sure how the opening shot of a robed figure flicking powder into a cauldron would fit into the story of St. Paul, for example) but according to Conner lore it's one of his few collage films (along with Marilyn Times Five) in which all the images come from a single source. Judd Chesler has been quoted on this:
The style of Strata marks a departure from Conner's earlier collage forms. Conner chooses the significant footage from the found film and simply sets it off against the music. There's no cutting between the scenes.
This last sentence suggests that Conner simply took an intact excerpt from On The Road to Damascus and synched it against the chosen music track, but that surely isn't true. In fact Conner has carefully re-edited the shots so that the visual content lines up with certain lyrics in the song. Thus the narrative of Acts 9:1-18 is subverted by the "sound effects by Robert Zimmerman". For example, while we hear the words "walking on the street" we see the actor who plays Ananias doing precisely that. It gets a laugh every time I've seen it, whether at a public screening with strangers or when watching the now out-of-print Facets videocassette at home with friends. We may be responding to a "bad joke" or taking gleeful pleasure at the secular trumping the sacred. But I think there's something else going on. Though On the Road to Damascus has been all but forgotten, it unmistakably bears the symbols of something quite familiar: the historical/Biblical film. The appropriated images stand in for an entire genre, and one surely doesn't have to be a non-Christian to recognize the absurdity of the artifice of a low-budget period piece. In the context of the original film, this absurdity might well be overcome by strong narrative and/or direction, but when recontextualized (redirected) by Conner every gesture feels like a peek behind the puppeteer's curtain.

The moment when Ananias lays his hands on the unidentified blind Paul (it occurs at the end of On the Road to Damascus and the middle of Permian Strata) is particularly hilarious in light of the double-entendre of the song, which you may have guessed by now. Cinematic depictions of the blind being "healed" are invariably ludicrous (at least, I can't think of any that aren't, can you? Don't say At First Sight or I'll assume you're a Coca-Cola operative), but due to the temporal re-editing in Conner's film the viewer doesn't even know exactly what the actor playing Paul is trying to portray. He arches his shoulders, sucks in his chest, flutters his eye lashes, and suddenly his eyes pop wide open like he's just gone under the influence of a strange drug.

Permian Strata's final shots, in which Paul is struck blind, seem particularly significant in light of Conner's life and career. Conner had utilized themes of blindness before, most notable in a pair of pieces relating to Ray Charles he made in 1961: the sculpture Ray Charles/Snakeskin and the film Cosmic Ray. Regarding the latter, according to a quote Jenkins highlights from the transcript of the 1968 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, Conner "felt that I was, in a way, presenting the eyes for Ray Charles, who is a blind musician." Furthermore, Joan Rothfuss in her biographical section of 2000 BC quotes Conner relating an experience he had at age eleven that he'd unlocked from his unconscious upon first trying peyote in 1958:
I was home in the late afternoon with the sunlight coming through the window in my room. I was lying on the rug working on my homework. I decided to rest and I laid my head on the floor. The light started to change and became very bright....Shapes and sizes were changing. It seemed like they weren't inanimate. They were living things. I was part of them, and I was moving into them. I moved into a space that was incomprehensible to me....I went through things, and places, and spaces, and creatures. I became them, and I came back to myself....I went through all these changes until I was so old. I was so wrinkly. My bones were creaking and likely to break....Then I began to realize that I was on the floor, I was back....I became myself again, after eons of time....It was the same room. Only fifteen minutes had passed
I'm not sure what to make of this mystical experience, except to think such a memory surely is something Conner has carried with him through his artistic life, and to note certain parallels to the transformation the Paul character undergoes in the final minute of Permian Strata. At the moment he becomes blinded by a "very bright" light (in On the Road to Damascus it's Heavenly light accompanied by the voice of Jesus Christ), the soundtrack provides a couplet: "it's the end" rhymed with "come back again". I could be reading way too much into what was intended as nothing more than another synchronization joke like the one made at the line "walking on the street". But if Conner in 1969 remembered coming back again from exposure to a beam of light, it could be one reason why he responded to this particular 16mm footage strongly enough to make a film out of it.

Though Conner apparently believes that "Avant-Garde is a historical term. It doesn't exist anymore", here are some other pages to consult in today's Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon:

  • Acquarello at Strictly Film School.
  • Mubarak Ali at Supposed Aura.
  • Brendon Bouzard at My Five Year Plan.
  • Chris Cagle at Category D.
  • Zach Campbell at Elusive Lucidity.
  • Matthew Clayfield at Esoteric Rabbit.
  • Culture Snob.
  • Filmbrain at Like Anna Karina's Sweater.
  • Jim Flannery at A Placid Island of Ignorance.
  • Flickhead.
  • Richard Gibson.
  • girish.
  • Ed Gonzalez at Slant.
  • Michael Guillen at The Evening Class.
  • Tom Hall at The Back Row Manifesto.
  • Ian W. Hill at Collisionwork.
  • Andy Horbal at No More Marriages!
  • David Hudson at Greencine Daily.
  • Darren Hughes at Long Pauses.
  • Jennifer Macmillan at Invisible Cinema.
  • Peter Nellhaus at Coffee Coffee and More Coffee.
  • David Pratt-Robson at Videoarcadia.
  • Seadot at An Astronomer in Hollywood.
  • Michael Sicinski at The Academic Hack.
  • Michael S. Smith at Culturespace.
  • Squish at The Film Vituperatum.
  • Tom Sutpen at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger.
  • That Little Round-Headed Boy.
  • Thom at Film Of The Year.
  • Chuck Tryon at The Chutry Experiment.
  • Harry Tuttle at Screenville.
  • Walter at Quiet Bubble.

  • Comments:
    Wow. I sincerely wish I had read this before seeing Conner on stage at the Castro. I might have appreciated his presence more.
    Conner's arguments about the historical status of the avant-garde are interesting. I'm inclined to agree with art historian Hal Foster that the contemporary avant-garde is engaged in a complex interaction with what he calls the "historical avant-garde."
    Michael, perhaps a private viewing of Conner films (I had no idea Canyon Cinema offered such an option until reading your interview with Dominic Angermane) might be in order?

    Interesting, chuck. Somehow the quote seems to me to tie into both the discussions on your blog-a-thon entry, and Andy Horbal's (probably others I haven't even read yet). Is one problem with a conception of a contemporary Avant-Garde the absence of an unassmilatable stance?
    I wonder if Conner is commenting specifically about video/multimedia as a kind of heir apparent, next generation medium for avant garde filmmaking, because it does take away certain material aspects of film in the final product, and with it, a kind of trial and error, "happy accident" creativity.

    Anyway, Conner backed out at the last minute for the screening of Luke a few years ago at the NYFF avant garde screening too, and the semi-official line we had gotten was that he no longer flies since 9/11. Not sure how true that was, but I guess they really didn't want to broach the subject of his health.
    Interesting theory about the material aspects of film being essential to Conner's conception of "Avant-Garde", acquarello. So-called "perfectionism" doesn't seem nearly as unreasonable an ambition for independent artists working in video as compared to film. With today's digital tools, it would be relatively simple for someone to "remake" a film like Permian Strata today, by ordering the On the Road to Damascus footage from the source I linked. Of course that's because Conner already has done all the creative work of finding the footage, marrying it to the proper soundtrack, and determining the best positions for the cuts. I wonder how long all that took him? And how that compares to the amount of time spent on something like Ten Things I Hate About Commandments?
    Brian, I really enjoyed your description of Permian Strata. I haven't seen this film yet. Although, I think A Movie is one of the most incredible works ever. How beautiful those atomic bombs appear . . .

    I really enjoyed this quote from Bruce Conner's interview:
    "A poet from the 20th century named Carl Sandberg read a poem at a reading and somebody asked him to please explain it. He said, "Do you want me to use worser words?"
    . . .

    As far as the avant-garde being over, those words belong to a very old man . . .
    Permian Strata sounds like a fascinating film, and maybe even one that would make for a great introduction to avant-garde filmmaking--a little humor goes an awful long way! Is this available on any DVD or VHS collection?
    Jen, that's a great quote to highlight. I think it gets at the root of why I was pressing you about the term "cinema-poem" in your piece, and demonstrates the limits of this whole endeavor of using words to talk about artworks which are whole unto themselves.

    Andy, a Conner film was really the first "Avant-Garde" film I strongly connected with: the White Rose from 1967. Maybe not quite my introduction to the field, as I'd seen some Maya Deren, early surrealism, etc. But I didn't really start to appreciate this kind of filmmaking until starting down a path of exploration launched by exposure to Conner films, I think.

    Permian Strata is not on DVD but is available for 16mm rental from Canyon Cinema, and was released on the first volume of a two-VHS-tape Conner set put out by Facets in 1990. The tapes are now out-of-print, but are still found on some video store shelves, at least here in Frisco. If I were to introduce somebody to experimental film through a videocassette, this one would be my first choice; along with Permian Strata it also contains the essential A Movie, Ten Second Film (which was commissioned but then rejected as a trailer for the 1965 New York Film Festival) and two films showing Conner at his music-video-est: Mongoloid (music by Devo) and America is Waiting (music by Brian Eno & David Byrne).
    Brian, I loved this post. It was a great introduction to Conner's work, of which I'm completely ignorant. So, thank you.

    I also liked the line Jen pointed out, and even narrated it to a friend today; it's one to keep at the back of our minds always.
    Brian, thanks for an informative and enlightening entry (as usual). I've seen a few of Conner's films but I hadn't even heard of Permian Strata until now. My favourite of his films would be the symphonic Crossroads which I couldn't get out of my mind for days. Anyway, this one sounds like a truly unique entry in his ouevre.

    (Also, a not-so-ideal way to see them, but I think some of his films should be available on YouTube...)
    Hey brian, I have a contribution to your Friz freling blog-a-thon:

    I hope you like it.
    Brian, I loved your queries about the cinema-poem! What most impressed me about this blog-a-thon is how many cinema writers were interested in exploring the a.g. subject. I wish it was like this every day! :)
    Thanks, all, for continuing with the comments! This has been one of the most fun Blog-A-Thons for me to participate in.

    Mubarak, I saw Crossroads last fall and wrote a bit on it here. Since writing that I've read P. Adams Sitney's Film Culture essay on structuralism and feel a little less confused (but only a little; I think actually seeing the key films by Gehr, Snow, etc. will be the only way for me to understand the implications of the term, and how Conner's work might connect with it).

    Jen, I have a feeling that this event will help inspire a lot more writing on A-G in the future for the participants and others, if only because we've all got a lot more names of filmmakers and films to track down and experience!

    But I know my interests lie in many places, not just the Avant-Garde. Which brings me to Friz Freleng. Gir, thanks for writing up Back Alley Oproar, and more than two weeks ahead of the Blog-A-Thon deadline, too! When I put up my official post on the day, I'll be sure to have your link up.
    Thanks for the comments, Brian. I love "Pandora's" but had seen it before so missed it this time out. Now I'm sorry I did.

    Unfortunately, most of Conner's films are unavailable commercially because of the myriad copyright and licensing problems (footage and especially music) that would emerge.
    Yeah, I think the only ones you can buy are Mongoloid on a DVD of Devo music video (which I have) and the Terry Riley-scored version of Looking For Mushrooms, paired with Crossroads and available through SFMOMA for a hefty price tag (which is on my perpetual Christmas list).
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