April 29, 2010

Struck Dumb by BRUCE CONNER: A Reminiscence

Seeing Apsara DiQuinzio’s recent incredible post on Bruce Conner’s LOOKING GLASS (and other works) partially inspired the following recollections:

I first encountered BRUCE CONNER on a visit to the 90’s Dogpatch incarnation of Canyon Cinema. I was tagging along with my good friend, filmmaker Timoleon Wilkins, who had many legitimate reasons to be there, all of which provided me cover for the purposes of scoping out the facilities of this legendary distributor of truly independent cinema. Following Tim into the darkened chamber, I was forced to halt suddenly when a strange, yet friendly-seeming, wizened fellow approached Tim bearing a jar packed with a mysterious, dark substance. After a minute of conversation between my friend and this likely wizard, during which Tim kept referring to him as “Bruce”, it began to dawn on me (BRUCE?!!) — yes, this must be BRUCE CONNER. The proffered jar was a container of sugar-free jam someone had given him as a present; he’d brought it by Canyon as a likely site of targets for re-gifting. I don’t remember if he had any takers, but in years to come, after boning up further on BRUCE, I’d come to associate the slightly fevered, yet benign and generous glint in BRUCE’s eye with his presentation to Marcel Duchamp of his soon-to-be-famous TRAVELING BOX. Fool that I am, I hadn’t the receptivity, and restrained, but quietly avid curiosity the sometimes Rose Sélavy is said to have displayed in seizing hold of the strange and marvelous BOX. Having no chess-player’s eye for the historical big picture, I, not for the first time, sidestepped opportunity, and failed to accept the gift. To this day, I regret at not being able to point up to a corner in my pantry, and say “Yes, there rests SUGAR FREE JAM JAR“, and watch as this info sinks into the consciousness of awe-struck guests… A few more anxious minutes passed, and BRUCE slipped away into the afternoon…

Truth be told, finding myself in the presence of BRUCE CONNER, I was totally dumbstruck. I’d first seen his films in Austin, Tx. many years before, starting with MONGOLOID and AMERICA IS WAITING. These films were clearly made by a sensibility of scathing, all-consuming vision, not to mention maniacal determination. Was BRUCE CONNER the South Pole’s Santa, attended by a sneering army of manic, post-punk elves? All I could find out about BRUCE at this point was that he was a man in his 50’s living in my native San Francisco who suffered from a liver condition liable to cause his death at any moment. The years passed on, I saw more BRUCE CONNERs, and was left dumbstruck every time. This man who lived with mortal disease was clearly IMmortal, beyond the laws of petty, average men. His films and other works were made by someone who could see through walls, into secret, previously undisclosed realms. Conner’s cosmic x-ray vision penetrated into the depths of the sea, and into the hearts of mystery-laden sirens. It was unknown to me whether his major limbs were capable of superhuman acts, but his hands joined bits of film, paper, stockings, doll parts, wood, etc, etc, etc, like a mad swami who’d discovered cosmic consciousness in the yoking together of physical fragments, by which material and ephemeral universes would become ONE. No wonder finally encountering him left me dumbstruck…

A few more years passed. Tim Wilkins again invited me to accompany him, this time to BRUCE’s house. Tim was doing some work for BRUCE, including the restoration of BREAKAWAY. The CONNER home was furnished in a spare, but by no means austere manner, and, as might be predicted, was immaculately clean. BRUCE gave us a tour of his office, where he conducted his International Affairs without the use of a computer or the internet, favoring a fax machine instead. The King of this little kingdom exchanged a few pleasantries with Tim as I searched in vain for clever things with which to pipe in. Suddenly, BRUCE threw open a photographic storage cabinet, and began showing us stacks of prints from the photos he’d taken during the year he’d spent at the Mabuhay, the (to me) almost mythical first generation Punk club in North Beach. I’d seen the fliers for the Mabuhay posted on San Francisco telephone poles in my very early teens. Now BRUCE’s stills, frozen moments in space and time, seemed to flash that reality into dynamic action before my eyes. Without warning, I was brought into visceral contact with a legendary Valhalla from my early adolescence. I was dumbstruck. Did I detect a self-satisfied smile as he looked back at me while sliding the drawers back into place? Had he diagnosed my condition, and decided to push me over the edge? Who can say?

Another year or two down the road found me at the BRUCE CONNER 2000 B.C. exhibit at the old DeYoung. Certainly among the select few highlights of my gallery show experiences, 2000 B.C. bowled me over with, among other things, LOOKING GLASS, BLACK DAHLIA, and a cubby-hole in which one could wind a 16mm print of LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS back and forth through a viewer. In a small room off the main gallery, there were regular screenings of VIVIAN, which I hadn’t seen before, by means of an actual print, on a real film projector (supposed “anachronisms” since eliminated at the new DeYoung). The film unspooled, Conway Twitty’s rendition of “Mona Lisa” filled my ears, and Vivian cavorted about on the screen. BRUCE’s camera danced, and his flash-cuts sucked me into an alive, animistic universe. I was suddenly thrown into instant ECSTASY… My birthday was a few weeks later — can you imagine my surprise when I opened a small package to find my very own 16mm print of VIVIAN? My wife had conspired to work some magic with Tim, and now I was looking down at a bill of “lease for the life of the print”, “for home use only”. It was priced at the kind of figure appropriate to our being the closest of friends. “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING”, was emblazoned towards the top of the page, and “PAYMENT RECEIVED 8/19/200X BRUCE CONNER” filled the middle. Need I say I was struck dumb? Now it would all be downhill. How could any further birthdays live up to this?

My last encounter of any significance with BRUCE took place something like seven or eight years ago, at SFMOMA. Post some event or other, filmmaker and SFMOMA Wattis Theater Head Projectionist Paul Clipson and I found ourselves ahead of the crowd at a reception in the Schwab Room. No sooner had we made it through the short line to the table dispensing a sweet and strange rum-based concoction served in suitably cartoonish plastic cups, than we turned to find ourselves face-to-face with BRUCE and his wife Jean. A pleasant and largely empty conversation ensued, consisting mostly of whatever film technical and historical questions and observations Paul and I could summon forth from the depths of brain cold storage that we thought might engage and amuse the maestro. BRUCE would nod agreement at some triviality or other, and smile gnomically. Looking down at the strange glass in his hand, I began to worry about his health. Suddenly it occurred to me I’d never heard him utter words even slightly comparable to the piercing universal intelligence coursing through his work. Granted, I hadn’t even spent an hour in his presence, but it seemed to me he was perhaps some manner of Himalayan Sage, a near cousin to the Dalai Lama, or some such, who’d evolved beyond the ridiculous concerns which animated my everyday existence. How did he maintain a friendship with Dennis Hopper? Surely the Hopper I knew from movies would be filled with murderous rage to find himself the subject of such distant and intermittent scrutiny… But Jean and BRUCE were offering their friendly goodbyes and moving on. I realized I hadn’t spoken much. Yet again, I’d been struck dumb by BRUCE CONNER — this time I’d been joined, to some extent, by Paul…

Although I crossed paths with him a time or two after this, this had been the last opportunity I was going to have for anything resembling a conversation with BRUCE, and yes, I’d pretty much blown it. But I have no regrets about this — it’s a precious gift in these unmagical days to consort on any level with a figure whose presence, because of his work, is so hypnotizing. Sometimes, knowing I’m about to see something by BRUCE, I get a little worried. Will a bit of the sorcery have worn off? As I enter my jaded years, however, I’m pleased—and strangely, even a little proud—to share with you that to this day, when I come into contact with his various works, I’m often filled with ecstasy. This Mage built his spells to last. Even now that he’s passed on to his grave, I’m still very much left dumbstruck by BRUCE CONNER.

Comments (3)

  • my parents were friends of him and his wife jean

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    “Anti-claus”?! You should have told me — I would have stolen it! Maybe for some future Conner-appreciation piece? I doubt I’ll be tiring of BRUCE as a subject…

  • I agree totally–and amazingly I never met him–the current (recent?) show at SFMOMA is just great. And nice turn of phrase—south pole santa. I once wrote “anti-claus” in a poem…

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