Thursday, May 31, 2007

Report on Bruce Conner

REPORT, dir. Bruce Conner
16mm, b&w, sound.
13 min., ~ 9 sec.
~ 18936 frames

Something has happened — the audio track tells us as much — and what we see is interrupted by a chaotic scramble of images and text taken from film leader. Conner's title is a key: it lays out one of the film's primary purposes, and refers explicitly to the film's audio track, which presents recordings of live newscasts covering the events. At the same time, it recalls gunshots.

Bruce Conner's film, at once a found-footage documentary and an act of mourning, reports on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The film often seems degraded: iconic images of the motorcade start and re-start, jump cut and broken. The mismatch between what we see and hear — or between the procession of images themselves — is jarring. We are interrupted by film-leader, blanks.

Everything centers on the film's blank spots. The filmic image — jump-cut newsreel of the Kennedy motorcade nearing Dealey Plaza — disintegrates at the most crucial moment in the film's audio narrative, the moment of murder. Images are replaced by "white expanses where we see hairs in the gate and wear and tear on the frames themselves," which, Matthew Wilder notes, are the film's "most startling moments" — they begin at the moment a voice on the audio track, having noted that "something has happened in the motorcade route," begins to describe the witnesses' panic in a tone equally panicked, breathless.

At this point, and for three minutes and twenty-three seconds, the film's diegesis is located entirely within its narration. A further replacement: the whitened screen becomes a strobing flicker of black and white frames, while the voice describes "a severe gunshot wound." Sirens, ambient sounds, sound like horrorshow Theremins. And the strobe doesn't sit still. Bruce Jenkins writes: "the rate of flicker begins to decelerate — shifting from its most kinetic and stroboscopic as the reporter from 'Mobile Unit 6' races to Parkland Hospital — to infrequent flashes, finally fading to darkness as the reporter arrives and is barred entry to the hospital."

This strobing of black and white makes the invisible blank visible, underscores its blankness, in its alternation of clear and black frames, representing both the absence of color and the absence of light. It employs the rhetoric, as Jenkins claims, of "those horror films where the monster remains offscreen and viewers are left to conjure up its unseen hideousness." As such, it is terrifying. It refuses, in its refusal to show, to allow violence to rise to the status of icon; this same act refuses to make us into witnesses, allowing the narrating newscaster to witness on our behalf. It points to erasure, and absence — not only the absence that is death, but also the inability of mourning to reconcile itself to the traumatic event.

The blanks are blindspots. As a historical document, REPORT covers the Kennedy assassination and the chaos and confusion of its immediate aftermath. The film was begun within days of the event, and updated and revised as history unfolded, as other reports (including the Warren Commission's) were begun and completed, over the next several years. According to Jenkins, eight versions were completed; only one is definitive. Or: one film was remade continually, as its author attempted to settle on a historical account satisfactory to the moment it describes. In many ways, Conner's film reports on reportage itself, on the gaps, absences, and erasures in the historical record. It investigates the contrast between history as it is lived — in the chaos of its unfolding, in its rupture — and history as it is rationalized and codified within and by social institutions.

[NOTES: In my emphasis on the role of the blank in Conner's film, I've focused exclusively on the first part of REPORT. This is not to suggest that the film's second chapter lacks interest. As Jenkins notes, the shorter second section investigates — through layering of newsreels, commercials, and audio — the mythology surrounding Kennedy: it is "an astounding exposé of the ways in which the media creates meaning, constructs messages, and ultimately controls information" that "implement[s] Barthes' advice that the 'best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn."

Bruce Jenkins' article, "Exlosion in a Film Factory: The Cinema of Bruce Conner," published in
2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story, Part II, is an invaluable resource on Conner's filmmaking in general, and particularly on REPORT.

Stan Brakhage's lecture on Bruce Conner, published in
Film at Wit's End: Eight Avant-Garde Filmmakers also includes excellent commentary on the film. Brakhage provides a detailed explanation of REPORT's genesis and the different shapes it took over the years of its production, as well as a thoughful discussion of the emotion elicited by particular segments.

Conner's REPORT is not currently available.


steve roberts said...

I might have to see this movie. Also, you have better scrounging abilities for weird movies on the internet, so can you find anything by Bruce Bailie, particularly Mass for the Dakota Sioux?

Steven Fama said...

I liked your essay, thanks for sharing. I love Bruce Conner's work.

When seen as projected film, and even in the DVD version, the strobe section of REPORT (and please note that the title of Conner's films and art works are all CAPS all the time)also causes me physiologically become super-anxious, based on the intense flicker in the dark theater or room. I think Conner knew that would happen to the viewers. This is not to dispute your "reading," but to add another possible dimension.

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