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Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958) references the medium’s inherent potential to both bear witness to historical trauma and manipulate the precarious boundary between fact and fiction. Orchestrated to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” the film’s spasmodic montage of unattributed newsreels, ethnographic films, cinematic trailers, and soft-core porn weaves a disparate collage of history and narrative. Ultimately both are rendered as operatic hyperbole.
The phrase “The End” flashes on screen at the beginning of the film and sporadically throughout its 12-minute duration. Voids of flickering blackness follow, only to be punctured by a barrage of moving images—a nude woman, a stampeding elephant, an uncertain tightrope walk, blossoming mushroom clouds, the Hindenburg in flames, bodies ravaged by war, dappled light on the surface of the sea.
It is cathartically compelling to view the film’s critical undertones through the lens of our perilous post-election reality. The End is here; no, here—this tortured circuit actualizes the apt yet overused adage that history is cyclical and doomed to repeat itself, and also points to a prescient metaphor. Like the Hindenburg itself, the symbols that we seek to elevate as trophies of human progress are often the most vulnerable to tragedy in this seemingly infinite, self-immolating historical loop. By exposing our inability to pry our eyes from this hapless spectacle, Conner also furtively reminds us that film’s consumption of disaster repackages trauma as an aesthetic, passive pleasure. If we are lulled into complacency by the safe, distant veneer of the screen, we can continue to bear witness to the flames in perpetuity, yet remain indifferent to the reality of that which burns.
A Movie runs from November 11, 2015 – January 14th, 2017 at Kohn Gallery (1227 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90038).