Monday, January 18, 2010

Report (1967), Bruce Conner

This is not a report. And that's OK, and most appropriate, because neither is Report, by Bruce Conner. More specifically, this is not a review because, after one viewing, I'm still absorbing and processing what I've seen and heard. But I wanted to get something down in writing, something that captures my first impressions; the raw and awkward effusions of the neophyte contemplating Guernica for the first time. Moved, but not entirely sure why. Baffled, unsettled -- partly wondering what the fuss is about while understanding very well. Conner's 13-minute avant-garde, film poem /essay /documentary /montage /hodgepodge /stream-of-consciousness assemblage of found footage on the Kennedy assassination along with more banal moving imagery that puts that event into a topical and larger context is a movie more written about than seen, more sought out than found. This movie composed of found footage is, ironically and frustratingly, one of the most difficult cinematic works to find. Indeed, it seems to be one of the most closely guarded art objects on Earth. There's plenty of back story on the net about why this is; how closely it was held to the vest under Conner and subsequently -- after his death -- by his widow and estate. Conner did not want the film to be viewed via any format other than projected film itself, so finding it in a video form has been impossible. One has to resort to Richard Nixon-like tactics to see it, and, like Tricky Dick, I invoke culpable deniability. I have seen it, but how and where I know not, and neither will you. Just keep digging buckos; it is out there. That it should get to this point with films like Report is a shame, because there's no reason that well-intentioned cineastes who would love to see and appreciate it should see it and similar obscurities listed in sadomasochistically torturing tomes such as 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and realize they will go to their death having no chance of seeing it. In fact, the effect of Report is a powerful one regardless of whether it is seen with light projected through celluloid -- even while conceding that, yes, ideally that is the preferred way. But we're dealing with roughed-up newsreel footage; stuff taped off a TV with a Super 8 and such; it's not a luminously glowing original nitrate print of, say, Sunrise by F.W. Murnau. The visual textures aren't sophisticated enough to justify the stubborn clinging to an anti-video pesentational stance -- especially with DVD and Blu-Ray and HDTV out there. And I'm not sure why Report remains standoffishly hidden, when such Conner films as Marilyn Times Five and A Movie appear to be available on legitimate videos at the public library.
Finally having the chance to watch it immediately dispels myths about what is actually in it. First of all, it does not riff on footage from the Zapruder film as so many commentators have written. It's understandable that they might say this, having likely not been able to see it themselves. Secrecy always begets misinformation. The central image of Report is the passing of the president's motorcade filmed from a TV news report by Conner. It, like the entire film, is in black and white. It is not the Zapruder film. This passing becomes a stretched-out moment in time as Jackie and John perched in their limo pass closely by a TV camera, smiling at it, and us; JFK offering up a salute of greeting. This passing of the motorcade is brilliantly cut by Conner. It represents just a few seconds of real time; a moment that is itself just a few moments before the fatal shots. Conner stretches this passing of the motorcade out for about a minute; with the car advancing only so far, repeating the cut, then allowing the film to advance slightly more, repeating that snippet several times, and so on, until the backs of John and Jackie face us and slip away. It's mesmerizing and haunting, and in some ways more disturbing than the violent shock of the color Zapruder footage. This is a contemplation, of time, of fleetingness, of life, of death. A tiny moment extended for our greater consideration. Conner privileges us by finding a way to let us drink in the moment, but also to dread what is coming. It's as if he is giving JFK a few more seconds of life. I couldn't believe it when I found myself muttering, "No, John, stop the car, go back."
Before this, the film is largely a sonic experiment, a black screen punctuated by fast strobe-like flickering, reminiscent of the hypnotic (and possibly epilepsy inducing) experimental short, The Flicker, by Tony Conrad (from 1965 and thus of the same vintage). The informational aspects of the film at this point are aural, police radio and news resports manically essaying the chaos ensuing from the assassination.
The motorcade portion is followed by a seemingly interminable section that lasts about two minutes in which film leader counts backward from 10 to 3 and repeats without ever completing the countdown to two or one. It's a contemplation of time and its suspension, only possible with film, and very much reminding us of the previous scene in which the motorcade procession seems to pass eternally. Oddly, the crosshairs in the middle of the circled numbers begin to remind us of the crosshairs of the high-powered rifle that Oswald used during what must have been his own countdown to the fatal moment.
Following this, Conner lets loose with a plethora of found images: TV commercials for Tappan refrigerators, the violence of a bullfight, scenes of war, both real and cinematic, moments of Dr. Frankenstein and his life apparatus cobbled from Bride of Frankenstein, a repeated image of a bullet piercing a light bulb in super slow motion, etc. Some of this is crude symbolism; some of it a commentary in the violence of the 20th century that seems to make JFK's fate inevitable. It all comes fast and furious in the last few minutes, and because of that it's hard to consider it fully with one viewing. The final image is of a secretary sitting operating a piece of office equipment, with a cutaway to a hand which through the montage of movies is suggested to be hers but likely is not, pushing a button marked "sell." Clearly, selling out is not what motivated Conner, and that helps to partly explain the scarcity of this movie in the marketplace of ideas. The selling of the image of the Kennedy assassination, which is something Zapruder did well by, is the stuff for a deeper analysis than I'm inclined to tackle now.
While watching Report I often said to myself that it wasn't impressing me as much as Conner's humorous 1958 found-footage short, A Movie. It's in retrospect that the much darker Report surpasses. Interestingly, even when it is outrageous and transgressive, Report seems ultimately to be a most tasteful and honorable remembrance, mourning not just JFK but the passing of a more innocent age -- even while criticizing it. Grade: B??
Tom Sutpen over at the Illusion Travels By Streetcar blog has much more interesting things to say about this movie than I do.


  1. Good write up.

    Consider also that the repeated cuts of the motorcade (with just a little bit more shown each time) is sort of done with Jackie and the ambulance door handle a bit later in the film (except Jackie if I remember right never does open the door).

    Also, and you do suggest this, so I agree: the film's tone is complex: the killing of JFK was clearly upsetting, but so too was distancing and manipulation of the event via the replaying by the media. The "let's give it to him again" line synced to the shot of Ruby doing Oswald might encapsulize Conner's viewpoint. The "sell" button at the end may be a comment on commercial exploitation.

    By the way, REPORT (and Conner's titles are always ALL CAPITALS ALL THE TIME, with no italics)is on DVD with I think seven other Conner flicks. For a couple years, in the mid-00's, BC gave a copy to anybody who made a 50 buck donation to one of three designated charities (including the LA Food Bank, or Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic). Alas, those DVDs appear to be gone, though they do show up once in awhile on ol' eBay.

    BC worked hard on the digital transfers for that DVD, especially on the stroboscopic section, but as he was the first to say, it still doesn't play like a projected film.

    BC's -- and the Conner Family Trust -- objections are most severe regarding on-line footage. Rough found original footage or not, the pixelation on-line is extreme, and it's awful when viewed "full screen." In my opinion, seeing BC's films that way -- the way all film is seen, let's say, on UBU-Web, ain't really seeing the movie.

  2. Thanks for all the interesting clarifications, compliments and insights, Steven.
    I can tell you that the copy I saw was very very good, so I think I'm on solid ground commenting on the film based on that, and agree with you that something like UBU-Web would be problematic. I'm not familiar with it but I'm assuming it's similar to Youtube.
    I appreciate the feedback and hope you cleared up some things that I may have stated erroneously. I really do need to watch the movie again and see what I missed the first time. As you probably understand, even though it's only 13 minutes, it's a very draining 13 minutes and I can't run back to it very soon. -E

  3. You are dang right about it be a tough movie to watch repeatedly, due to the emotional content. Once in a while BC himself would step out of the room when the film screened, especially when he'd seen the movie at at a run-through or sound-check the same day of an "official" screening.

    Par tof the emotional content, of course, is the stroboscopic flicker section. I think the visuals in that section mimic or depict the feeling experienced (if you were alive, and I was, though a little kid) when the news that JFK had been shot was first heard. And that the section with flickers actually induces in viewers the same kind of anxious pre-panic state felt by people at the time. Even though it is very powerful, and very ture, it's not a fun thing to go through, whether in a movie theater or watching it on TV (via DVD).