BOOTLEG FILES 471: “A Movie” (1958 experimental short film by Bruce Conner).
LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The filmmaker never permitted the release of his work in home entertainment channels.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Maybe some day.
In 1958, an up-and-coming artist named Bruce Conner had a one-man show at a San Francisco gallery. Part of his presentation was a 12-minute short film that Conner assembled from scraps of newsreels, stag reels, half-forgotten flicks and Academy leaders. Conner gave his work the playful title “A Movie” – and while few people at the time realized it, Conner’s short pioneered the concept of linking “found footage” clips into an avant-garde assemblage.
Conner begins “A Movie” with an obvious riff on film credit sequences. He keeps his name and the film’s title on screen for what seems like an eternity (though it is roughly a minute) and then runs leader footage for another eternity (also about a minute). Respighi’s classic composition “Pines of Rome” plays on the soundtrack, and the viewer rightfully anticipates some grand images to mirror the musical score.
What Conner offers, however, is a clip from a stag film in which a leggy blonde slowly removes her stockings. Suddenly, “The End” flashes on screen, followed by more leader footage.
Conner then pulls up footage from an old Western, in which Indian warriors chase a wagon train across the plains. The U.S. Cavalry shows up to aid the settlers – only to be joined in the chase by stampeding elephants, World War I-era tanks and old-fashioned automobiles. The film then switches to a wild auto race, where the vehicles crash into walls and each other. One car is shown falling off a cliff. “The End” pops up again.
The next cut comes from an old travelogue, where topless women from the Pacific Rim balance great objects on their heads. Then, the Hindenburg glides across the screen. A pair of acrobats perform death-defying feats atop urban skyscrapers. Title cards reading “A Movie” and “Bruce Conner” flash on the screen again.
Next, the film goes into a wartime submarine. An officer peeks into a periscope and spies a hot babe lying on a bed, wearing only her lingerie and a naughty smile. The officer looks away from the periscope and yells out to his crew. A torpedo is fired, followed by an atomic blast.
Then, we see surfers riding the waves, followed by boats on the waves. But the waters are rough and choppy, and no one seems to be able to navigate the oceanic fury. A water skiing show is presented, but the performers keep falling down. Then, a race consisting of men riding peculiar-looking bicycles is shown. A motorcycle race through the mud follows, which is succeeded with the crash of a biplane into a lake.
Theodore Roosevelt appears in a tight close-up, followed by the collapse of the Tacoma-Narrows Bridge. A World War II fighter jet drops bombs, while other aircraft blow up in flight. Bombing raids are followed by a spewing volcano, followed by the coronation of a pope, followed by the Hindenburg’s fiery crash, followed by a hot air balloon’s descent in flames. A few animals and travelogue footage of exotic-looking people are shoehorned in before the Tacoma-Narrows Bridge and the Hindenburg return.
And then: a ship sinks, a man is killed in a World War II firing squad, the bodies of Benito Mussolini and Clara Petacci are strung up by an Italian crowd, war-massacred bodies lie in a mass grave, another A-bomb is exploded, African men chop up a dead elephant, African women and children shiver with malaria, a swimming platypus wiggles underwater, the Hindenburg burns and a scuba diver explores a shipwreck.
And that, folks, is “A Movie.” So, what does it all mean? Well, it depends which critic you ask.
James van Maanen refers to it as “something that veers between an idiot’s delight and the shockingly thought-provoking.” Ed Howard believes that the “Freudian playfulness of the imagery is basically cut short, reminding viewers that despite psychological speculation to the contrary, a weapon is less a sexual symbol than a tool of grand destruction.” And the peerless J. Hoberman dubs the production “a high-concept/low-rent disaster film and a pop art masterpiece.”
As for me: when I first watched “A Movie,” my reaction was: “You’ve got to be kidding.” Granted, bits of “A Movie” are amusing – the over-extended credit sequence is cute and the joke with the babe in the periscope deserves a loud laugh – but I feel that most of the film is just a mess of extreme shots stitched together for cheap shock value. The film is packed with footage of mechanical failure and explosive disasters, and one could get the notion that Conner was trying to make a point about man’s inability to truly master his environment. But when you factor in Theodore Roosevelt, malaria victims and a platypus, you have to wonder whether Conner was just randomly taping together everything he could find.
However, the folks at the Library of Congress seem to be closer to the “masterpiece” designation than my two-cent deposit. In 1994, “A Movie” was added to the National Film Registry.
For his part, Conner was reluctant to absorb the accolades he received for any groundbreaking film concepts advanced in “A Movie.” In a 1976 interview, he admitted that the basic idea for his work was copied from the 1933 Marx Brothers classic “Duck Soup.”
“There’s a war going on and Groucho tells Harpo that we need help,” Conner recalled. “And he runs out and puts a ‘Help Wanted’ sign on the front of the building. Then you start seeing all these tanks, and airplanes, and soldiers, and porpoises, and giraffes – I don’t know – all sorts of creatures and things rushing to help them. After that I started thinking about all the things I could stick together in a sequence like that: elephants running, trains blowing up, cars going, cars crashing, and so on and so forth.”
Conner continued making films until his death in 2008. However, he prevented his films from being released in any home entertainment format. Some of this can be attributed to copyright concerns – a lot of the supposedly found footage and music in his films were copyright protected and used without authorization. However, “A Movie” and some of his other works are easy to locate online through unauthorized postings – a sweet irony, considering Conner’s plucking from the work of other people for his own compositions.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!