Bruce Conner: Luke              

              Not Lukewarm

You get beautiful blurred images, motion streaks, bare-chested male “zombies” shoveling dirt, moody music, behind-the-scenes views of a movie scene; nearly Muybridge-ian, almost dancelike motion-analysis of lumbering extras, key grips, gaffers, best boys, and script girls in jagged slow-motion; punctuating shots of empty canvas chairs and big reflectors; all in chalky and/or glowing colors, plusPaul Newman. In 22 minutes flat. Who could ask for anything more?

Although the projected film as gallery art has not yet outworn its welcome, I hate coming in in the middle of a film, which usually happens. A film, a movie, a DVD, a video is not a painting. Why is it so difficult to get rid of the linear? Beginnings and endings? We prefer loops.

Nevertheless, Bruce Conner’s Luke at Barbara Gladstone (515 West 24th St., to Jan. 29) goes far to justify that trendy mode of presentation.

Also featured are two rooms of Connor’s 1978 San Francisco punk-scene photographs. I like individual shots (the messier and the more rambunctious the better), but I see them all together as a film, each photograph a single frame, passing by in the blink of an eye. Like Punk itself.

Unless you are a diehard black-and-white photo fan, Luke is the main draw.

Because he was a buddy of the young actor/photographer Dennis Hopper, Conner was able to film one day of a shoot during the making of Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 Cool Hand Luke, using his wee 8mm camera. Conner recently told poet/critic John Yau in theBrooklyn Railthat since he limited himself to one reel and did all the editing in the camera, his entire production cost was three dollars.

The first time around, Conner showed his footage five frames per second rather than the standard 24, thus stretching the two-and-a-half minute filmed running time to 15 minutes of projection time. Two years ago — at the request of composer Patrick Gleeson, who wanted to add music — the 16mm version was transferred to DVD at three frames per minute, yielding the current 22-minute length.

Conner was born in 1933, and Luke in its present form is one of those career-confirming mature works of art. And although we may yearn to see some of the artist’s moldering assemblage sculptures — using nylon stockings among other things — Luke in the meantime will send you running to your local video store’s avant-garde section to catch up on this West Coast artist’s masterful found-footage films.

I rented one compilation (Bruce Conner Films II, Facets Video) that has, in this order:

Ten Second Film (1965). Spliced leader adding up to 10 breakneck seconds of film leader. START, the one-armed clock. Numbers. This is not only the best 10-second film ever made, it is also one of the best found-footage films. It’s abstract without being nonrepresentational.

Permian Strata (1969). A collage of found scenes from a silent Biblical epic to the tune of Bob Dylan’s Everybody Must Get Stoned, featuring the hero being stoned and thenSaul (soon to be St. Paul) being struck down by God.

Mongoloid (1977). With a charming soundtrack of the offensive ditty “Mongoloid was a mongoloid and it determined what he could be.” Footage of science demonstrations, animated diagrams, and (!) a man pulling a bus with his teeth, but also a similar “square” being transported in a giant suitcase.

America is Waiting (1981). People entering bomb shelters, advertising for a toy gun, an Arid Roll-on clip, Mount Rushmore, and at least two superimposed full-screen titles: “What Can Be Done About Larry’s Personal Problems” and “No Will Whatsoever.” And, oh yes, appliances rolling past the silhouette of a jazz band; all to tick-tock music by David Byrne and Brian Eno.

A Movie (1958). Although it started as a sculpture component, this is the Conner movie masterpiece. At the beginning is THE END; the title A MOVIE is interposed throughout. Conner THE END sandwiches atom-bomb explosions, A MOVIE bridge collapse, Teddy Roosevelt BY and, during footage BRUCE CONNER of cowboys chasing Indians, suddenly there is an elephant.

Suddenly There Is an Elephant. That says it all.

Conner, in his classics, juggles context and time. A Movie is a symphony depicting the dreamlife of TV addicts, movie junkies, a movie for us and of us. Even the “hopeful” ending of sun on water is probably a metaphysical, anti-Hollywood joke.

In comparison Luke is cool. There is no elephant. For 22 minutes the camera seems to hold its breath. You too hold your breath.

Many projected digital films are like watching paint dry. Here, this is not the case. Nor is Luke a Sundance wannabe, waiting eagerly for Cineplex exposure.

Time reads as space.


Conner, Luke (Dennis Hooper as himself/as Babalugats)

Saint Luke

Of course, I immediately had to track down Cool Hand Luke to find the exact scene depicted in Conner’s film. It’s the road-gang shoveling race. Fresh tar needs to be covered with sand and smiley Luke inspires an insane speed-up.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Cool Hand Luke lately. Hopper has a small part, but somehow, as a young man, looks better, more real, than the blindingly but conventionally handsome Newman. Current taste prefers a far less smirky Newman replete with macho wrinkles. And George Kennedy, as Luke’s friend and eventual Judas, is…George Kennedy.

The movie is now unbearably arch.

Newman plays a decorated vet incarcerated for “cutting off the heads of parking meters,” becomes a hero to the chain-gang boys, who spend a lot of time bare-chested, lounging around in their bunk beds. He’s a hero because, against all odds, he keeps escaping from the chain-gang. He gets caught and escapes over and over again.

After the shoveling race, in what has to the nadir of the buddy-movie gone wrong, Kennedy says to Newman: “Oh, Luke, you wild, beautiful thing.” It still makes me giggle. In my set, that was the preferred tag-line, rather than the widely appropriated “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”

If you look at Cool Hand Luke, do as I did. Fast-forward it so it becomes a digitally created silent-movie in color and Panavision. You won’t miss the dialogue, the acting, the sappy music. You can still follow the plot, such as it is. Is it a parable or shaggy-dog story? You tell me. And, if you must, you can freeze-frame all those banal bunk-bed tableaux.

Moral: How a movie is made is more interesting than how most movies end up.

Conner’s Luke shows this. It takes a lot of workers, and a lot of reflectors, behind the scenes to make a chain gang composed of actors in the sun look real or what passes for real — i.e. Hollywood Real. Conner’s analytical take on a shoot is itself a movie and therefore moves, albeit very, very slowly. One thing missing is the waiting around each take takes. Movie-making is boring; Conner makes that boredom interesting by slowing everything down as if he is searching for clues. Clues to what? Reality? Time?

What you will notice when you see Luke will vary; its density is brilliant. Will it be a reflection in a puddle? The fleeting, over-the shoulder actor-smiles? Or, alas, only the beer-can opener on a chain around Lucas Jackson’s neck? That is Paul Newman, isn’t it?. And is that really Dennis Hopper? Or maybe you’ll fasten on that particular blue of someone’s screen-filling polo shirt; the Warner Bros. logo on the sound truck; or something really subtle like the aura of work as opposed to the aura of style.

Note: In terms of last week’s column, several informants have offered the good news that there is a DVD tour of the Barnes collection listed on the foundation’s website. One correspondentremarks that at $35 it cost less than two adult visits to MoMA. Assuming this disc really does capture the ensembles, now all the foundation needs to do is make this record totally pan-and-zoom interactive and have it available for free online.

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