Reviews

Life Is Heavy: Matthew Weinstein on Bruce Conner and ‘Mr. Robot’

Bruce Conner, Breakaway, 1966 (digitally restored 2016), 16mm black-and-white film with sound, 5 minutes. ©2016 BRUCE CONNER/COURTESY CONNER FAMILY TRUST

Bruce Conner, Breakaway, 1966 (digitally restored 2016), 16mm black-and-white film with sound, 5 minutes.

©2016 BRUCE CONNER/COURTESY CONNER FAMILY TRUST

The late Bruce Conner’s ecstatic experience of film editing makes his decades-long exploration of it a slow motion spiritual revelation. And so, seeing Conner’s major films together at the Museum of Modern Art is itself a revelation.

Conner was a heavy-handed artist. If we decriminalize this adjective, the experience of watching his films is enriched. Irony is heavy handedness’ kryptonite, and though I reject the notion that irony is a bad habit, it is true that an artist like Conner, who revels unironically in extreme content, allows an experience quite different from other artists of his generation who were equally attuned to popular culture and world events. This is because Conner isn’t merging art and life. It’s all life. And life is heavy.

Breakaway, from 1966, starring a 23-year-old Toni Basil, is a music video. Through masterful and obsessive editing, Basil becomes a flickering presence whom we infrequently glimpse as solidified. This piece prefigures the contemporary music video’s strategy of spiritualizing the diva to create of her a presence more than human, a strategy that is ramping up as technology moves us toward virtuality.

The 1976 film Crossroads is 36 minutes of footage of the atomic bomb. It is beautiful, horrifying, and almost unwatchable. In Report, from the same year, Conner edits footage of the Kennedy assassination according to aesthetic rather than journalistic motivations. Like Weegee’s murder porn and Tarantino’s violence porn, Conner’s disaster porn illuminates the amoral nature of aesthetic experience.

The Neoplatonic mystic, Dionysius the Areopagite, described light as a manifestation of God. The 12th-century Abbot Suger of St. Denis, inspired by these texts, helped conceive of an abbey church containing an epic program of stained glass windows. Easter Morning, from 2008, is Conner’s last and most spiritual film; he died shortly after he completed it. It shares Suger’s experience of the mediumistic quality of light. It is a view from bed on a sunny morning. Morning light spills in from the windows and reflects off glass and illuminates flowers. Easter Morning is a detachment of content from existence. Prismatic reflections, lens flares, and light blooms, which are the color film progeny of the film scratches, cuts, and countdowns that dance around his black-and-white films, live and dissolve into the hazy light.

Easter Morning
is a distillation of Conner’s extravagant love of beauty. His penchant for pearls and pretty knickknacks is here transformed into something less lurid and more like how a flower in a vase, when illuminated by the sun, is a thing of such brilliance that we fear its deleterious effect on our ability to live outside our own impressions. The spiritual here is not something striven for, but one that pulls, as if ripping away from it, rather than joining it, takes more effort. Indeed, atheism seems to take as much effort as orthodoxy. Perhaps the lazy or tired soul is the most true.

Terry Riley’s music for the film, played by the Shanghai Film Orchestra on ancient Chinese instruments, is downright moving as unknown sounds wrap themselves around a modernist composition that glints with the film’s dancing splashes of colored light. I can’t think of a more beautiful long goodbye.

 

‘I’d like to do a song of great social and political import,” Janis Joplin once told an audience before singing “Mercedes Benz,” sending up the ideological, political, and communal ambitions of her “change the world” generation. Mr. Robot, a show about a super hacker and villainous spewer of rage and hate created by Sam Esmail, is a similar kind of sendup, of the TED Talk/Apple nexus of optimism that is changing the world one glitzy and edgeless luxury concept at a time.

That Mr. Robot is parody takes a while to sink in because of the Walt Keen–like appearance of the three main characters. Elliot, his sister Darlene, and his friend Angela all have huge eyes that stare limpidly at a drab gray world of cubicles, industrial carpeting, corporate paranoia, tenement hallways, and sealed windows. Like Situationists with no theoretical road map, they wish to change (disrupt and humanize) the world. They are delusional, melancholy, lonely, cruel, and scared. When they do manage to (sort of) trash the economy, they don’t get the anarchic free fall they’d envisioned, but instead only bring a lot of people down to their own level of abjection, while the wealthy and protected stay wealthy and protected. Mr. Robot is a speculative-fiction Beatrix Potter fable in which three woodland creatures demonstrate what happens when you destroy instead of create.

For those of us who crammed our heads with French theory and/or speculative fiction, Mr. Robot is an irresistible cool smoothie of dystopic capitalism and virtuality. Mr. Robot is himself a memory-driven simulation of Elliot’s father. He pops up occasionally, encouraging Eliot to squander his own and his sister’s lives, taking revenge on late capitalism.

Season two becomes a bit too polemical and didactic, and the introduction of an investigator looking into Eliot’s web of cyber terrorism is too much of an intrusion of the terrestrial world into this ocean bottom which, like Peanuts, is a realm of unsupervised children hurting each other. That the plot makes little sense is fine by me; TV shows not having to make sense was David Lynch’s gift to the medium. Post-Twin Peaks, TV could be more than a bedtime story but not quite a horror story. Which is a perfect description of Mr. Robot.

Mr. Robot brings to mind Fassbinder’s 1973 sci-fi television drama World On A Wire. Both are exciting because they generate immersive speculative fiction with limited means by fashioning hermetic vitrines for their characters to exist in; we viewers are willing to believe anything that happens within these airless spaces. The Twilight Zone was the most masterful use of this strategy; its sound stage stillness bathes every episode in an eerie sense that the characters are as dead as the corpse automata in Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus.

All three shows are at once cautionary and ironic; all three are addictive. I crave the gray light and melancholy of Mr. Robot. I want to gaze at that trinity of big-eyed broken toys. I don’t want anything to come into their world that is functional, optimistic, or life affirming. When our emotional and political environments become too harsh, it doesn’t matter where we escape to, whether it be bunnies in fields or a world of suffocation and bewilderment. Not here is the new here.

“Bruce Conner: It’s All True” was on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from July 3 to October 2; Mr. Robot is a television series on USA.

Matthew Weinstein is an artist based in New York.

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