Bruce Conner, parsing the nuclear age
By Christopher Knight
When Stanley Kubrick made the blistering 1964 satire “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” one main target was the John Birch Society.
In the screenplay, the group’s Cold War hysteria about fluoride in drinking water being a Communist plot to poison Americans triggers a nuclear holocaust.
A dozen years later, Bruce Conner (1933-2008) made the remarkable film “Crossroads,” a 36-minute meditation on the atomic bomb that contained not an ounce of sarcasm, irony or cynicism.
The Cold War was still in high gear – South Vietnam fell to Communists shortly before Conner began work – and the bomb was its reigning symbol. But the artist was more dedicated to understanding it as a distinctly modern image than to parsing its specific political ramifications.
After all, few Americans had seen an actual nuclear blast, while images of its impact were strictly controlled by government. (Journalist Greg Mitchell chronicled the story of suppression in “Atomic Cover-Up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and the Greatest Movie Never Made.”)
In the collective imagination, the mushroom cloud was only a vague if powerful picture. At Kohn Gallery, where a fully restored “Crossroads” is being projected on a large wall in the center gallery, that picture is writ large – turned over and around and studied closely, like an alien specimen held in the hand.
“Crossroads” was composed by editing and reassembling declassified government footage of a 1946 test blast at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Some 700 cameras recorded the underwater test – talk about overkill – which had been ordered to understand the blast’s effects on warships.
The goal was to prove that the nuclear threat, still brand new, did not render the American fleet obsolete, so that appropriations for naval defense contractors could continue.
Like Eadweard Muybridge’s early photographic motion studies, Conner’s film uses 27 black-and-white shots in extreme slow motion to create an almost abstract visual choreography. Original music by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley begins as a low rumble (think microphone static) and soon emerges as a propulsive electronic rhythm.
The first of the film’s two primary parts centers on startling, even mesmerizing sea-level views of the blast. Plumes open and swell like exotic flowers, no two alike. Then the camera rises into the sky.
From airplanes we get aerial views akin to that of Tiepolo’s gods, goddesses and personifications of virtue and vice surveying the follies of mere mortals below. The blast’s expanding cloud skitters across the surface of the sea, swallowing ships in its wake like Noe Peaks disappearing into San Francisco fog.
The film’s longest section comes at the end. A flat gray field slowly but steadily dissolves, like an old television set forming a picture of total annihilation. An enormous battleship emerges as a hulking black silhouette at the left.
Conner was a poet, not a polemicist. Yet, in its entirety, “Crossroads” might be seen as a metaphor for the way in which an astounding force – the atomic bomb – dispersed and steadily spread until it enveloped everything in sight.
In addition to the film, which is screened continuously, the show includes 19 drawings made between 1955 and 2004. Several are directly related to the atomic theme.