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Abstract Notions

Editor Christian Williams explores the nature of consciousness through art, culture, and spirituality.


Bruce Conner: Father of the Music Video

by Christian Williams


Tags: Experimental Film, Music, Art, Christian Williams,

bruce conner three screen ray

A new documentary series from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles explores how a fixture of the San Francisco Beat scene invented the modern music video.

I’m pretty confident when I say that the first music video I remember watching was Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” The year was 1986, and somehow, I had managed to stay up late enough to watch the venerable NBC late-night show Friday Night Videos—at the time, my only source for music videos. The mind-blowing visuals and imagination on display in that video have stuck with me all these years, but I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve only just recently discovered the artist who initially introduced the concept of artistically combining film with music: Bruce Conner.

A fixture of the San Francisco Beat scene in the 1960s, Conner’s early experimentation with found footage, film collage, and music eventually earned him the recognition as the father of music videos—an honor he apparently wasn’t all that comfortable with, according to collaborators. But whether he believed it or not is irrelevant, because his work speaks for itself. To celebrate Conner’s contribution to film and music, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles has recently released a series of short documentaries featuring three of Conner’s most popular film and music collaborations, all of which can be viewed for free on the MOCA YouTube page.

While Conner may not be a familiar name outside of film schools, his influence has been far reaching. Upon being introduced to Conner’s early films featuring quick cuts and collage, Dennis Hopper said that Conner became an immediate influence on his work, and was the direct inspiration for the cemetery acid trip scene in Easy Rider:

Conner also seemed to find himself in the right place at the right time during the ’70s and early ’80s, parlaying his connection to the West Coast punk scene into a video for new wave upstarts Devo in 1978, and finding himself the recipient of a request from David Byrne to work with him and Brian Eno on another influential music video in 1981

My favorite of the three short docs produced by MOCA, though, focuses on Conner’s collaboration with singer/dancer Toni Basil in 1966 titled Breakaway. Comprised of quick edits featuring Basil spinning and dancing, the visual effect of Breakaway is simply mesmerizing. In my opinion, it’s an excellent example of how a music video can accentuate and elevate the essence of a song and essentially become a complementary work of art to the music that inspired it:

Photo at top is Three Screen Ray (2006), a video installation by Bruce Conner at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; courtesy Charles Kremenak, licensed under Creative Commons.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com