Lesson Plan: Bruce Conner’s A Movie

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Ian here—

Bruce Conner’s A Movie is one of my favorite films to teach. I’ve taught it while covering theories of editing in an Introduction to Film course, I’ve taught it for a course on cinematic rhetoric, and I’ve taught it in courses on the history of American avant-garde cinema. I’ve been lucky enough to teach at a school that had a good-quality 16mm print of it in its collection, and since then I’ve made frequent use of a MPEG-4 rip of a VHS copy of that print (formats upon formats!). It’s less than ideal, but the poor image quality never seems to diminish students’ fascination with it.

Thematic arcs

When teaching A Movie, I like to open with some very basic, open-form discussion, starting with questions as simple as “what did you think of it”? There’s one thing I always look for here: one or more student who categorically reject the idea that the film is reaching toward any meaning or significance. If, when teaching the film, no students take the position, it’s a real loss. It’s both fun and pedagogically useful to have someone playing the foil, and arguing that the film is nothing more than a joke on viewers’ assumption that footage strung together in a movie must be coherent in some way.

How does one defend A Movie against charges of meaninglessness? Well, you don’t—not entirely. The idea of meaninglessness is a productive lens to view the film through. (That’s why it’s especially useful to have this charge come from a student!) It’s only a starting point, though, and it needs to be complicated.

Here, I don’t try to argue that A Movie has a “narrative,” or that it has a coherent “argument.” Rather, I try to make the case that it has several thematic arcs. Some of these thematic arcs are long, continuing over the entire film, and some are short, lasting just a few shots. They overlap each other. They jostle for our attention. Sometimes, they come into direct conflict. Sometimes, a shot might mean one thing if we compare it to the shot immediately prior, but something else if we compare it to the following shot.

I don’t flee from acknowledging A Movie’s chaotic nature. It’s important that these thematic arcs compete with each other. It’s important to the film’s aesthetic effect that it constantly seems to be wanting to “buck us off,” to thwart our attempts at pattern recognition, to deny us the satisfaction of sense-making. A Movie teases us with meaning, only to puckishly change its tune. But it does have several recognizable tunes that it switches between during the course of its length. Let’s talk about a few of those.

Sex, death, and the processes of evolution

Almost everyone who has ever written about A Movie brings up the short sequence that occurs almost exactly 4 minutes into it. A submarine descends below the ocean’s surface. A man looks through a periscope. We see—and, by editing implication, he sees—a woman in a bikini lounging on a bed, looking suggestively at the camera. The man calls out to the submarine crew, a button is pressed, and a torpedo shoots out. This easy-to-pick-up-on sexual joke is followed by a couple of shots that we can still string together as part of the fallout of the torpedo: We see, across several shots, nuclear explosions in the ocean. A giant veil of mist from the explosion engulfs a Navy ship, and then surfers ride to shore on a wave, right as the second movement of the film’s soundtrack, Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, begins its bassy crescendo.

It’s a good place for students to start, but it’s also a bit too obvious. (I’ve encountered groups of students where no one wants to explain the sequence, because none of them feel they’d be making any genuine intellectual contributions by doing so. It would be the equivalent of offering a belabored explanation of a joke that everyone got.) But what few people notice—critics and students alike—is that this is the beginning of a fairly long stretch of A Movie that demonstrates remarkable coherence.

From surfers, we transition to motorized water sports. A series of waterskiing and boating jumps concludes with one in which a daredevil boater is ejected from his boat and lands on dry ground. From here, we transition to bicyclists (riding absurdly-proportioned bicycles), to a tiny motorized cart, through dirt bikes struggling to progress through mud. Finally, we end with a plane – a plane that promptly crashes back into the water. For the first time since we first faded up on the submarine, the film cuts to black.

Asking non-leading questions such as “what’s the general trajectory of activities shown here?”—or, for something a bit more on-the-nose—“what biological process does this remind you of?” can produce good results here. Most students, with only a minimum of pushing, will recognize that sex isn’t the only biological metaphor that’s in play in this section. Beyond conception, this section also replicates the arc of evolution: animal life beginning in the ocean, before making its first steps onto land, and finally into the sky. The first two steps fall neatly into pairs of non-motorized activities/motorized activities, and the final step, that of flight, rather anticlimactically plunges us back where we began. Sometimes, evolution is not a straight line toward some pre-determined end point.

But, of course, even in A Movie’s most coherent segments, there are contradictions. Is this particular segment a paean to the triumphant progress of evolution? Or is it an acknowledgement of the chaotic mass of failures that evolution requires to function? Although the trajectory from sea to land to sky replicates the ascent of animal life on this planet, the reckless stupidity we see here calls our attention to those members of a species whose genetic material is removed from the gene pool. Decades later, the Darwin Awards would remind us of the fact that some sorts of idiocy serve a useful purpose in natural selection. Here, Conner seems to be gesturing in the same general direction. In order for a member of a species to make that first step on to land, a million less-exemplary members of that species had to first behave recklessly, and not pass on their genes.

We can also pivot here from Darwin to Freud, particularly Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Along with the balancing act of evolution—a means to biological development that rests on a foundation of individuals’ failure—we can add the balancing act of Eros and Thanatos, the sex drive and the death drive. So often the stunts we see are the actions of aggressive men, whose testosterone-filled exploits include not only ejaculating torpedoes, but also nihilistically plunging into reckless and disastrous behavior. As in evolution, survival and deadly catastrophe exist hand-in-hand.

The art of frustration

Pines of Rome’s second movement doesn’t end when the film cuts to black after the plane crashes into the water. Instead, it continues on, building to its final conflict. After the black, we see two shots: Teddy Roosevelt giving an impassioned speech, and a suspension bridge collapsing. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, in the 9th edition of Film Art: An Introduction (before they stopped including A Movie in the 10th edition, due to its unavailability on DVD), write of these final two shots: “Although these shots are difficult to interpret, the association of human-caused disasters with one of America’s most belligerent presidents would seem to link even the toppling bridge to human, especially political, aggression.”

Perhaps. But there’s no denying that an easy-to-follow thematic and narrative thread that has continued since the fade-up on the submarine has been broken. And, most distractingly, it’s been broken before the music signals the end of this section.

This frustration of our expectations is continued during the remainder of the film (which is scored not with the third movement of Pines of Rome, but rather with its fourth and final movement). Questions in this section abound. Why does a shot of a coronation come between a shot of a volcano and a shot of the Hindenburg (linked by dissolves, no less)?

Why does the film interrupt its sustained meditation on Icarus-like imagery—parachuters falling, ruined blimps tumbling from the sky—to show us a nonsensical string of a shot of palm trees, a shot of water buffalo, a shot of a deer and a fawn, and a shot of a man playing a recorder?

Why does Conner omit the third movement of Pines of Rome?

Simply put, I have no idea. I’m not sure if Conner did, either.

Here’s where you can throw a bone to your most skeptical students—those who think the film is just random garbage, thrown together as an elaborate joke against audience’s desire to make meaning out of motion pictures. Some parts of it definitely do seem cobbled together, with obvious thematic arcs being broken, thwarting our expectations.

But then, the twist: Ironically, it’s actually quite thematically coherent that a film that is extremely skeptical of humankind’s potential would frequently drift into incoherence. Humans’ ability to recognize patterns, after all, is one of our most distinct qualities. Deliberately throwing sand into the gears of pattern-recognition is the icing on A Movie’s anti-humanist cake. And that brings us into the final matter to address: the matter of irony.

Obvious ironies vs. profound ironies

When discussing the end of A Movie, I first simply ask the students to pick a word to describe the mood of the music. “Triumphant” or “inspiring” are some adjectives you can expect. Students are quick, then, to point out that the imagery near the end of the film is the most violent and calamitous. The irony at work here is obvious.

Here, you can push things further—especially if some students are resistant, finding the film’s use of irony to be pat, obvious, and uninteresting. The apparent mismatch between the footage we see and the tone of the music we here is an obvious irony. But, perhaps there’s something more profound at work.

Here, a good question to ask is: “What sort of claim does the film make about what humans are good at? What is the legacy of humankind?” Usually, students will hone in on a suite of responses: Humans are good at creating technologies, and then using technology in service of destruction. They’re good at perpetrating violence against other humans. They’re good at war, and other calamities. They’re good at catastrophic failures. (One twist answer you might get here is “humans are good at making connections between things,” which is a very insightful answer, but not quite the one we’re looking for here.)

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Here’s a moment to put a twist on the ironies of the film’s final section. Perhaps we should look past the simple, obvious irony of the apparent “mismatch” between the footage and the soundtrack. Perhaps the real tone here is something darker, more pessimistic, and more anti-humanist. Perhaps there is no mismatch. Perhaps the music does fit. Our greatest triumphs as a species have been the massive-scale calamities we’ve been able to enact. Especially in the mid 20th century, when this film was made, our species’ greatest proud achievements of scientific progress and mass industrialization had most visibly lead to nuclear weapons and the Holocaust. At this point, the irony on display becomes to seem less obvious and silly, and more profound and bitter. As one of my students once put it, A Movie gives humanity a sarcastic pat on the back, announcing, “Congratulations. This is what you’ve done.”

Finally, I typically ask: “What is the climax of this film? What’s nearly the last thing we see, just as the music swells to its conclusion?” Most students will answer “the diver,” at which point I press them to be specific about what, exactly, the diver is doing in the very last shot of the film. The answer? He is descending—following a repeated pattern of Icarus-like descents we have seen throughout the film. But the end point of his descent is more extreme. Previously in the film, we’ve seen people and man-made objects falling from the sky. Now, we’re in the ocean, and this diver descends into a hole in an undersea wreck. We’ve previously watched humanity emerge from the sea, onto land, and then into the air. And then, in reverse, we saw them fall from the air, and re-enter the sea. But that’s not even enough. Humankind must descend completely. And so, in the penultimate shot of the film, the diver disappears into a hole at the bottom of the ocean, leaving the ocean from which we came and sinking into the bowels of the Earth.

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And, through all of this, the music is reaching its triumphant climax. Having already discussed the bitterly ironic spin the film puts on humankind’s “triumphs,” students tend to be quick to pick up on the significance of the final shot of the diver. The film seems to be “optimistic,” as it were, that humankind is a problem that will solve itself. Sooner or later, we’ll bomb ourselves out of existence, crawling back into the primordial soup from which we came. Pines of Rome’s final fanfare seems to be a celebration of the fact that we’re getting rid of ourselves. That, at least, is something we can be proud of.

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Productive ambiguities

That leaves the last shot of the film—a shot pointed upward, looking at the surface of the water from beneath. Hopefully, at the end of this discussion, students have been adequately warmed up, and an open-ended question such as “Why does the film end with this shot?” will get multiple, competing responses.

I’ve heard many responses to this question, and so far they fall into two main camps. One is the “optimistic” reading, so to speak: that the shot gestures toward the serene peacefulness that will envelop the planet once humankind leaves its surface.  The other is the “pessimistic” reading: the fact that this shot is looking upward suggests that the cycle will begin again. Once more, life will crawl from the ocean onto land, and, once more, war will be invented.

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