Interning at MoMA this past summer, I took one afternoon to help avant-garde expert Scott MacDonald go through some of the museum’s rare Bruce Conner holdings in preparation for a then-upcoming show. We watched three: Antonia, a longer, bawdier, and silent cut of Breakaway, and two films called Cosmic Ray II and Cosmic Ray III (the original was unavailable; Conner had pulled it from the museum years before). Both were silent, a curiosity of curiosities, since the “Ray” is for Ray Charles, whose “What’d I Say” provides Cosmic Ray’s soundtrack and—MacDonald tells me this at the time—makes Cosmic Ray one of the two or three essential films of the avant-garde. The silence for these films was not hard to chalk up to Conner’s foot-shooting perversities (the mute Antonia; Conner’s removal from the archives of Cosmic Ray). Cosmic Ray II was, if I remember rightly, the more abstract of the two, while Cosmic Ray III seemed more chock-full of Conner’s usual trademarks of already-trademarked cultural imperialism: swinging tits, bursting bombs, and pretty girls selling toothpaste, all looking like various points in sexual conquest (for its own part, all Cosmic Rays are pure climax, over 1,000 shots in a few minutes, with bursts of leader and lines superimposed, the usual Xs and phallic strokes with which Conner always loves to cross and cross out his mammary circles underneath). MacDonald quite perfectly linked the Cosmic Rays to Ballet mécanique, rued the missing Charles tune, and we went home.
Assumedly, Cosmic Ray II and III were, as it turns out, the other parts of a tripartite panel Conner left for posthumous disclosure—its secrecy abetted, strangely, by the decision not to list the film on the Views from the Avant-Garde program, perhaps to emphasize the release of another Conner recut, Easter Morning (recut of Easter Morning Raga)—a tripartite panel called Cosmic Ray x3. Needless to say, this masterpiece of Conner’s many masterpieces triples the vim; what before was 3 shots a second now is 9. And while in the previous versions superimpositions—bombs and girls and animated dashes—merely syncopated off each other, now each panel syncopates off the other, with the couple on the end or even all three panels occasionally coming into synchronicity like two handles, like a slot machine hitting a jackpot. All of it, of course, is in time to Ray Charles’ sweet little bass-line and cymbal sashay, bouncing along in foreplay to the horns and girls and moans that will eventually fill it out and come—come—close to the explosion Conner’s montage provides from the start. Because Cosmic Ray, in its essence (and, then, any variation), is the ultimate tribute to America: sex and detergent and rock and roll.
That Cosmic Ray is, like most of Conner’s films, a blistering attack on a commodity culture that will commodify anything, on politics that operates as sublimated sexuality and markets itself as spectacle, on the shallowness of images aestheticizing banal and terrible things (“are you real, Mona Lisa? Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art?” posits Conway Twitty in Conner’s Vivian, on an atomic age, like Dr. Strangelove’s Slim Pickens, gleefully craving apocalypse, is as much the point as it is beside it. For Conner’s film, like the Views program opener In girum imus nocte et consumimu igni (with so many of the same concerns), precisely for its foregrounding of images as images, in their decontextualization and the constant use of leader, quite deliberately is its own subject of attack, is made from cultural debris it would like to see finished off, is part of the self-destructive system it’s out to destroy. This is always Conner’s genius: not to snarkily preen obvious examples of American vapidity—not merely to play them ironically—but to embrace them as the logical basis for his own work.
It’s for this that Conner is the avant-garde’s great jester: particularly, its Frank Tashlin. See that girl with the red dress on—selling toothpaste with animated stars sparkling off her perfect teeth—and Conner happily delivers on the promise of the ad as he gives not the toothpaste (Freudian synecdoche for the product we’d really like to buy), but a woman’s willful naked body. Politics offers obliteration, and again, Conner, like the woman, obliges: the leader figuring as atomic count-down, he gives us the bomb as a consumer’s consummation, sexual and otherwise, and gives us this film, Cosmic Ray x3, now bursting into more pieces than ever. Amidst chaos, that there is so much harmony—ostensibly, Conner’s taken a half-hour cold war news program(-cum-porn), commercials and leader included, and condensed it to three minutes, and made all the parts and images play one off each other pictorially, rhythmically, and also have something to do with each other—is simply measure of Conner’s rigor and usual brilliance in rigging up dynamite. It’s as electrifying as anything, and for all its cold war élan, clearly one of the key films of the decade: this, that, or any.