The problem in making the film was that in order for me to do the film I would also have to go through the same processes that these people were using to exploit Kennedy. If the film was completed then he was as dead as they had made him. So it took me two and a half years to finish the film. That has something to do with why it changed. Part of the reason why it changed, why we go through these eight versions of the 16mm film, was that I did not want to stop the changes. Like life is change. Like when REPORT was finished—then he was dead. So it took me two and a half years to acknowledge that he was dead.—Bruce Conner
So I want to start with a film that is difficult to take anything but thoughtfully, and that is Conner’s film on the assassination of President Kennedy. It is called REPORT. It was completed about two and a half years after President Kennedy was assassinated.
First, let me say a little bit about it. He made many versions of this film before he completed one; that is, many 16mm versions, and as I understand it, only one 8mm version. The 8mm version was, obviously, picked up at the time of the assassination from TV images. At that time he was living in Brookline, Massachusetts, which is just outside of Boston. He went through the catharsis and shock that most of America did—the assassination was so immediate to people. It was on TV, it was on radio, you could not escape it. Almost immediately he had his camera in hand, and as they started repeating these shots he took images from the TV screen and very quickly produced an 8mm film. This film is quite different from the film he made many versions of and struggled with for two and a half years.
I think the difference says a great deal about his work and gives you a real perspective on two types of filmmaking. With 8mm you have all the immediate potentiality of the powers of a sketch. You have that brevity, the quickness, the lightweightedness of the camera, that expendability of it. Nothing in the area of 8mm will ever be in the consideration for prizes or awards. In fact, even in this classroom we have to go a little out of our way. The projector sits on the floor. It will be a little like home movies. The lights will be dim, you will have to strain a bit to see it—the image is small—expendable, in every sense of the word.
You might almost use as a metaphor that brooding and struggling with 16mm, with all of its technical resources, is like creating an oil painting. Conner struggled between these two concepts—a sketch or, say, a masterpiece—in making the 16mm version. The 8mm is the immediate capturing of his immediate feelings at this point.
The 16mm is thoroughly worked through. Of the many versions he made of the 16mm film he says that most of the changes were in the first eight minutes. The first eight minutes of the first four editings of this film had certain events repeating and repeating with no variation. Like the one shot which shows the carrying of the rifle down the hallway. In one version, for eight minutes he repeated (with slight variations) the carrying of Oswald’s rifle down the hallway. The next one was the shot of Jacqueline Kennedy going up to the door of the ambulance to open the door.
I remember this one vividly myself. The door is locked and she steps back. He made a version which repeated this shot over and over again. The third one was the motorcade coming by before the actual assassination. The fourth was a scene of Jacqueline Kennedy in Washington, where the casket is lying in state. She walks up to the casket, kneels down, kisses the casket, and walks away. At that same point where she starts toward the casket, it repeats over and over again, so that, as with the ambulance door, she never gets to the casket—just as she never gets inside the ambulance. So there are metaphors on death, not just intrinsic to the Kennedy assassination, but through Conner’s using that occasion in a very Kansas way of facing death that you could research by reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz carefully.
How many of you had the feeling in watching this, that particularly overcame me so strongly at the time, that when Oswald is going down the hall, we all know that at some moment Ruby steps out and shoots him, but almost with the purity of Greek drama this is not made visible in Conner’s film? All of us know these faces and images and what happens, but I would guess that even if you knew nothing of the events there would be a sense of peril and terror throughout Bruce’s film. The images shown out of focus and utterly abstract would be nerve-wracking. Suddenly, in their collage effect, these images become menacing, a carrier of death—not just the faces of one or two men, but there is a wand that seems to come out in the air from the side where we know he was shot. How many of you saw that? You will see it again in the 16mm version, so watch for it, but it is particularly alive in the 8mm. There is a movement over on the right as Oswald becomes flanked by two men, and it is as though he were going to be downed by the bad fairy or something. This wand will come down and kill him, or something will—this menacing shark-shape, or the woman doing the TV ad; Conner freezes her when her teeth are bared.
Bruce was just alive and wracked on that day of the assassination and had to make his homage. To what? To Kennedy? To death? Alive and in a state of nervousness before that TV set, he took images charged with the immediacy of the actual event.
It should be as real as if you were there: And here sits the artist; and he knows it is not real at all. It is made up of thus and so, and he with his camera is making it up again, trying to get at this event in stark terror and death. This is the quality that makes this film great.
From a lecture by Stan Brakhage at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, April 1973