Part of our ongoing Film Portal series, Chris Houkal brings us Bruce Conner’s short film COSMIC RAY (1961). An exciting, devastating homage to sex and war put to a Ray Charles song, COSMIC RAY just might be the world’s first music video… but don’t let him catch you saying that.
Experimental artist Bruce Conner uses Ray Charles’ 1959 classic “What’d I Say” as a backdrop to his short film cut together from his home movies, war footage, and a cartoon. COSMIC RAY is about a lot of stuff: sex, violence, life, death, light, dark, and probably much, much more. An awesome example of a 60’s era DIY work, COSMIC RAY feels new despite looking really really old.
From beneath the still prevalent romantic gloss of early sixties Hollywood films there emerged a number of talented artists intent on re-defining/re-creating cinema. Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, and others of the period carried on a tradition of exploration that dates to the very start of filmmaking. They discarded plot, eschewed high production values, and emphasized non-traditional aspects of films. These tendencies might best be summed up in the work of Bruce Conner, whose 60’s films self-reflexively call attention to their medium, obliquely challenged the mainstream, and utilized music in a new way.
Although Conner’s first film, A MOVIE (1958) remains his best-known, he made nearly two dozen others. A MOVIE represents a prototype for many of these: found footage edited together to create new meaning, disregard for the quality of the film, and inventive use of music. While certainly unique (especially for 1958), its his second short film, COSMIC RAY, which really makes the most of his techniques. Where the hell did this come from? I can think of no other director, of so-called ‘art’ films or otherwise, that holds up so well after five decades. By which I mean: his films still appear visionary, despite the absorption of many of his cinematic techniques by so-called MTV-style edited videos and films (for which inspiration Conner often gets blamed). COSMIC RAY is no exception. It’s thrilling, for so many reasons, though I’ll start with the music.
Believe it or not, despite the obvious importance of Ray Charles’ music in the piece, I didn’t ‘get’ the title right away. After years of Ray Charles shilling for the likes of California Raisins and Diet Pepsi, I’d forgotten how incredibly powerful his music was. So, you’ll excuse me if I didn’t instantly make the connection between Ray Charles and the cosmos. But what other song from 1959 sounds like “What’d I Say”? It does sound cosmic – still. My guess is that Conner heard the song first, was blown away by it, then edited this short to it.
The music also helps make sense of the two main themes of COSMIC RAY: sex and war. I’m not sure how exactly great music succeeds in simultaneously conveying both the beauty and horror of life, but “What’d I Say” accomplishes it. Lyrically, the song is strongly sexual. No question about it. But it’s also violent (consider the title) – Conner captures the song’s charged atmosphere perfectly via superimposed lights and, well, explosions overlaid on images of a woman and a whole lot of movement. As sex and war both begin with conquest and end in chaos, so does COSMIC RAY, which begins seductively and ends in the arrival of marines and a flaccid cartoon cannon as the song also falls apart.
But even as it disintegrates, COSMIC RAY never slows down. From the semi-chronological countdown that kicks it off (and repeats in starts and stops throughout) to the use of leader and damaged film to the constant super-impositions, this is a short film brimming with life like no other. It reminds me a lot of Stan Brakhage’s experiments with film itself, using it to create texture and feeling, though, possibly owing to a lifetime of music videos and such, COSMIC RAY doesn’t feel so experimental to me. It is more dreamlike, and in fact reminds me a lot of Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou, sped up considerably. They both revel in shocking images that are as unpredictable as they are provocative, and they are both beautiful and hideous in equal measure.
Though COSMIC RAY is ‘alive’ there’s also something dead about it – the woman in particular takes on a ghostly appearance against the black background and the old footage, some of which is in the process of decay, adds to this feeling. I suppose this is another self-reflexive technique for Conner, calling attention to the film as medium only – not reality – but it also contributes to the sex (life) and war (death) theme via this acknowledgement of its own death. In this way it reminds me a lot of the more recent Decasia (2002) from filmmaker Bill Morrison, which is all about the life and death of film.
I’ve watched COSMIC RAY now a number of times. Fortunately, it’s only four minutes long (I’m at work). I’m sure I haven’t entirely cracked it – which is probably what keeps drawing me to it – but the fact that I want to understand it, and have not grown tired of it, speaks to its appeal. Like the best experimental films, COSMIC RAY communicates its profundity on some unconscious level. But it’s also quite exciting.
Watch COSMIC RAY here.