Conner’s films, which he also started making in the late ’50s, speak even more directly to the flood of imagery flooding out of Hollywood and Madison Avenue at the dawn of the televisual era. His groundbreaking A MOVIE (1958), a non-narrative montage of carefully spliced found footage cut from newsreels and B-movies (Westerns, soft-core pornography, war and disaster reels) set to music, intertwines the forces of desire and destruction. “This really was a watershed moment in cinema,” says Comer. “He took editing to a different level. His appropriation of media imagery was absolutely in sync with the reality of that moment, and he uses it to capture this idea of excess and violence that was so central to American society.”
Despite Conner’s claim to a sort of feminist critique, there is no shortage of sexualized nude women in his work—one of the artist’s many ambiguities. “It’s a big question for a lot of people,” says Comer. “After a very quick reading without knowing anything about him, one might walk away and say he’s a misogynist, but he was adamant that American pop culture objectified women and perpetuated images of violence toward women.”
Conner didn’t take themes of war and destruction lightly either. In 1961, with the specter of nuclear war overshadowing the U.S., he and his wife moved to Mexico City. There, he met the experimental psychologist and advocate of psychedelics Timothy Leary, took mushrooms, drew a lot, and made more assemblages. He returned to San Francisco, via a brief stint in Massachusetts, in 1963, and made one of his most prophetic films, A REPORT (1963–67), which probes the media’s insidious manipulation of Kennedy’s assassination. His finger was similarly on the pulse with BREAKAWAY (1966), a mesmerizing, kinetic sequence of images in which the singer and actress Toni Basil dances (sometimes nude) to her ’60s song of the same name. It’s not surprising that he’s been called the “father of the music video.” He also made videos for Brian Eno and David Byrne, as well as Devo, when MTV first launched.