Tony Conrad ’60 is an acclaimed and multitalented filmmaker, composer, and conceptual artist. Last weekend, the Harvard Film Archive (HFA) welcomed Conrad in person to screen a selection of his films, and his eclecticism was readily apparent. His unconventional and experimental approach to filmmaking—which includes literally cooking film to yield different visual effects—has led to a long and varied artistic career.
On Saturday April 5, he screened his seminal work “The Flicker” (1965), a black-and-white avant-garde piece. On Sunday, he opted for a selection of comical shorts, some of which featured Conrad himself in front of the camera. French filmmaker Marie Losier, who directed Conrad in some of these films, was also present.
Many of the shorts depicted absurd situations and had a trippy feel. In one, actors emerged from a metal tin of spaghetti wearing pink dresses and were doused in tomato sauce. Then, the container blasted off into space like a spaceship.
The silliness of such films, which contrasts with the avant-garde formalism of his earlier projects, was a point of interest for the audience. In the question-and-answer session following the screening, one viewer addressed this issue, pointing out that the comical shorts not only appeared radically different from the style of films like “The Flicker,” but that the humor was aggressive and discomfiting.
In response, Conrad said, “It’s a matter of change, which I like, but also of different contexts and different aims. In the 70s, I became pretty frustrated with the way that the film community seemed to be pursuing aesthetic goals that had been already explored… It seemed relevant to carry the formal aims of structuralism to its logical conclusion.”
The films of Conrad and Losier certainly draw together elements that probably wouldn’t be paired up otherwise. “DreaMinimalist” (2008), for example, features a scene in which Conrad dons a dress, with a flower vase as a backdrop, while visiting the late filmmaker Jack Smith. The scene was based on an actual collaboration between Smith and Conrad when the latter was a young artist starting out in New York City.
A self-confessed introvert who majored in mathematics as an undergraduate, Conrad explained that he wanted to emphasize his relationship with Smith, who helped draw out the filmmaker’s budding artistic vision.
“I was coming out of this cocoon of having been a math nerd into a scene where I found myself actually standing in front of a vase of flowers in a dress with Jack ripping it down my back,” he said.
Despite the embarrassment he felt at the time, Conrad said that he found this experience rewarding.
“In retrospect it was a great experience—challenging, extreme, completely compromising,” he said. “At that moment I was intellectually engaged with trying to resolve ideas of what was to become minimalism at a later point. And there I was standing there with a dress ripped down the back thinking, ‘I don’t know whether I like this or not!’”
His experience in putting “DreaMinimalist” together with Losier also alerted Conrad to the fact that the two shared similar intellectual goals, which he found pleasing.
“There’s a position in these films which represents a conflicted situation in which there’s some element of self-compromise, element of threat, there’s an element of battling against the audience’s sensibilities,” he said of Losier’s film.
“Underneath all that there’s a deep level of intellectual stuff going on. I think it’s very important. I really love Marie’s work because it has that same quality.”
Conrad also said that Losier’s influence was responsible for bringing out some of the more bizarre elements in his films. “Marie has a lot to do with it, this silliness. It’s French! That’s the answer in a word,” he joked.
When questioned again about the formalist shifts that are evident in his projects, Conrad pointed toward the change in the environment and culture rather than the change in his own cinematic endeavors.
“I think that it’d be hard to say that anything typifies the totality of what I’ve tried to do, because there are really different problems that need to be addressed at different times… So I have been busy since the sixties at least… And during that time I think that the environment has shifted as much as I have.”