In 1955 when Bill Haley & His Comet’s “Rock Around the Clock” played over the static opening credits of Blackboard Jungle, it became the first major studio film to use rock & roll on the soundtrack. Eighteen years later, the way movies use rock music was transformed again when Martin Scorsese synched Harvey Keitel’s head hitting a pillow just as the drums kick start The Ronette’s “Be My Baby” during the opening sequence of Mean Streets. The shift between the two different ways that filmmakers used a film’s images and visual rhythms to viscerally match the accompanying rock music can be heavily attributed to the radical ways that some experimental filmmakers started using rock songs in their work in the early 1960s.
Kenneth Anger’s 1963 film Scorpio Rising (which Anger described as “Thanatos in chrome and black leather and bursting jeans”, and was set to music by Ricky Nelson, Bobby Vinton, Elvis Presley, and others) is often credited – by Scorsese and others – as being the progenitor of this potent fusion of sight & sound; however, San Francisco filmmaker Bruce Conner’s comparatively lesser-known 1961 film Cosmic Ray (set to Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say?”) preceded Scorpio Rising and remains an equally revolutionary work.
Scorpio Rising will be just one of the works screened at the Wexner Center during The Rock & Roll Picture Show this Thursday. Since the early 1980s, music videos have dominated the public imagination for the parameters of pairing music with imagery. While entire strains of music videos have unapologetically co-opted the radical ideas and meanings from early experimental pioneers such as Anger and Conner and turned them into mere technique and offal, the films and videos in The Rock & Roll Picture Show act as an underground or alternative history of the ways that moving images have been and can be fused with rock music of all vintages and styles. The films in the program range from the kinetic to the placid, from the feverish to the cool, from the sacred to the profane. But they all offer up the energizing possibilities of two disciplines – rock and avant garde media - that should always exist on the outskirts of society and respectability coming together to create personal visions and new forms.
Below are some recommended online videos that augment the works and themes of The Rock & Roll Picture Show. These are all great films that didn’t fit into the program in one way or another. (This should be obvious but bears mentioning: Most of the videos below were created to be show as films and shown as projected light, so these digitized copies of a copy of a copy often merely give an idea of what the work is like but don’t capture its true aura.)
Bruce Conner – America Is Waiting(1981)
In the late 70s and early 80s, following his landmark early rock-based films Cosmic Ray and Breakaway (1966), Bruce Conner began working with rock music again as he collaborated with musicians such as Devo, David Byrne and Brian Eno. The film predates MTV and are music video only in the technical sense (Conner calls Mongoloid a “documentary”) as the images exist on their own and interact with the music in ways seldom seen in promotion videos.
M. Henry Jones – Go Go Girl (1980)
Another film made just on the cusp of the mainstreaming of the music video, M. Henry Jones turns a formalist device into a whirling go-go dervish as he animates an entire music video from 99 still images.
Len Lye – Free Radicals (1958)
This isn’t showing in The Rock & Roll Picture Show solely because it isn’t set to rock music. Len Lye’s film isn’t just a great marriage of image and music, it’s one of the greatest animated films ever made. Lye’s “free radical” are hand-drawn etchings made directly on the film stock and animated in a way that makes them seem like physical objects existing in space. (This really needs to be seen on film for its beauty to truly register.)
Bruce Baillie – All My Life (1966)
Another wonderful, simple, and elegant combination of image and music outside of the rock context. The legendary San Francisco filmmaker Bruce Baillie pans across a landscape – both manmade and natural – and scores it perfectly to Ella Fitzgerald’s eponymous song. (Again, the compressed video doesn’t allow the fence and roses and sky to “sing” like they should here.)
Stan Brakhage – I… Dreaming (1988)
Brakhage is best known for his silent film work, but also he made a number of films that use sound in remarkable ways. Here he works with a sliced up “collage” of a Stephen Foster song re-arranged by composer Joel Hartling. A beautiful, melancholy film.
Paper Rad – umbrella zombie datamosh mistake (2007)
This, in marked contrast to the above videos, is a work meant to be seen over the internet. Creatively employing the glitches of digital compression, this visual mashup of Rhianna and The Cranberries (with Alf and Kris Kross thrown in for good measure) would be as out of place projected in a theater as Bruce Baillie is on YouTube, so it’s a pleasure to be able to present this video from the Paper Rad collective in the way it was meant to be seen. --Chris Stults, Assistant Curator, Wexner Center Film/Video
About the Poster, from Wexner Center Designer Erica Anderson
This 3 color, limited edition silkscreen poster for the Wexner Center's film screening of The Rock & Roll Picture Show is a lovingly handmade mélange of vinyl, optic nerve, and Scorpio Rising – all in the service of experimental film and rock and roll: two great tastes that taste great together. The poster was printed at the infamous Chop Chop Gallery in Columbus. Thanks so much to Craig and Ashley at Chop Chop for making my dreams come ture and showing me the ways of the acrylic ink. Click here to see more photos of the printing process and click here to buy one online.