Tony Conrad, the avant-garde filmmaker, artist, and musician, died last year at 76. He was a provocative, iconoclastic, and subversive polymath whose influence and brilliance are increasingly being recognized. He didn’t care much what people thought of his work; in fact, he often was happy when people totally hated it.
Take, for example, his most noted film, “The Flicker” (1968), which consists of a series of alternately black-and-white images projected on the screen to produce a strobe-like effect. “One third of the audience hated it so much they walked out before it even started,” he says gleefully in one of his puckish interviews in Tyler Hubby’s sly, lively, and illuminating documentary, “Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present.”
But those who remain for the entire 30 minutes might undergo mystic, even hallucinatory experiences. So powerful is the physical and psychological effect of the film that it begins with a title card and a handwritten warning that watching it can induce seizures. It has since been recognized as a milestone of structural cinema, and perhaps also as a cheap and legal way of getting high.
Conrad attempted other film projects, with equally mixed, though personally gratifying responses. Predominantly, the film explores his contributions as a musician. In the early 1960s he participated in an avant-garde music scene that included such future notables as Lou Reed and John Cale. With Cale, La Monte Young, Angus MacLise, and Marian Zazeela he formed the ensemble the Theater of Eternal Music. Together they created hundreds of hours of cutting-edge, cacophonous music, a booming minimalism whose influence can be heard in the work of Philip Glass.
Conrad got the idea that they should start recording it. Young had a tape recorder, so he got the job. Conrad would regret this decision later, when Young refused to share the recordings, or even release them, a situation that some experts in the film regard as a great loss for the history of modern music.
Judging from Conrad’s performances in the film, the effect of the music is as assaultive and psychologically disturbing as “The Flicker.” The improvised pieces with percussion and an amplified violin can sound like horns blaring in a traffic jam or a deranged orchestra of bagpipers, but it puts Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound to shame.
Hubby wisely lets Conrad and his work speak for themselves, but structurally the film echoes Conrad’s tenet that all experience is in the present. It jumps about from Conrad’s childhood and youth (through archival film and photos and the recollections of friends and colleagues) to the “present” with irregular stops in between.
But Hubby tries to emphasize that it is all happening in the present. At the beginning of the film Conrad is seen recording traffic noise outside the communal building in Lower Manhattan where his artistic career began. Later, Hubby records Conrad as he is on Skype teaching a class. Another camera crew films the class and Conrad’s image on Skype. “We’re making a documentary,” Conrad says. “Right now.”
“Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present” and “The Flicker” can be seen on July 23 at 5 p.m. at Le Laboratoire, 650 E. Kendall St., Cambridge. A solo violin improvisation by C. Spencer Yeh follows the screenings. Go to www.balaganfilms.com/calendar.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.