“History is like music, completely in the present” – Tony Conrad
These are the words that open this riveting documentary on the life and work of artist, musician, filmmaker and teacher Tony Conrad, and they couldn’t be more accurate. Conrad is radically present in all of his endeavors, using his passion and creativity to challenge constructs of power, cinema, music and art. The film, directed and produced by Tyler Hubby (“House of Harrington”), is a non-linear style timeline of Conrad’s experimental, anti-authority, sometimes blinding collection of artistic endeavors. Hubby manages to capture Conrad as an artist and a character simultaneously, while keeping the audience engaged, entertained and excited.
Conrad is loveable and ridiculous. His personality is clearly demonstrated on screen as a quirky grandpa-type who talks to the camera as if it were a dear friend. Before entering the world of minimalist music, Conrad studied computers at Harvard, which explains his high caliber vocabulary and long-winded soliloquies. Following Harvard, Conrad took refuge on Ludlow Street in downtown New York City, where he jammed with the likes of John Cale and The Velvet Underground. It was there that Conrad and his buds helped form the foundation for minimalist music as we see it today.
After making strides in the music scene, Conrad took his talents to the world of underground filmmaking, where he challenged Andy Warhol and cinema in general. Hubby documents Conrad’s ventures in underground filmmaking with his 1965 debut of “The Flicker,” a film which consists of, well, flickers. Conrad playfully addresses the camera declaring himself “Mr. Flicker.” Also Hubby highlights Conrad’s famous “Yellow Movies,” which fall somewhere between performance art and film, with a little expressionism thrown in for good measure. A hallmark of Conrad’s music is the monotoned drone of the worst quality violin you can imagine. The sound — or noise rather — of it can be unbearable at times, but the passion Conrad feels for his craft makes the headache worth it.
In addition to his radical films rooted in challenging the norm, Conrad also took on teaching media at both Antioch College and The State University of New York at Buffalo. Conrad perfectly fits the mold of the oddball professor, with teaching methods in the classroom that keep students on their toes. He skyped into a class on documentary filmmaking, utilizing Hubby as a teaching tool in his instruction. The meta-effect perfectly captures Conrad’s effervescent presence and style.
Conrad, an abstract artist in his own right, screws the construct of abstract art and the contemplative religiously that goes with it. Conrad would rather make his audience laugh out loud than silently meditate, and Hubby’s film is definitely filled with laughter.
The film ends with Conrad standing on the streets of New York City, directing traffic as if he were conducting an orchestra; a screaming child, a motorcycle, three large trucks. It is the perfect end to the documentary, leaving the viewer with a final taste of Conrad’s eccentric, quirky charm. Hubby’s documentary is a telling portrait of Tony Conrad’s contributions to the world of art, cinema and music, all the while capturing the unique lovability of a legendary creative mind.