Tony Conrad was a genius. A mathematician turned musician turned filmmaker, he saw and heard things in a completely different way. He was a man with superb confidence who followed his own, unstructured path in life. He wasn’t the type of musician or artist that many people will understand; and he was more than fine with that. He is described by Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art Director, Philippe Vergne, as very important in the world of experimental art in the United States. He was a man who stood in between moving cars in the streets of Manhattan and heard cacophonous symphonies of music in his head.
Completely in the Present aims to remove much of the structure of your typical documentary film by taking a nonlinear path through Conrad’s life. The narrative jumps around five decades yet there remains a beautifully clear understanding of his life and works. In the opening titles, a fabulously edited and timed sequence of Conrad’s art provides an abridgement to the interesting, fun, and occasionally odd, world we’re about to enter. Conrad’s drone violin music works as the film’s score, and Conrad becomes both the subject and narrator, at one point ultimately combining that duality by revealing via Skype to his media studies class that he is being filmed for a documentary, only to learn from his class he was being filmed on his end while also being filmed on their end. I really hope he loved that part.
Tony Conrad was a lucky man who was able to find an outlet for his genius. He was capable of seeing and understanding art in a way most of us can’t explain or comprehend. He tore down the conformed ideas of structure and organization that permeates the contemporary perceptions of music and film, and he pushed other artists to do the same. From the friends and artists interviewed, there was a great sense that Conrad was a really fun person to be with and that he found joy in most everything he did. He sometimes just wanted his art to mess with people, make them uncomfortable, and make them think about what else film or music could be. But his art isn’t for everyone. I think that aspect made him happy because Conrad’s art was mostly for him. And for other artists and for his collaborators. He didn’t want to please anyone, but he did want people to think.
Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present premieres on June 1, 2016 on the opening night of the Chicago Underground Film Festival (CUFF).