By Ida Pruitt
Tony Oursler’s film TC: the most interesting man alive (2016 – 2018), made with avant-garde polymath and long-time collaborator Tony Conrad (1940 – 2016), portrays Conrad as an interview subject in Oursler’s studio. Known for working beyond the established boundaries of their respective mediums, Oursler and Conrad rejected a conventional interview structure in which the subject is demystified through the divulgence of information, and instead produced an alchemical potion of untrustworthy narration, humor, music, and theatrics. The lo-fi synthesis of these elements showcases a departure by Oursler from his current high-production video practice to a more performative, experimental approach that’s fitting with Conrad’s legacy as a pioneer of structural film and drone music. The provisional sensibility of the film evokes the scene in which the two artists met—CalArts in the late ’70s—and with nothing more than a studio, a green screen, and some props, Oursler and Conrad author a curious blend of biopic and candid improvisation.
The film loosely follows the timeline of Conrad’s life, from birth to his post-college years. We see Conrad, along with friends and colleagues such as Paige Sarlin, Peggy Ahwesh, Constance Dejong, Joe Gibbons, Maríe Losier, and Jennifer Walsh, act out and recite his memories in front of a green screen that Oursler fills with supplemental imagery both literal and associative. A forest floor floats beneath Conrad when he stumbles upon a fossil as a child, while his birth scene finds him in a pink bodysuit, hurtling down a tunnel of 3D-animated red blood cells. In a later scene, Paige Sarlin speaks from the perspective of Conrad’s mother, relating a story about a gift he gave his two-year-old brother Peter (a sack of stones from the driveway). His brother, she tells us, exclaimed, “Oh, Tony, thank you, they’re gnomes—gnomes!” The family subsequently adopted Peter’s linguistic glitch into their vocabulary, switching out “stones” for “gnomes.” This game of make-believe—sustained by the delight in reliving fond memories—sets the theme for the film. Conrad spins his autobiography while never letting us forget the susceptibility of memory to fabulation.
“Might be true, might be true, might not be true” Conrad says about a memory of how he learned to light matches. He then puzzles over whether or not he “burned” his brother as a montage of men burning alive plays overlaid atop his face. An event that was in all likelihood a household accident with matches is replaced by a dramatic alternative akin to a horror movie spectacle. Conrad’s playfulness with the ambiguity of language also makes its way into his experiments with sound, which occur periodically throughout the film. A designer of bizarre, makeshift instruments, he uses a bow to “play” a hole in a piece of canvas stretched over a rectangular frame as he would the violin. Later, he performs with a bow and ukulele in a colorfully illuminated cave in a sequence reminiscent of late ’60s psychedelic film techniques. The sound mutates slowly, as if Conrad is playing back the echoes he hears reflecting off the cave walls, and then transitions into the beginning of his and Faust’s seminally minimal album Outside the Dream Syndicate (1973).
After Conrad tells us that his parents convinced him to spend his paperboy money on a violin, he describes learning to play one: “I would just play one note or so, because I gave up. I didn’t even want to try to make the pretty songs happen.” His impatience with virtuosity makes a second appearance when we see him use a roll of 16mm film to recount an abbreviated history of his struggles with the medium. “The only trouble with working on film is that there’s so many frames,” Conrad grumbles while preparing for the labor-intensive process of frame-by-frame animation. Scribbling on a section of the 16mm roll at a small school desk, Conrad mutters about tedium before acting out a eureka moment in which he realizes he can deal with the material directly by pickling it in a jar, one of his many destructive techniques that included the burning, washing, and cooking of film. Conrad had a countercultural approach to music and filmmaking that was rooted in an ingenious evasion of labor. His monophonic violin experiments as a child novice prefigured his pioneering of drone music in the ’60s, and his rejection of traditional filmmaking yielded such works of structural film as The Flicker (1966), which utilized only five unique frames to produce a strobing effect.
Oursler expertly balances Conrad’s different modes, from captivating storyteller to focused performer. His treatment of the interview footage, while heavy with visual effects, is decidedly light in that it has room to capture something fundamental about Conrad’s personality and work without ever being explicit about that as a goal—and never aggrandizing. Conrad is at ease in front of the camera in a way that makes everything he says and does feel natural, even when he’s playing with the truth or exhibiting eccentricities. He has an enviable ability to seem at once effortless and completely singular, and his art is no different. In TC: the most interesting man alive, Oursler expresses the spirit of Tony Conrad with an originality matched only by its subject.