'Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present': Film Review

Frederick Eberstadt
An exploration of avant-garde art that has little time for elitism or pretense.

Moby, Tony Oursler and others share their admiration for multi-disciplinary artist Tony Conrad in Tyler Hubby's debut doc.

Tony Conrad was a filmmaker, even if his most famous movie consisted only of solid black frames alternating with solid white ones; he was a musician, though his long, scraping violin solos would sound like feline agony to most listeners. He was an iconoclast whose protests — "Demolish Serious Culture," he once insisted — fell on deaf ears. And he was one of those rare figures who plays a part in or influences artistic careers much more famous than his. Tyler Hubby's documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, which sets out to make sense of this multidisciplinary artist and largely succeeds, also serves as an obituary: Conrad died in April, in the midst of a late-career comeback Hubby witnessed first-hand over twentysomething years. An editor on dozens of docs, including the excellent The Great Invisible and The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Hubby makes his directing debut here with a film that should both please longtime Conrad admirers and explain to newbies what people see in him.

Having made a deliberate choice to live apart from conventional work and society (easier to do when you're willing to inhabit the kind of apartments where rent is 24 dollars and change), Conrad made himself available to myriad fringe art scenes. He made so many little connections, in fact, that the film can't find time to include even some of the hipper ones: Yes, we hear how Conrad briefly played with The Primitives, Lou Reed's early band, but nobody notes that Conrad was indirectly responsible for the name The Velvet Underground.

More meaningfully, the movie explores his important early musical work — in mid-'60s group improvisation sessions that later would be seen as proto-minimalist landmarks — without emphasizing how the sustained drones he and partner John Cale created would reverberate through decades of rock music, from the Velvets onward.

Experimental film buffs know Conrad for The Flicker, the aforementioned movie in which alternating black and white frames produced fantastic optical effects for many viewers (and maybe induced an epileptic seizure now and then). Hubby delves into lesser-known efforts that stretched the definition of cinema even further: One series, the "Yellow Movies," consisted of nothing but house paint "emulsion" mounted on the wall — the idea being partly to make an endurance test that put Warhol's long-duration static images to shame.

Following an amiable Conrad around his old turf on NYC's Lower East Side, to college towns where he conducted charming teaching experiments, to concert venues where he drew crowds of hipsters after an early-'90s rediscovery, Hubby captures an artistic personality that could manifest big ideas without a shred of snobbery, could deflate pomposity while still inviting deep thought. Along the way, we meet some of Conrad's admirers — from Moby, to onetime Sonic Youth member Jim O'Rourke, to contemporary-art star Tony Oursler. "I wanted to end composing," Conrad says at one point — to make music with no score and no composer. Remarkable, then, how distinctive Tony Conrad's body of work turned out to be.

Venue: DOC NYC
Production company: Sixty Cycle Hum
Director-editor: Tyler Hubby
Producers: Christine Beebe, Paul Wiliams, Tyler Hubby
Director of photography: Fortunato Procopio
Composer: Tony Conrad

Not rated, 95 minutes