‘Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present’ documentary plays the record of his life

At a quick glance, “Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present” doesn’t look like a polished documentary. The camera’s shaky. The lighting on the subject’s overblown at times. The wires of a Lavalier microphone dangle noticeably in an interview shot. And that grating and monotonous drone of a violin playing the same note is enough to give anyone a migraine.

Yet the 102-minute experimental documentary is a film that shows filmmaking at its seams. Filmed and edited in a way that breaks most of the conventional rules of filmmaking, “Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present” abides by its iconoclastic subject’s avant garde and anti-authoritative values.

Tony Conrad, who passed away this past April at 76, taught so he could teach his students how not to do things — how not to follow the conventional rules where art, music, filmmaking and politics intersect.

As an artist, he pinned soiled granny panties to cork boards and filmed men dressed as women in jail cells. He fearlessly scored the controversial and pornographic Jack Smith film “Flaming Creatures” (1963) and encouraged reactions of disgust even from those who respected him in the art and music world.

It took Tyler Hubby 20 years to capture the footage for the film, initially meeting Conrad in 1994 when he toured with German Krautrock band Faust. Told in chapters marked by the record, play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind buttons on a VCR player, Hubby’s documentary begins on Ludlow Street in New York City, outside the very apartment that housed the inspiration for the Velvet Underground’s name. (Conrad’s roommate John Cale got it off one of Conrad’s books in their apartment. And while Conrad wasn’t a part of the Velvet Underground, he toured with two of its founding members, Cale and Lou Reed, before they became the Velvet Underground).

The camera’s subject, a 62-year-old Conrad, holds a ring of five microphones connected by an interwoven bundle of cords. Walking across the street conducting New York City traffic, Conrad looks like a senile old man. A passerby even stops him to ask him if he’s OK.

Yet Conrad knows exactly what he’s doing and exactly how to get it done. It’s like watching a brilliant magician reveal the secret behind his tricks. Even though the scene looks absurd, he’s pointing us to the music of the ordinary — the harmonics of passing trucks, bicycles, and sounds we wouldn’t typically think as music. The music in the streets otherworldly when magnified over the hum of his violin. Yet Conrad could have just as easily coaxed music out of a weed whacker.

This was the type of music Conrad was famous for — a minimalist style that can described as “sound coming at you like a railroad train.” Conrad produces these eerily hypnotic sounds with out-of-tune violins. Standing in front of a light with a curtain draped in front of him, his shadow would fill up a room, swaying back and forth as he played the same precise note as long as humanly possible. He once took this sound and dubbed it over itself, creating the piece “Four Violins” (1964).

In the mid-1960s, Conrad, along with his colleagues La Monte Young, John Cale, Angus LacLise and Marian Zazeela, created this minimalist movement while The Beatles were at its height. But even as one of the founding members of The Dream Syndicate, Conrad’s music legacy was often overshadowed by La Monte Young, whose often credited as the first minimalist composer.

Conrad’s work, however, transcended his field. He was an artist, first and foremost, but the form it took spilled beyond its medium. His piece “Yellow Movie” (1973) is a film designed to spans over the course of 50 years. He figured that if he painted a black square over cheap white paint, the paint would eventually erode and yellow over time. Conrad also produced a series where he cooked strips of film — currying, pickling, roasting and deep frying these strips so its composition changed entirely.

One of his earliest films was “The Flicker” (1966), where he played 30 minutes of flickering black and while slides on a film projector. Audience members at its first screening reported having seizures and discovering that if you stared long enough, these black and white slides were like a Rorschach test, and you begin to see shapes and images that weren’t really there. 

Hubby’s mesmerizing film mimics techniques in Conrad’s work. Parts of the documentary flickers to a metronomic beat. And the credits are bright flickering white lights — where you begin to make out shapes of names.

The biggest name on the screen is Conrad’s. He’s invasive and larger-than-life, bleeding beyond the silver screen. Even hours after you leave that dark theatre, you hear the droning hum of Conrad’s violin as the soundtrack of his life fills your mind.

“Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present” was written and directed by Tyler Hubby and premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth Buffalo International Film Festival.

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