Christopher Nolan’s film “Oppenheimer” has generated a massive wave of renewed interest in the events surrounding the birth of the atomic bomb.
Now, viewers have an opportunity to view not only a seminal documentary about 1940s atomic weapons testing, but also one filmmaker’s view of how that documentary came together.
“Crossroads,” which was produced in 1976 by Bruce Conner, is 36 minutes of extreme slow-motion replays accompanied by an original score by composers Terry Riley and Patrick Gleeson. Its source material is government footage from the 1946 atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, which were dubbed Operation Crossroads.
When the film was restored in 2012, the effort was overseen by Ross Lipman, a former UCLA Film & Television Archive preservationist, and filmmaker Michelle Silva of the Conner Family Trust. Lipman was so fascinated by “Crossroads” that he produced his own live documentary about its unique production, called “The Exploding Digital Inevitable.” (A live documentary is a curation of media clips accompanied by analysis in live narration.)
In an interview for UCLA Newsroom, Lipman explained why he wanted to make his own documentary about “Crossroads,” and why Conner’s footage has fascinated him for nearly 30 years.
On July 30 at 7 p.m., the Billy Wilder Theater at UCLA will screen “Crossroads” and Lipman will present “The Exploding Digital Inevitable,” followed by a live Q&A with Lipman and Silva. The program is being presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive as part of “Archive Treasures,” a showcase of works from the archive’s holdings. “Crossroads” is also being shown as part of the exhibition “Together in Time,” which runs through Aug. 20 at the Hammer Museum at UCLA.
When did you encounter “Crossroads”?
Although I’d known Conner’s films for years, “Crossroads” jumped onto my radar in a significant way around 1995, when I was working at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. They were doing a restoration of the film in conjunction with the Academy Film Archive here in Los Angeles, and I ended up writing about it in the Journal of Film Preservation in 1996.
Eventually, Bruce Conner’s films were moved to UCLA, where I was by that time working as a film restorationist. I began working on “Crossroads” with Conner’s former editor and my longtime colleague Michelle Silva.
Why did you think it was important to make “Digital Inevitable”?
I created this presentation in large part to help contextualize “Crossroads.” Not that it needs it, but there’s a lot of great information out there that I wanted to share — for instance, the historical context on what exactly it was that Conner was looking at in the footage he obtained.
The first half of “The Exploding Digital Inevitable” is really more about the history of the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests. Oppenheimer is one of the figures who’s discussed in that history. In the second part, I talk about Bruce Conner in great depth, and about his making of the film.
How did all of the pieces for your film fall into place?
Conner was a bit an archivist himself, and he kept extensive documentation on the making of the film. Somewhere in the process of our restoration, I began working with a lot of these documents. I also managed to interview the composers Terry Riley and Patrick Gleeson, who both had a lot to say. Pat is wonderful firecracker, full of interesting information and great stories.
At some point it struck me that I had all the makings of a documentary. I chose to do it live because the format allows me to be a bit more informal, and have some fun with it.
Speaking of Gleeson and Riley, what interested you most about the composers’ roles in “Crossroads”?
Both composers are very significant to the history of modern music. They’re both alive today and thriving, even though they began their careers in the 1960s. They tried to work on “Crossroads” together, but for various reasons it didn’t work out, leading Conner to have them do two separate parts, which he then joined in the film.
How Conner divided it is particularly brilliant. But I’ll leave that for the viewer to see.
It sure worked out nicely that the Billy Wilder Theater program takes place amid all of the “Oppenheimer” buzz.
We had actually been talking about doing this program for some time, and then we realized that “Oppenheimer” was going to be released shortly after the Hammer was launching the “Together in Time” show. It just made sense to time the event around it all.
But the program is unique in that it’s about an experience and generating thought and meditation on some of the events of our times — what they signify and how we might want to respond to them.