The Poetic Vision of Bruce Baillie

The Daily — Apr 14, 2020
Bruce Baillie

As a filmmaker and cofounder of the distributor Canyon Cinema and the San Francisco Cinematheque, Bruce Baillie, who passed away last Friday at the age of eighty-eight, was one of the leading lights of what Jonas Mekas began calling the New American Cinema in the early 1960s. Two of his best-known works, both from 1966—the intricately composed Castro Street, which was selected for the National Film Registry in 1992, and the single-shot All My Life—exemplify the technical range of Baillie’s poetic vision. “Calling these lyric late-Beat films proto-psychedelic wouldn’t be far off,” wrote Ed Halter for Artforum in 2009. “Baillie contributed significantly to the emergence of a distinctly West Coast sensibility in American experimental cinema of the 1960s and ’70s, one more unabashedly spiritual and lush than the scene’s frenetic New York contemporaries.”

Born and raised in South Dakota—he would remain close to his loving and supportive parents for as long as they lived—Baillie served in the Navy during the Korean War before returning to study art at the University of Minnesota. On the recommendation of one of his professors, he enrolled in the London School of Film Technique but found both the curriculum and English cuisine disappointing and headed back to the States after just one year. In the Bay Area, Baillie stocked groceries, worked for a while as a longshoreman, and became an assistant to a maker of travel films. “Immediately I realized that making films and showing films must go hand in hand, so I got a job at Safeway, took out a loan, and bought a projector,” he told film scholar and historian Scott MacDonald.

With fellow avant-garde filmmaker Chick Strand, Baillie projected films for friends on a sheet hung between two trees in the backyard of his home in Canyon, California. Among the attendees of these informal screenings—free wine and popcorn!—was a young George Lucas, who would later help fund the digitalization of Baillie’s work. Eventually, Baillie and Strand founded a co-op, Canyon Cinema, which evolved into the legendary distributor that now represents more than 260 artists.

Among Baillie’s earliest works is Mr. Hayashi (1961), a portrait of a gardener shot in black and white. “In three minutes,” wrote Manohla Dargis in the New York Times in 2016, “Baillie suggests the arc of an entire life with an elegant mixture of trenchant close-ups (sturdy hands, worn boots, a weathered face) and equally elegiac long shots that evoke the minimalist landscapes in certain classical Asian paintings (trees, clouds, peaks, isolated figures).” To Parsifal (1963) finds Baillie working in “a more poetic, associative register,” wrote Dargis. “As Mr. Baillie shifts from amber hills to the cobalt ocean and lush green mountains—his fluid marshaling of image and sound suggests an epic journey.”

When Flicker Alley included Castro Street in its four-disc collection Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970 in 2015, the distributor spoke with Baillie about how he conceived the film while working for Pacific Gas and Electric. “I was driving my old Volkswagen between Berkeley and the oil fields in Richmond, California, with this job,” he recalled, “and I remember the weather was such that there was kind of a rainy, flat sort of light that made all these pipes in the standard oil field stand out with a certain magnificence. The greens and the reds and so on.” He decided to shoot the railroad switching yards next to the refinery, distorting the image with “various items of my mother’s, glasses and the kinds of stuff you see in a person’s kitchen.” He then went to work with the sounds he’d captured on an Uher tape recorder. “What does [Stan] Brakhage call editing? Composing. I prefer Brakhage’s term; it’s much more truthful about what we did.”

Scott MacDonald has called Castro Street “a visual and auditory phantasmagoria. Baillie’s layering of physical spaces, emphasized by the doubling of black-and-white and color, functions as a kind of yin yang, not only for two kinds of industrial space, but for the interplay between the physical elements of industry and commerce and the natural world within which these elements function.”

Now spend two minutes and forty-five seconds with All My Life. Baillie had been admiring the light along the Northern California coastline for days, and on the drive back home to San Francisco, he suddenly declared, “No, I cannot turn my back on this!,” and took out his camera and tripod. Dargis calls All My Life “one of the most perfect films that I’ve ever seen.” And film scholar David Sterritt tells Harrison Smith in the Washington Post: “It’s as if you’re passing into eternity but pausing just one moment as there’s this last remnant of the material world. It’s one of the glorious moments in avant-garde film. I still use it in teaching to this day.”

For J. Hoberman, writing in the New York Times, “Baillie’s gift for sound design was exemplified by the bright-hued and clamorous Valentin de las Sierras (1967), a ten-minute film shot in Jalisco, Mexico, with a hand-held 16-millimeter camera. A vivid succession of often extreme close-ups is structured around the well-known Mexican corrido, or ballad, for which the movie is named.” Quick Billy (1971), “made after a near-fatal bout of hepatitis, was a mock western based in part on The Tibetan Book of the Dead.” Like Ezra Pound’s Cantos, proposes Bruce Elder at La Furia Umana, “Quick Billy concerns going into the underworld, experiencing terror, undergoing transformation, and being reborn into light.” Ultimately, “Baillie suggests that the cinema’s original and true nature is as a document of consciousness.”

Baillie’s films are “among the most subtle, poetic, and exquisitely observed works the American avant-garde has ever produced,” writes Michael Sicinski. “But unlike Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, or Hollis Frampton, Baillie did not engender a historical ‘school,’ inspire dozens of anxious acolytes, or seek status as the hander-down of grand theoretical pronouncements.” His films are “clearly the work of a master craftsman, but his ‘curse’ was to make them appear effortless. These films could seem somehow contingent in the history of the American avant-garde because, like the sun and sky, they just somehow seemed to be there, striking us on an affective, emotional frequency. These films claimed a place in our vision, and in the experimental canon, without needing to mount an argument on their own behalf.”

For more from and about Bruce Baillie, see the tribute from Canyon Cinema, samples of Baillie’s work and a selection of praise from admirers including Jonas Mekas, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and P. Adams Sitney at the Belgian site Sabzian, an informal portrait shot in 2012 by filmmaker and preservationist Ross Lipman, a note posted at This Long Century, and even a recipe at new filmkritik.

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