Chuck Stephens

Bruce Baillie’s Songs of Everything

I want to dis­cover true American themes, the images
that lay clos­est to the hearts of our cit­i­zens.”

Bruce Baillie, film­maker

Bruce Baillie lives on an island in the sky: Camano Island, in the state of Washington—a jumping-off place into the forever that is the Pacific, a front row seat for the fire­light at the horizon’s cur­tain fall, a perch and promon­tory, a geo­graphic state of grace.

Google Earth it. It’s among the dots in that gor­geous clus­ter of earthly extremes that seem to break away from the upper left hand cor­ner of the con­ti­nent. A frag­ment off the far edge of America, like many of the places Baillie’s been: places he’s taken us to show us where best the light might fall—on a loved one’s beat­ing breast; a strip of lus­cious Kodachrome; a sheet in his own back­yard.

Baillie began mak­ing films in the 1950s; in 1961, at a series of out­door screen­ings behind his house in Canyon, California, he founded what would become Canyon Cinema, the San Francisco-based dis­tri­b­u­tion coöper­a­tive for exper­i­men­tal cin­ema that remains, with The Film-maker’s Coöperative in New York, the very heart of America’s truly inde­pen­dent film­mak­ing to this day. Throughout the 1960s—in com­pany and con­ver­sa­tion with fel­low trav­el­ers Stan Brakhage, Chick Strand and Bruce Conner—Baillie was cen­tral to the aes­thetic mael­strom that was our New American Cinema, pro­duc­ing a series of daz­zlingly pris­matic mas­ter­works built of glis­ten­ing, lumi­nous abstrac­tions and glo­ri­ous, teem­ing sonic clamor; filled with sce­nes from an America grow­ing older and weirder and more wiz­ened by the teardrop, and sud­den, shat­ter­ingly lucid, acid-flash glimpses into the soul of a young and still radi­ant nation that seemed some­how in the process of rip­ping away its flesh in hopes of bear­ing its soul.

Mass for the Dakota Sioux, Valentin de las Sierras, Quixote, Quick Billy—Baillie’s films from the media-saturated polit­i­cal caul­dron that was the 1960s are madeleine Westerns sprung from the mind of a pey­ote Proust; mythopo­etic road movies from which Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and The Last Movie would soon there­after learn to walk the walk. Folk song-simple and kalei­do­scop­i­cally synaes­thetic, these are films with which every cineaste ought be inti­mate, though few since the 60s have ever had the chance. Now avail­able as a series of inti­mately assem­bled DVDs, mas­tered from the high­est qual­ity ele­ments avail­able and accom­pa­nied by hand­crafted book­lets filled with fam­ily pho­tos, cryp­tic rem­i­nis­cences, and delight­fully inde­ci­pher­able pro­duc­tion notes, Baillie’s films—or at least their bedaz­zlingly spritely dig­i­tal ghosts—are among us once more.

What fol­lows here, then, are ghosts of ghosts: for no mat­ter how charm­ingly a framegrab might hope to evoke the essence of motion and com­mo­tion, of tumult and tum­ble, of haunt­ing frag­ment and fleet­ing glimpse that is Bruce Baillie’s cin­ema, their fail­ure is pre­or­dained. Think of these images and addenda merely as tan­ta­liz­ing peeps between the slats of a car­ni­val fence, or as frozen Coming Attractions for the glo­ri­ous roil that is Baillie’s pas­sion­ate, pul­sat­ing cin­e­matic vision—or merely as memen­tos of what the film­maker him­self likes to describe sim­ply as: “Many rivers, a good life.”

Valentin De Las Sierras (1967, 10 mins.)

Every film Bruce Baillie makes is a folk song he’s hear­ing in his head; this one, a well-known Mexican cor­rido. Here, the music of thou­sand morn­ings col­lide: cocks crow­ing, hounds piss­ing, chil­dren play­ing, church bells thunk­ing down, some­where down in the val­ley, the clomps of an incred­i­bly blue burro. A sun­drenched hal­lu­ci­na­tion seem­ingly built from the scraps in Sam Peckinpah’s trims bin, this ten min­ute por­trait of lives lived in rare air and under sun­light of liq­uid gold is, sim­ply put, one of the most beau­ti­ful films ever made.


Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1964, 20 mins)

At the very begin­ning of Canyon Cinema, we were not infre­quently crit­i­cized for var­i­ous poli­cies or lack of same: ‘Why pro­gram this, and that, and why not this…and why the serial sched­uled before the fea­ture film?’ And ‘What, by the way, is the pur­pose of the free bananas or the Finnish sauna bath tick­ets, as a door prize?’ Or “Why on earth did you show this?!’ To which one might have replied, ‘Because it is here.’’’ —BB

Brakhage, for one, hated that we showed a mix of fea­ture films and exper­i­men­tal shorts on the same pro­gram. For Bruce and me, the whole thing was, this is the­ater, this is magic, this is some sort of crazi­ness that we do. We just loved movies.”

—Chick Strand, orga­nizer and co-founder, with Bruce Baillie, of the first Canyon Cinema screen­ings in 1961

Quixote (1964–65, 45 min., revised 1967)

The great­est American film you’ve never seen, Quixote is a pun­gently psy­che­delic vision of “Ladybird” Johnson’s beau­ti­fied America as seen from inter­state road­sides and innercity lunch­rooms, as lived by migrant farm work­ers and white col­lar Moe’s, and as heard by Walt Whitman … had the poet been res­ur­rected in the age of Robert Frank, black and white tele­vi­sion, electro-acoustic musique con­crete, and the war in Vietnam. As mon­u­men­tal in impor­tance to American film­mak­ing of the 1960s as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Dog Star Man, Baillie’s mag­num opus is a song of every­thing whose visual rav­ish­ments rank with the great­est of Stan Brakhage’s opti­cal rev­o­lu­tions, even as they push toward some­thing still more crys­talline and sublime—a lucidly hal­lu­ci­nated vision of an epochal moment in mod­ern history’s wak­ing night­mare: Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera for the age of the morn­ing after The Manchurian Candidate.


Quick Billy (1967 — 1970, 70 min.)

All of the film was recorded next to the Pacific Ocean in Fort Bragg, California, from dreams and daily life there; all of it given its own good time to evolve and become clear to me. The sea is the main force through the film. “Prentice to the Sea!” was some­thing I wrote to myself in those days.”

The essen­tial expe­ri­ence of trans­for­ma­tion, between Life and Death, death and birth, or rebirth. In four reels, the first three adapted from Bardo Thodol, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The fourth reel is the form of a black and white one-reeler Western, sum­ma­riz­ing the mate­rial of the first three reels, which are color and abstract.”


Castro Street (1966, 10 mins)

If you’ve only ever seen one of Bruce Baillie’s films on ubuweb or youtube (from which they’ve all been recently removed), or any of the other vid­clip sites around, you’ve never really seen them at all. Below, a series of com­par­a­tive grabs from BB’s pris­matic Castro Street, a por­trait of a rail­road junc­tion in the town of Richmond, California that’s now listed in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, as “seen” first—entirely washed-out and bor­der­line indecipherable—online, and then as they appear on vol­ume one of BB’s DVDs.

Links to DVDs and fur­ther read­ing on all things BB (and beyond)

BAM/PFA is proud to present Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, a ground­break­ing project that includes a deeply researched and richly illus­trated book, an exten­sive film and video series pre­sent­ing both renowned and long-forgotten work, and a cap­ti­vat­ing gallery exhi­bi­tion com­pris­ing archival ephemera and works on paper com­mis­sioned for the project.

He’s not here yet, but he will be here soon.”