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 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.