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.”

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