Film Culture No. 67-68-69, 1979
Baillie and a Bolex
Bruce Baillie (b.1931)|
A number of attempts, intelligent and otherwise, have been made to categorize the diverse product of American avant-garde film. One unifying concept is that avant-garde films are made independent of the dominant so-called "Hollywood" film industry. Filmmakers like Baillie work outside of the Hollywood movie matrix and reject what Charles Boultenhouse refers to as Hollywood's "empty idea" that "entertainment must be superficial distraction."
Avant-garde films are frequently referred to as "personal" films. But it would be a mistake to assume that such work is obsessed with the illusion of central position. "Personal" film does not automatically mean self-indulgent film and Baillie's work is strong proof of this. His films are very personal, beautiful and meaningful in a number of different contexts and on a number of different levels. The political content of films like Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1964) and Quixote (1965-1967) cannot be ignored nor can the sheer beauty of the imagery be overlooked.
Within the relatively circumscribed circle of avant-garde filmmakers, viewers and critics, Baillie's work is well known and well respected. Several of his films are included on the list of "Essential Cinema" as compiled by the Anthology Film Archives organization, the de facto standards committee of American avant-garde film practice. And many overview programs of New American Cinema will include one or more of his films. There have been a variety of scholarly essays, reviews and studies of his work in film magazines like Film Culture and the Millennium Film Journal. In 1991 he was a recipient of the American Film Institute's Maya Deren Award.
Maybe artistic rebellion is as American as apple pie. Eschewing the financial benefits of making films within the established business culture of production means making inexpensive films. Baillie's films generally do not have paid or professional actors and the film's crew most often consists of just the filmmaker. While making Roslyn Romance (Is it Really True?) (1974) Baillie describes preparations for some shooting:
The truck loaded well I think. Two 3200K lights, 50 foot cord, camera, motor, batteries, recorder, charger, tripod, film, and food in a cold box I found last year at the dump.
Evolving from early documentary-like work in the early 1960s Baillie emerged by the end of the decade as a phenomenally sensitive film poet who used a balance of image, color, superimposition and sound in the construction of his expression.
Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1964, 20 minutes, 16mm) is dedicated by Baillie to "the religious people who were destroyed by the civilization which evolved the Mass." It is on one level a "Mass" for the American Indian conquered and displaced by the white American in quest of manifest destiny. A quote from the native American Sitting Bull opens the film,
No chance for me to live mother
But this conflict of American history is also an echo of the artist's own dilemma. Like the Beat Generation poets and writers, Baillie is situated outside the mainstream. He is an outsider looking in. His vision, personal, perceptive, unique and unmitigated by the profit motive defines the role of the contemporary artist.
Creating descriptions of non-narrative films is always a challenging process for the writer. The usefulness of such descriptions varies from reader to reader. We offer here three descriptions of Baillie's Mass for the Dakota Sioux. We offer these selections primarily for the benefit of those that have not seen the film and as a small study in the art of writing about art.
The following selections come from Baillie's own notes to the film; from an essay by Paul Arthur written for the film exhibition "A History of the American Avant-Garde Cinema" produced by the American Federation of the Arts; and from Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978 by P.Adams Sitney. Arthur and Sitney are both discriminating viewers of American avant-garde film and of Baillie's work in particular.
A film Mass, dedicated to that which is vigorous, intelligent, lovely, the best-in-Man; that which work suggests is nearly dead.from Visionary Film, 2nd Edition by P.Adams Sitney.
At the very beginning [Baillie] shows a man struggling and dying on a city street at night, ignored by passers-by as if he were a drunk collapsed in the street. In the subsequent weaving of moving camera shots, in counterpointed superimpositions of factories, expanses of prefabricated houses, traffic, parades, and markets, all complemented by a soundtrack that blends Gregorian chant with street noises in shifting degrees of priority, the viewer tends to forget the dying man or to see him as the forecast of the section of the film that enjambs bits of war films with advertisements shot directly off a television without kinescopic rectification so that the images continually show bands and jump.
from A History of the American Avant-Garde Cinema, American Federation of the Arts. Essay by Paul Arthur.
[T]he first image is a close-up of clapping hands- a framing device that recurs following the central section. On a dark sidewalk we see a man crawling just beyond a square of light. He appears to be drunk or seriously ill.
It depends on your point of view, no doubt, whether or not these descriptions and comments on a 20 minute 16mm film made in 1964 stimulate your interest.
Mass for the Dakota Sioux like Baillie's other films is just the opposite of "superficial distraction." One can easily get lost in the complexities of the film much like the filmmaker himself seems lost in the deep rubble he rues. In Baillie's art, "lostness" is made pervasive.
|Bruce Baillie at the Cosmic Baseball Association|
Baillie was an original player on the Visionville Beasts, the Cosmic Baseball Association's original team of avant-garde filmmakers (the Beasts transformed into the Poetics after the 1996 cosmic season.) For fifteen seasons he has been a reliable catcher whose defensive abilities are more consistent than his offensive capabilities. The influence of Eastern philosophy and religion, apparent both in his films off the field and in his work behind the plate on the field is notable. He has a discernable calming influence on pitchers, especially the younger ones who can easily get caught up in the emotion of the moment.
|Bruce Baillie Links|