How Avant-Garde Filmmakers Achieve the Impossible: Interview with Bruce Baillie

Bruce Baillie is one of the great figures in American avant-garde filmmaking. Since 1960, he has produced a body of films unsurpassed for their lyrical sensuality, expressive honesty and formal inventiveness. His 1966 film, Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness) transforms a walk down a street in Richmond, CA into a voyage of discovery. The film, selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, has been digitally restored for Blu-ray/DVD in Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970. Baillie was kind enough to speak with Flicker Alley as part of the Avant-garde Essay Series. In the interview below, the celebrated filmmaker reveals the inspiration behind Castro Street; how the grueling editing process left a lasting impact on his health; how Stan Brakhage, Lawrence Jordan, and James Broughton responded to his dream; and how advancing age has influenced his more recent projects.

Image from Castro Street

Flicker Alley: Your films, including Castro Street, are often named “poetic documentary” and have their style have likened to that of Dziga Vertov and other Soviet montage filmmakers. Were you consciously drawing from these sources as inspiration for Castro Street?

Bruce Baillie: You can erase all the cinematic references. I’ll see if there’s anything that’s a precursor in my mind, perhaps in the music world.

I played an Indian raag, traditional Indian instrumental music. The song I happened to be playing during the editing process [for Castro Street] was noted for its basic male-female dialogue. That was the nature of that music, and I knew that. I was fully conscious of that, and I wanted to implant that essence in my editing.

Image from Castro Street

What did inspire you to create the piece then?

I had a job working in the oil fields for PG&E [Pacific Gas and Electric]. They put me out in the oil fields with a huge shovel. I was in great shape then. There were three of us. They put me out there because I had already put in my notice to quit because I was working to get money to go to Europe.

I was driving my old Volkswagen between Berkeley and the oil fields in Richmond, CA with this job, 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.

Was it in that moment of seeing the rain that you decided to film it?

Exactly. That was the moment. I took the moment home to Berkeley in my head and immediately began to collect various items of my mother’s, glasses and the kinds of stuff you see in a person’s kitchen. Things you would see that would alter the imagery that I was planning to shoot. I was planning to shoot railroad switching yards that were adjacent to the refinery.

I came home with the impression of the colors and also assigning the film stock to it. I thought, “What about this old Ansco color that’s sitting around?” Nobody had any, and I claimed that it was the last role of Ansco color in the world. I had several rolls that I used in several films. It’s probably too bad that I used that instead of newer kind, but I didn’t have any money in those days. Canyon members used to buy me a hamburger. Poverty is an essential player in this recollection. I would add as a note to the film, “The filmmaker states that this is all made by hand, no computers, with a few dollars.”

In filmmaking, in the field, there is some kind of subject matter. You’re out in the field, and you’re collecting imagery and the sound perhaps. That may be a major period. In major movie-making that would be “production.” I recorded audio with an Uher recorder that records at 3 different speeds, thus 3 different octaves. I had gathered all the material in the field, which was in Richmond, CA, a funny little place; it’s mostly oil fields.

Image from Castro Street

What was your editing process for Castro Street like?

What does [Stan] Brakhage call editing? Composing.

I prefer Brakhage’s term; it’s much more truthful about what we did.

The editing in that film is quite complicated, in the old way of editing film, non-electronic and non-programmed. It’s obviously a complicated film to make by hand.

I assigned a male aspect to one and a female aspect to the other. Then I listened to this [Indian raag] music to influence me thusly in the great universal spirit of the genders that make up our life. The two genders and their opposition and their composition, the “yin and yang” of the Chinese, and so on.

There I was at the very essence of composing that work, working in the absolutely unknown, more difficult than anything I’ve ever done. I was up at Lou Gottlieb’s Morning Star Ranch, near Golden Gate, which is another stellar aspect of that era. I had to borrow one projector, and I had one projector from Canyon [Cinema]. I was deliberately listening to [this Indian raag] over and over, day after day, as I edited in this little shed that I had immaculately cleaned. I reported to [cleaning] duty there every day after I had worked on my film.

It was in the exhausting, highly-concentrated composing of that work that I apparently set off the medical situation, combined with environmental toxicity & hepatitis, which daily affects my life.

Morning Star Ranch was a counterculture commune in rural Sonoma County, CA. What was your experience there like?

I was one of the early residents, along with Ramon Sender, who was a main figure in a brother-sister art entity in the San Francisco area called the Tape Music Center. They were abstract composers – “musique concrète”  or concrete music. They were a brother and sister, and we were very close. We all had our shows in San Francisco. The people out in the park, the Italian dell’arte, a traditional traveling outdoor troupe, that’s the third prominent entity of that era of the “New Arts” that were rising up prior to the politics of the sixties.

Morning Star Ranch was one of the big communes. There were two of them up near the Golden Gate. Lou Gottlieb was a former singer in The Limeliters, so he had a little bit of money. He bought 60 acres of land up there, said “this is open,” and legally signed it over to G-d. So after a while, everybody was driving up to San Francisco to see what the scene was up at Morning Star Ranch. The 3 or 4 of us original guys lived in little treehouses or huts.

Did you go to Morning Star Ranch out of financial concerns or did Lou Gottlieb convince you to come? What drew you to it?

I remember we were close with the composers. Ramon is a friend and said that he’d been staying up there as a commune. I was very much a non-joiner, a non-belonger by nature, and I remember thinking that’s not interesting. But somehow I got up there and got involved at the beginning by invitation. He, Lou, and a wonderful painter/artist/jewelry-maker, Wilder Bentley. I think it was the 3 of us and then some other family with a little child. There were some doggies and some babies and some other people who were living in a tree. I had a big old heavy tarp from my dad’s era, and I threw that in my Volkswagen. I also had a buffalo robe; I was involved with the Native Americans especially the Sioux in South Dakota. In fact, one of my films was a requiem mass dedicated to the aboriginal people in our world.

Image from Castro Street

You are a big proponent for the exhibition and distribution of independent and avant-garde films. Not only are you an artist in your own right, but you are also a steward of other filmmakers. What was the impetus to expand the scope of your career from filmmaker to curator and distributor, founding Canyon Cinema in 1961?

The question was posed early on by Stan Brakhage and his then-wife, Jane. They had moved to San Francisco for a short period of time. Chickie [Mildred “Chick” Strand] at the time was working with me as a co-operator. I started Canyon Cinema in Canyon, then moved and met Chickie in Berkeley and we operated it together.

Jane and Stan asked us why did we do this. I came over to their apartment for dinner. I had in the back of my mind to ask if I could borrow his camera. (I never had any equipment – I remember being in tears, sobbing in Berkeley, wondering how am I going to do this. Stan said “Well, Bruce, yes, I can loan you my camera, but if I loan it, I never want to see it again. Because that’s how I am. I don’t loan my camera, but I do give it away.” I, of course, turned him down.)

I could tell they were ready to pop the question: Why in the hell, Bruce, are you taking this on? It’s hard enough to make films on no money, with no resources.

I remember saying, “Somebody had to do it,” which is an old answer from films. But in this case, it was generating some positive issue, societal and general and civilizational. Somebody might say in a neighborhood, “Why did you take it upon to pick up all the litter? Why did you take it upon yourself to shout at all the speeders?”

So that was my answer.

How did I think about it prior to that moment? I had said to myself, look at the field. I thought, simply put, if I’m going to make films, I have to show them somewhere. That very terse objective statement was in my brain 60 years ago.

If I’m going to show films, where am I going to show them? There was no theater, no venue. That’s when the history of Canyon Cinema kicks in. I started looking at the Canadian Embassy and some French films. And then some guy in New York had made a film and that was the biggest thing in the world. Then Chickie and I had a San Francisco and a Berkley show each week, two shows a week.

We’re still trying to collect films. There’s a woman from Mexico that is coming here today. They’re doing a biography of my life. They’re going to do a big retrospective in January.

Image from Castro Street

Going back even further, how did first begin to make the films that you would later create Canyon Cinema in part to show?

I had gone to the London School of Film Technique in the 1950s. In between my periods in the ‘50s and early ‘60s of living in Canyon, I went to London on the recommendation of one of my professors at the University of Minnesota.

I looked around when I got back to Canyon after film school, and I thought, “Well, what am I going to do now?” I was thinking about going back to the Navy. I had come out of Korean War as an enlisted man, and I was going to go back as an officer and make that my work. I would go to the office and get all the details, and then I’d think, I better not join up yet.

I went to San Francisco to comb the streets to see if I got a job learning to make film in some way. I didn’t know how to make film even after film school – how to put sound on film, for example.

I went over to Larry Jordan asking him about some techniques. I remember going to James Broughton (I call him Father James Broughton), and he embraced me and said “It’s impossible,” and we both cried. He meant that it’s impossible to make a motion picture, impossible in every and any way. But the implication is from me, from him, from all of us, that we do it anyway. This is like an episode of an Errol Flynn movie where they’re off into the jungle, and even though it’s impossible, they’re going to achieve their goal.

I was looking around trying to figure how can I do the work that I was put to do, and then I went down to the Marvin Becker Films company. I just dropped in there, like I’d been dropping in everywhere and checking everything. I asked him if he had a job. I remember he was a major in the Marine Corps and a really excellent filmmaker. He made 16mm travel films, whatever people wanted. For example, he made a film on the horseless carriage corporation, the old classic cars. I remember saying to him, “How about if I come to work for you, full-time, volunteer, for an indefinite period?”

He said, “Nobody can say no to that.”

I lived my adult life as a volunteer. Along with poetry, comes volunteer, at least in the Franciscan sense of “loving sister poverty.”

Image from Castro Street

Castro Street was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library Congress as being “culturally, history, or aesthetically significant.” What do you hope for your legacy? What do you envision for future generations of filmmakers?

I recently wrote a note to a journalist friend answering that question. I was writing to all the comers that are going to be artists in the media of various kinds – that are, that will be such, and that are out in the fields now – saying, “What is it that we do?” Something to the effect of, “What will we record of ourselves?”

It must be relevant. Thus, it must be grounded in love and the state of being; the ground of being which is love itself. At the very beginning of life is the love that makes life, because life is not made from hate. It’s made from love. Jean Cocteau said that the poet is the one who makes the tracks in the snow in front of civilization and shows civilization what it is and who we are. That’s the job of poetry, and that’s what I reiterated when asked recently.

So in answer to what’s out there in the vague future, the images, the pictures that we present to ourselves, the imagery that we fuel, the poets among us, the poecy that is within us as a collective, has to be relevant. It has to ultimately, behind it all, reveal what and who we really are, not what and who we really are not – which is pretty much the task of commercial nonsense.

I would hope for myself that I might have already made some tracks in the snow and that they will somehow persist if they still have value. If there is still value to reading those prints that give people an indication of their much sought-after identity. The only thing that sets mankind into activity is to seek himself. That search, and some of the stepping stones along that path, I would see as the task that some of us accept.

It is not really about any rewards. It’s about the doing, the done, itself. It’s not getting money for it. It’s not how you’re going to be prominent or famous for it. There’s no extraneous motivation lingering in the heart of a poet.

Image from Castro Street

Moving forward from San Francisco the 1960s, how do you think the art scene has evolved today?

Talking to up and comers today, I often say that they should be aware that it’s not cute. It’s not fun, in a lot of ways, but sometimes there is such a great joy in being able to recognize something that’s created, like a mother with her little babies: look what I’ve made.

But I do warn people.

[Stan] Brakhage had a series of lectures at the University of Chicago, I think, and I was giving a show nearby. He was in the same motel by chance. (I didn’t know him too well at the time, and he turned me onto Johnny Carson. I thought Johnny Carson was kind of a phoney-baloney. I met Brakhage in the hotel lobby and said, well, I’ll take a look at it, too. From then on, i was a Johnny Carson fan.) Later, I went down to hear Brakhage lecture. He was talking about a theme that he’s also written and probably repeated as well to parents: Don’t turn your children toward poecy. Don’t let them become filmmakers. Don’t let them write poems. Have them become mailmen.

Why? Because of the financial hardships inherent to filmmaking?

No, because it’s impossible. Financing is only part of it. It’s as impossible as all the impossible challenges in the past of mankind. Think of the Spartans who were going to meet the Persians. There were, what? 40 Spartans and 40,000 Persian soldiers. It was impossible, but they found their spot anyway.

Heroic really means humanity overcoming the obstacles of living on this planet. I mean, it’s impossible to even get through the traffic from here to the next city.

Bruce Baillie in his home office/archives, 2015

Bruce Baillie in his home office/archives, 2015

What you’re currently working on? Do you have a final project in mind?

It’s a good question. I have to wonder myself. Sometimes I compare my own lifeline to that of Jack London, as an example of an artist or creative writer and how he had just written what he had had to write, and then he was still around. In his last novel, he portrayed himself, or perhaps betrayed himself, and had his protagonist go out to sea one last time, then leap over at the end because he had done his duty. It’s not that for me because I have a family, a really good family, and it’s a lifesaver.

I have been working on one piece that is called in English Memoirs of an Angel and it’s subtitled “Remembering Life.” Isn’t that intriguing? I’ve had sufficient time to come up with the right thing to say. I have voluminous notes, a huge folder, that began about 20 years ago. I had to do it on video because it’s the only camera I had at the time. I haven’t the money for film, and I don’t really have the energy to do the heavy kind of energy that I love to do.

In French, the title is Les Mémoires d’un Ange. Partly why I’m using French is because I’ve been doing several video pieces that are of less importance. In later years, simplifying becomes the code and issue of the artist’s pallet. It’s apparently part of nature, and I’ve observed this about myself, in my preferences and tendencies. I also don’t have the energy to make an enormous film. I’ve made several little films, some are on my YouTube site. Part 1 of Memoirs of an Angel is on there. It’s meant to be 3 parts. There is also an entr’acte – the intermission – which is one of my best pieces of work. It runs about 10 minutes and is in there.

That is one thing that is in the works. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it. It’s only video, and I hoped that it would be able to be transferred to 35 mm, but not HD. Some of it is found material, kind of like Bruce Connors’ work, newsreels. I do a whole part on the World War II era because that’s when I was born. As a substitute for not making these creative films, my mind comes up with creative jargon. I like to speak publicly. My creative side gets a release.

I have a project called Les Papiers (The Papers). It alludes to when Stanford came and picked up my papers a few years ago. I recorded it, and I have some very nice footage of the locker where I had stored 34 boxes of this personal archivery. I decided to do it all in French. I had been listening to the Saturday French-Canadian broadcasting, listening to old music like Edith Piaf, and I’d record it. It will show letters that are now in Stanford’s collection. I shot a letter from Will Handle. He’s one of the most wonderful filmmakers of the ‘60s. He and I used to work together a lot. I would just do chores for him and work through tapes. We worked for CBS together for a while running up and down the coast. There’s a letter from Chick Strand from Mexico. A lot of letters from Stan Brakhage. Right now I’m talking with the new director of the Brakhage center about papers from him.

I’m also doing some preservational work. I have lots of notes.

I am going to propose to a foundation soon something called the Holy Scrolls which is an idea, a title given by our old friend Paul Arthur, a film critic and professor at Bard College. It is a collection of 11 hours of excerpts of all the unfinished films that I’ve worked on in the past years. I’ve cut it together. It’s work print all spliced together, that I spliced together in this very room. We have one that is entitled The Cardinal’s Visit that is the last film that I shot in the ‘80s. Holy Scrolls is awaiting digitization as soon as can get financing.

I have all kinds of audio and video tapes lying about me, in front of my eyes, in the works.

 

An artist and film visionary, avant-garde filmmaker Brucer Baillie founded Canyon Cinema in collaboration with Chick Strand in 1961, and influenced generations of filmmakers and experimental artists, ranging from George Lucas to Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Baillie lives with his family on Camino Island, Washington. (Bio by Steve Anker, Bérénice Reynaud.)

 

Castro Street is part of the Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970 collection, now available on Blu-ray/DVD.

 

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11.11.2015
 

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