All His Life

Ed Halter on Bruce Baillie

Left: Bruce Baillie, Castro Street, 1966, still from a black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 10 minutes. Right: Filmmaker Bruce Baillie with artist Bruce Conner in July 2001. Photo: Abraham Ravett.

A METAPHYSICAL POET of film’s postwar avant-garde, Bruce Baillie fuses inner and outer space through a sensuous manipulation of photographic surfaces. In Castro Street (1966), images of chuffing trains peel off from physical reality like shed skins, remarried in carefully fluid superimpositions, and set to a soundscape that combines machine noises with natural murmurs. Juxtaposing rich 16-mm color stock with high-contrast black-and-white lends a ghostly air to the massive engines, occasionally punctuated by makeshift iris mattes created by Baillie’s hands cupping his camera’s lens. He achieves a similarly oneiric quality in Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1963–64), again deploying deft multilayering, this time of eerily wordless city life alternated with observational moments that quiver on the edge of symbolism: A bearded biker charging across the Bay Bridge evokes fantasies of lost prairie warriors. A dreamlike synesthesia emerges more strongly in Tung (1966), a brief, ecstatic portrait of a female dancer set against a shifting pool of distorted organic colors.

Calling these lyric late-Beat films proto-psychedelic wouldn’t be far off. Baillie contributed significantly to the emergence of a distinctly West Coast sensibility in American experimental cinema of the 1960s and ’70s, one more unabashedly spiritual and lush than the scene’s frenetic New York contemporaries. He helped establish the long-standing Bay Area distributor Canyon Cinema and inspired a younger generation of filmmakers like Will Hindle and Scott Bartlett. Today, Jennifer Reeves and others cite his influence.

Now Baillie has made Castro Street, Mass, and Tung available on a self-published, limited-edition DVD, the first volume of a planned three. Baillie reports that their production was aided by a grant from one of George Lucas’s charitable foundations—and not coincidentally. Lucas first became interested in filmmaking by attending Baillie’s early Canyon Cinema screenings as a teenager. The disk contains two other films: All My Life (1966), an enigmatically minimal one-shot set to the song by Ella Fitzgerald, and Valentin de las Sierras (1968), a quasi-ethnographic portrait of rural Mexico told through intimate close-ups of hands, faces, tools, and other details, Baillie’s camera searching physical surfaces to elicit a more immaterial experience.

A collection of Bruce Baillie’s films has been released as a limited-edition DVD. For more details, click here.