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Bruce Baillie.
Bruce Baillie.

Bruce Baillie (1931–2020)

Bruce Baillie, a key figure of the New American Cinema whose scintillating films combine evanescent lyricism with incisive social awareness, has died at age eighty-eight. The director was, with Chick Strand, the cofounder of Canyon Cinema, the vital Bay Area distributor established in 1961 that evolved from a backyard screening series to include the nonprofit San Francisco Cinematheque. Alongside artists such as Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, and Jack Smith, Baillie is considered a pioneer of avant-garde cinema and is best known for his 16-mm experimental documentaries, made in the ’60s and ’70s, that reenvision the American landscape through formal invention.

“A metaphysical poet of film’s postwar avant-garde, Bruce Baillie fuses inner and outer space through a sensuous manipulation of photographic surfaces,” wrote Ed Halter in a 2009 Artforum survey of Baillie’s work, which includes Castro Street (1966), Tung (1966), and Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1963–64). The latter, a haunting requiem and tribute to the Sioux tribe, espoused the innovative montage-superimpositions found in much of Baillie’s cinema. The synaptic Tung shows a female friend dancing for five minutes, her negative black-and-white “bright shadow” moving against a backdrop of shifting iridescence. “Calling these lyric late-Beat films proto-psychedelic wouldn’t be far off,” Halter wrote. “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.”

Baillie was born in 1931 in Aberdeen, South Dakota; served in the US Navy during the Korean War; and studied filmmaking at the London School of Film Technique, eventually settling in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’50s. He began making his first movie in 1960, and the next year he launched Canyon Cinema, modeled after the New York Film-Makers Cooperative. “Immediately I realized that making films and showing films must go hand in hand, so I got a job at Safeway, took out a loan and bought a projector,” he said in an interview with Scott MacDonald. 

The impetus behind his three-minute, Ella Fitzgerald–soundtracked short All My Life (1966), which slowly pans on a wooden picket fence framed by blue skies and red roses, was “the quality of the light for three summer days” on the Northern California coastline. After days of admiring the light, he and a friend had started driving back to San Francisco, when suddenly he decided, “No, I cannot turn my back on this!” and took out his tripod. Baillie was once described by avant-garde film scholar P. Adams Sitney as the “acknowledged master of a cinema in which objects and landscapes release their inherent energy.” Baillie put it another way: “How does one document the invisible? The affairs of the soul, the troubled affairs of the soul in this case—the ‘in transit’—how do you record that?”