Bruce Baillie (1931–2020)

Bruce Baillie, 2019. Photo: Timoleon Wilkins.

FOR AN AVANT-GARDE FILMMAKER born in the 1930s, Bruce Baillie came late to cinema, but his manner belied his background—a BA from the University of Minnesota, naval service in the Korean War, even an abortive stint at the London School of Film Technique (now the London Film School). Like Saint Francis, whom he so admired, he cultivated poverty, even if it didn’t come naturally to him. He adapted the manner of a college dropout, living in a tent, in communes, or in friends’ homes when he wasn’t with his generous middle-class parents. Had he not encountered, near the start of his career, Stan Brakhage’s work just when Brakhage was entering his astonishing maturity as a filmmaker, we might not now be mourning Baillie as the great master of lyrical cinema.

Baillie exhibited his first films in his backyard in the Bay Area town of Canyon. When Chick Strand joined his efforts, they moved their traveling shows to Berkeley and San Francisco, inspired by what Jonas Mekas was doing in New York. Unlike the Art in Cinema screenings of filmmaker Frank Stauffacher, initiated there in the ’40s, and the Camera Obscura of Larry Jordan and Bruce Conner in the ’50s, Canyon Cinema caught on and expanded into a distribution outlet, a newsletter, and eventually a cinematheque. But neither Baillie nor Strand had Mekas’s endurance or stomach for institutional politics. They left Canyon Cinema in the capable hands of Edith Kramer. Both became better filmmakers after that.

Baillie was the first major filmmaker to mine Brakhage’s visual rhetoric. Eventually, he came into his own by repudiating Brakhagian montage. Instead, he found a way to amplify his mentor’s lush color imagery, with long shots (All My Life, Still Life, the “rolls” of Quick Billy) and, more frequently, by inventing new methods for fluid transitions between layers of color and black-and-white negatives. From 1963 to 1971, he made a series of mysteriously evanescent film lyrics of Keatsian richness (To Parsifal, Quixote, Tung, Castro Street, Valentin de las Sierras). Then, while making Quick Billy, his longest film, a near-fatal case of hepatitis left him debilitated, self-consciously composing his own epitaph: “Ever Westward, Eternal Rider.”

Bruce Baillie, All My Life, 1966, 16 mm, color, sound, 2 minutes 45 seconds.

Baillie survived to teach briefly at Rice University, Bard College, and Evergreen State College. Academia wasn’t for him; he made his Bard students collect the refuse on campus and preached the value of cereal diets. He stayed on as a squatter for some years until Bard’s President Botstein offered to make him a permanent artist-in-residence. Baillie responded with an outrageous list of “nonnegotiable demands” and decamped.

At Bard, his automobile was an emblem of his contradictions, for he had replaced his earlier signature jalopies with a Mercedes. These contradictions were likewise visible in many of his best films, which glorified a life of poverty while decrying consumer culture. Still, he could not resist showing us the exquisite radiance he saw in the machinery of industrialization. No avant-garde filmmaker before or since had such an eye for beauty. 

P. Adams Sitney is the author, most recently, of The Cinema of Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2015).