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Reappearing Fireflies: Bruce Baillie in Vienna

Ideas of life and community are transformed into sounds, colors & film by the American avant-garde filmmaker and his company Canyon Cinema.
Bruce Baillie
Bruce Baillie. Courtesy of LUX.
The first time he saw Bruce Baillie, a fiery Peter Kubelka recounted in front of an amused audience at the Austrian Film Museum, the American filmmaker was pulling off a headstand in a classroom before taking his students out on the campus to collect garbage. In the filmmaking of Baillie and his organization Canyon Cinema, which was showcased from January 30 to February 3 in five programs curated by Garbiñe Ortega, ideas of life and community are transformed into sounds, colors and film. Sometimes those ideas exceed the films. As Mr. Baillie has put it himself in an interview with Richard Corliss in 1971, “I always felt that I brought as much truth out of the environment as I could, but I’m tired of coming out of. . . . I want everybody really lost, and I want us all to be at home there. Something like that. Actually I am not interested in that, but I mean that’s what you could do. Lots of people would like it. I have to say finally what I am interested in, like Socrates: peace . . . rest . . . nothing.“
Cinema, for Baillie, is a form of anarchy, a way to escape, a way not only to see the world but to live in it. For me today, as a young friend of the cinema, such a thought seems like a utopia. But in fact, Baillie and Canyon Cinema are filmmaking islands that are still alive, proving wrong the common thought that all utopias of the 1960s are buried under the capitalistic wave that followed. There is a closeness to everything beautiful, the little poetry of daily life that makes Baillie’s films a captivating presence on the screen. His films are meditations fueled with many different influences and Kodachrome splendor. Sometimes his cinema just drifts along like the water skaters he loves to film. It is like Baillie’s camera were the eyes of a water skater and the world is the water. He floats with it, then suddenly jumps, works with it, works against it, until in the end he sometimes pans over his own name. It comes as no surprise that Mr. Baillie wrote in one of the notes accompanying his films that he wants to be a prentice to the sea. There is no real formal rigor, no strive for perfection, rather a relaxed grabbiness, a feeling of being alive even when the hepatitis-sick filmmaker finds images for death, like in some moments of his should-be (if wasn’t it for the silly fourth roll silent Western spoof) magnum opus Quick Billy (1971).   
Kubelka, who was invited to the cinema he created as a guest speaker during the retrospective, is not particularly fond of Baillie’s filmmaking. He dislikes the lack of perfection and work and puts it, in a rather old fashioned way but not without irony, as something very true to a Californian lifestyle. For him, Baillie doesn’t reach the quality of other American avant-garde luminaries like  Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger or Stan Brakhage. Indeed, films like Have you Thought of Talking to the Director (1962), Here I Am (1962) or Roslyn Romance (Is it Really True?) (1977) are weaker efforts. In those films the floating beauty is hidden behind too much playing around. Furthermore, Baillie’s use of music in those works—unlike in films like To Parsifal (1963) or the magnificent Valentin de las Sierras (1971)—doesn’t trust the melodies inherent to the images. Kubelka understands Baillie as an important figure who knows how to sell himself and who followed Jonas Mekas’ East Coast example and created some venues on the West Coast that made and make it possible to survive, to live as a filmmaker in what Kubelka doesn’t want to be understood as the experimental field. A passionate and charismatic reformer, Baillie was the co-founder of Canyon Cinema and the San Francisco Cinematheque which started as a floating cinematheque behind his house. As Scott MacDonald writes in his amazing book, Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor, the idea for it was born as a response to "repressive and conformist tendencies of mainstream media" in the 1960s. The first screenings were sort of spiritual gatherings. Local films were shown, Baillie presented his own work, people were drinking and eating and the audience members could win a pie Baillie had made himself. As MacDonald writes, the way of making films was in a way related to their showing with Baillie. The same can be said of Kubelka, of course, and if one compares the two approaches of showing films one can easily see why the Austrian cinema legend and architect of the Invisible Cinema, in which the experience of a film is more important than the social experience, is not along the same line as Baillie. Kubelka even warned the audience before the screening of Quick Billy: “Don’t watch it with European eyes!“
Quixote. Courtesy of the Austrian Film Musuem.
The second program of the retrospective, titled “Let’s Not Be So Serious About Art,“ was almost an insult in a cinema that is very, very serious about film. It combined different works related to the communal experience at and around the distributor Canyon Cinema beginning with James Broughton’s The Bed (1968) and ending with an excerpt of Peter Hutton’s stunningly beautiful July '71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon (1971). What was wrong about it? First, showing an excerpt of a film is a delicate matter. It is what happens in today’s curatorial world in which an individual film sometimes is not considered as important as some aspects of it, its combination with other films. Would a curator in an art museum hang half a painting? Maybe; I am not sure—but I don’t think it is a good idea. Kubelka was always a champion of leaving the single film untouched. Though one can easily see counter-arguments, one must at least reflect this question. Is such a program to be considered a pedagogical venture? The reason for the excerpt is clear: Only this part of Hutton’s film relates to Canyon Cinema. In the excerpt one could also see a scene in a cinema in which another film of the program was projected, Anne Severson’s River Body (1971) . This moment plays like a funny incident without any meaning.  
Except for Hutton’s extract all the works in the program spoke more about the experience of making film. One could clearly feel the communal vibes, the joy of living on the screen, rather than speaking about cinema. No such thing can be said about a film like Unsere Afrikareise (1966) although the images of Kubelka in the films of Jonas Mekas are not so far from an idea of cinema as a life(style). Yet, does such a joy, such a lived utopia translate into our time, for our “European eyes,“ when the films projected are rather feeble? Angel Blue Sweet Wings (1966) by Chick Strand, L.A. Carwash (1975) by Janis Crystal Lipzin and Big Sur: The Ladies (1966) by Lawrence Jordan didn’t connect in any cinematic way and none of them left a lasting or any impression. Of course, programming short films that are connected to a certain institution is a difficult task, but the selection made by Ortega (with the help of Baillie) did not necessarily do justice to Canyon Cinema and the filmmakers working under its name. This leads to the very last film of the retrospective in a program with the title “American Inner Landscape.“ It was Will Hindle’s Pastorale d’été (1958), a lyrical and musical (composed by Arthur Honegger ) reflection on a summer’s day. Hindle, who was a friend of Baillie’s, uses music a bit too easily, just like Baillie in his weaker efforts. However, the real problem of having this film in the end after the projection of Quick Billy and the Quick Billy Rolls 14, 41, 43, 46, 52, is that it plays like an arrogant catharsis and a lazy strive for harmony. The ideas of communal experience and poetry very evident in the retrospective and a lot of Baillie’s films are almost betrayed by such a conclusion. Pastorale d’été asserts its own beauty in an intolerable way and the program jumps on that wagon. It is like making an audience blind after giving them a chance to open their eyes.    
Nevertheless, little fireflies were clearly visible in the Invisible Cinema during those days. In one of his last texts Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote that “the fireflies disappear.“ There is a poetic and a political side to that quote. Both sides speak about the same thing, let’s call it light—after all, light is very important in cinema. Those fireflies reappear with Baillie’s films in a form of dialogue, juxtaposition and a sense for beauty that touches the sublime. The dialogue with other filmmakers was highlighted in a great program on the correspondence between Baillie and Brakhage. Alternating between the films of the two filmmakers the program talked about influences, inspirations and a common hunger to work on perception, abstraction and cinematic landscapes. P. Adams Sitney has written on how Baillie is an heir to Brakhage’s mode of lyrical cinema. Yet, one of the most fascinating questions concerning the joint encounter of their films was: Where do you make a film? Answers vary from gardens to streets and the filmstrip itself. Their cinema proposes new ways of looking, like in Brakhage’s The Wonder Ring (1955) or Baillie’s Castro Street (1966). Both films deal with streets but instead of focusing on the stories or the photographic qualities of the places, they take on the rhythms of movement, the eruptions of change and dreamlike incidents captured in sound, images and superimpositions. It is not that the films don’t address problems, quite the opposite: they just try to address them with a language of their own. It is a beautiful language of light that may also talk about shadows.
Especially in terms of sound fusions Baillie creates landscapes that provoke grace and beauty but also lost illusions and pain. The standout film of the retrospective was Quixote (1965), a film like a song, as much about decay as about love. The density of image and sound editing recalls the feeling of loss which today a filmmaker like Bill Morrison creates. It is not infused with the certainty of loss yet, it is more like a search in the dark, a search, like program’s title proposed, “for the heroic.“ In mesmerizing 16mm we get drawn into the United States in the middle of the 1960s. Nowhere the eye of the camera rests is anything to be found. No heroes, no promised paradise. Quixote (who might be the lost hero or Baillie himself) just keeps on searching and has a very unique way of mixing the personal with the epic. It is a beautiful, touching and threatening film of dreams that didn’t come true. The dreams still feel very alive here, but the consistent idea of people ignoring those dreams and ideals works like a disturbance which might just kill all those water skaters.
A similar feeling arises in Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1964), where a man dies on the street with no reactions by any passer-by. In showing how dreams don’t come true Baillie also claims a reaction. Quixote doesn’t preach what is wrong about America, it just sings about it and opens up a space for something else, a space and time for a reaction. A few years earlier, in one of the so-called news items for Canyon Cinema, Baillie has had another take on heroes. He found one in the Japanese gardener Mr. Hayashi and the titular 1961 short portrait he made about the man. It is filmed in a way that almost is reminiscent of contemporary Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa: Low-angle shots, patience and a resistance to what would be considered the usual way of portraying such a person. The film gives Mr. Hayashi a voice. It declares him a hero because it says “Everyone can be a hero in cinema.” Real heroes might be found gardening or collecting garbage on the campus. Sometimes in cinema one can find ideas about life. Ideas about how things should be like. Yet, one must be careful, as we know of Quixote’s friend Miguel de Cervantes:  “It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.” In this regard it is very fitting that Kubelka started his talk stating that he is not a historian. Here, he and Bruce Baillie meet, in cinema and life how it should have been, even if it was very different from each other.

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