On April 10, 2020 our friend Bruce Baillie passed away. The world lost a filmmaker, widely hailed as a master of 16mm personal filmmaking, whose works epitomize the “lyrical” mode of filmmaking strongly identified with ‘60s era northern California counterculture. Ivan Martinac, one of the key figures of Croatian avantgarde and underground film scene devoted his House on the Sand” to the Baillie’s short Mass for the Dakota Sioux, and Baillie’s works are part of the film curriculum at the Academy of Arts in Split.
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.
Born in 1931 in Aberdeen, South Dakota and educated at the University of Minnesota, the University of California at Berkeley and the London School of Film Technique, Baillie began making films in 1961 with On Sundays, The Gymnasts, and the three-minute “cinematic haiku” entitled Mr. Hayashi, a black-and-white film of the Japanese gardener at work. This work also functioned as an advertisement for the film society collective Canyon Cinema, of which Baillie was a co-founder. The natural and intimate pictorial handling of Mr. Hayashi is characteristic of all of Baillie’s work, especially the deeply moving Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1963-1964) which, even though it employs complex imagery moving on different simultaneous planes and a mysterious soundtrack by avant-gardist Gordon Mumma, still projects an honesty and gripping empathetic sense of the real-life situations of people who live in Baillie’s birth state. Bruce Baillie’s innovative films grab the viewer with eloquent and rich imagery as well as a heartfelt humanism and concern for his subjects expressed through a lyrical sensibility.
Richness of imagery also characterizes Baillie’s other works of the ’60s, such as Quixote (1964-1965, rev. 1967, 45 minutes), Castro Street (1966), and Tung (1966, five minutes), which frequently mix color with positive and negative black-and-white. By way of conceptual contrast, there are the brief structuralist studies All My Life (1966, three minutes) and Still Life (1966, two minutes) which still evince a deep spirituality. Works of the 1970s and 1980s include Quick Billy (1967-1970, 60 minutes), Roslyn Romance (Is It Really True?) (1971-1984), and The Cardinal’s Visit (1981-1986). Baillie’s pieces have been created on video, including The P-38 Pilot (1990) and Commute (1995, 60 minutes).
“Ever Westward, Eternal Rider”, reads the final title of Quick Billy, his longest film, composing his own epitaph.
Mass for the Dakota Sioux, 1964, 20′
Tung, 1966, 5′
Castro Street, 1966, 10′
All My Life, 1966, 2’40”