Full Aperture: 16mm films by Bruce Baillie

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 09/01/2017

The films of Bay Area filmmaker Bruce Baillie, especially those made in the 1960s and 1970s, are legendary – visually stunning and multifaceted, richly exploratory, and still-relevant, highly personal expressions of nuanced ideas about the world. Baillie was also one of the founders of Canyon Cinema, one of the most important archives in the U.S. for experimental and artist film, which would on its own make his personal contribution to American film indispensable.

But the films of the octogenarian continue to grow in stature, and we’re thrilled to open fall 2017 Full Aperture series with a program of five Baillie films on 16mm:

Tung (1966, 5m, color/B&W, silent)
Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1964, 20m, B&W, sound)
Valentin de las Sierras (1968, 10m, color, sound)
Castro Street (1966, 10m, color/B&W, sound)
Roslyn Romance (Is It Really True?) (1974, 17m, color, sound)

Baillie’s films are often described as poetic and socially engaged. This is not simply to say that they’re abstract or political or socially conscious; even Baillie’s choice of titles matter-of-factly insist on engaging with socially meaningful subjects. The full meaning of these descriptors is far more personal: the filmmaker is figuring out how, and what it means, to engage fully with his surroundings.* As a result, as New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis wrote about Castro Street in a review of Baillie’s 2016 partial retrospective at Lincoln Center, “the line between place and head space dissolves.”

Castro Street, probably Baillie’s best-known film, was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1992. The actual look and rhythm of Castro Street is stunning, its complex process yielding a multilayered, intense moving poem. In all his films, Baillie’s style is organic and rhythmically fluid, shares a casual intimacy with its subjects, and moves easily amidst a wide variety of filmmaking approaches, experiments, and impulses. He mixes conventional technique with distortions of focus, framing, and image capture.

Scott MacDonald’s essay on Castro Street for the Library of Congress articulates why Baillie’s subject, filmmaking choices, and process all wrestle with themes that are perhaps even more relevant now than at the time the film was made. Seeking to express how post-WWII industrialization both dramatically expanded the American spirit and killed off the environment that nurtured it, Baillie resists extolling nature or resolving the split between environment and industry. Instead, he “accepts and explores the liminal zone between nature and culture that makes modern life possible.”

Although the tension between these two forces is present in myriad ways, acceptance – of the innate separateness between humans and nature, of the brutality of culture – is just as palpable in Baillie’s films, which offer the consolation of art and empathy while shedding light on the conditions that make hardship ubiquitous. (TB)

Screens on September 16, 2017 at the New Orleans Photo Alliance gallery.

* Read this engaging recent interview on Baillie’s life during this period, including the story behind Quick Billy (not shown in this program).

Upcoming Screenings