Ever-moving, ever-changing — that’s the cinema of Bruce Baillie. “Ever westward, eternal rider!” reads the final title card in his epic, “Quick Billy” (1970). The journey is the thing that’s constant in his cinema and working methods. Although based in the West Coast, Baillie is a peripatetic filmmaker, traveling across the US, searching for footage to use in his dense, montage-based films. A Baillie film is a quest for beauty in the natural world and in the everyday.
Baillie’s work is often screened in avant-garde programs. And rightly so; he’s one of the titans of 20th-century American experimental cinema, along with Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger, and Jack Smith, among others. It’s a pleasant surprise, then, to see Film Society of Lincoln Center’s flagship nonfiction series, Art of the Real, dedicate an entire sidebar to his work, thanks to programmer Garbiñe Ortega. It’s not for nothing that critics tend to call his work “poetic documentaries.” The smokestacks at an oil refinery, bugs gliding across water, grass blowing in the wind — Baillie takes these images from life and transforms them, combining them in his multilayered and lyrical films.
Baillie has always drawn from his life and the life around him for his work. His early films, showcased in program one, belong to a series, The News, created specifically for the traveling exhibitions organized by the iconic Canyon Cinema, which Baillie and Chick Strand formed in the Bay Area in 1961. Shot on outdated, reversal, black-and-white 16mm film, the newsreels in this series were not only poetic, but also political. Talking to Scott MacDonald in his A Critical Cinema 2, Baillie said, “The news itself would sometimes be the guys laying some pipe somewhere, mundane information, or it might be a totally cinematic piece.” One of Baillie’s contributions to the series, “Mass for Dakota Sioux” (1964), is one of these totally cinematic pieces.
Baillie conceived “Mass” as a response to the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But it’s also partly a tribute to the Native Americans, particularly the Lakota Sioux, and partly a tribute to poets, namely Jean Cocteau. The film is completely a time capsule to 1960s American society. At once haunting and meditative, “Mass,” like the majority of Baillie’s work, is an assemblage of found and filmed footage flowing into each other, thanks to his exquisite use of multiple exposures. Few rival Baillie when it comes to rich usage of superimpositions. A televisual Eisenhower switches to a man promoting orange juice. People march down streets in the bombastic pomp of a national parade, which is juxtaposed with the white, cookie-cutter, and prefabricated houses of suburbia. Baillie mourns the Sioux by depicting the ills of US society.
Made a year later, “Quixote” (1965) complements “Mass.” They’re both political works that critique US culture. Being named after Cervantes’s famed character, “Quixote” also accentuates the heroic theme that continually runs throughout Baillie’s work. It’s even in “Mass,” amidst the swarm of footage, as an outlaw figure rides a motorcycle across a bridge. And like “Mass,” “Quixote” is absorptive, but even more so. It seems to cover everything: racism, oppression, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, mainstream and official (white) culture. The mix-and-match collaging occurs at the audio level too. Akin to flipping through radio stations, one hears news, ads, jazz, and Charles Ives. At one point, Barry Goldwater’s famous (bone-headed) line, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” emanates from the soundtrack as Baillie repeatedly shoots and manipulates an ad of the politician, who’s a spectral figure in this Quixotic and chaotic adventure through the US.
With “Quick Billy,” Baillie moves from an outer to an inner journey — inner visions, if you will. Lasting 56 minutes and split into four parts for four reels, the film is partly inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. “Quick Billy” begins with the orange-yellow glow of the sun. “That opening is supposed to be the highest moment of illumination in the whole work,” Baillie told MacDonald. “I was following the Tibetan description of the time between life and death, and that’s either the illumined memory of perfection or the illumined moment of discovery.” From this initial image, Quick Billy morphs from hypnotic abstraction to, unexpectedly, narrative, becoming a parody of a Western silent film, complete with sepia tinting and iris shots.
Baillie’s superimpositions reach new heights with “Quick Billy”. So textured and thick are the overlapping images that figures (a horse’s eye, ocean waves, the blonde hair on someone’s head) seem to emerge miraculously from the pulsating, collaged scenes, before becoming indistinguishable again from the colors dancing across the screen. In one of many moments of exhilaration, a turbulent red ocean turns green. A woman slowly walks into a breaking wave, which oh-so-gradually morphs into the close-up of Baillie’s face.
Superimpositions are nowhere to be seen in “All My Life” (1966), a film made between “Quixote” and “Quick Billy.” Next to Castro Street (1966), it’s Baillie’s most well known work. One of his movie movies, that is to say, a movie without any agenda save for the exploration of the cinematic medium, “All My Life” is simple — and that’s where its beauty lies. Lasting the duration of Ella Fitzgerald’s eponymous song, which plays on the soundtrack, Baillie pans across an unloved, brown, uneven picket fence that’s behind a series of lush rose bushes. Near the end of the song, and near the end of the film, the pan transitions to a tilt as the camera captures telephone wires against a deep blue sky. In the program’s excellent notes — which come from an amalgam of sources such as Ortega’s interviews with Baillie, The Canyon Cinema News, and MoMA Film Notes — Baillie says “the result [was] to take an aspect of reality, sift it through the creative Mind, and produce a singular, joyous event!” Is this not the credo of a filmmaker who takes the raw material of the world and transmutes it into poetry?
All My Life: The Films of Bruce Baillie screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (70 Lincoln Center Plaza, Upper West Side, Manhattan) April 9–April 16. For more information, visit the Art of the Real. Bruce Baillie will be in attendance at Programs 1,2, & 3 on Saturday, April 9 and Sunday, April 10 for Q&As.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Bruce Baillie was based in the East Coast when he is based in the West. This has been fixed.