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Bruce Baillie, catalytic avant-garde filmmaker, dies at 88
Bruce Baillie, Castro Street, 1966.

by J. Hoberman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Bruce Baillie, who personified the Bay Area experimental cinema of the 1960s as an independent filmmaker and consummate 16-millimeter craftsman whose most extraordinary movie is a single panning shot, died Friday at his home on Camano Island, Washington. He was 88.

His wife, Lorie Baillie, confirmed the death.

A catalytic figure in the development of West Coast avant-garde film, Baillie became known in the mid-1960s for his lyrical landscape films — one of which, “Castro Street” (1966), was selected for the National Film Registry in 1992 — as well as for his anguished considerations of the landscape’s despoliation in films like “Mass” (1964) and “Quixote” (1965).

Six of his movies, including those three, are regularly screened by Anthology Film Archives in New York as part of the institution’s “essential cinema.” Filmmakers as varied as George Lucas and Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul have cited Baillie’s work as an inspiration.

A native Westerner, Baillie dedicated “Mass,” a grim montage of contemporary California, to the Dakota Sioux, and he cast himself as a cowboy in his quasi-autobiographical “Quick Billy” (1970). Anticipating attitudes popularized by the hippie counterculture, he could have been a character from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

“Quixote,” a densely edited collage, was made while Baillie was living out of a Volkswagen bug, traveling from west to east during the same summer that Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters made a similar, if more drug-addled, journey, as recounted by Tom Wolfe in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (1968). Baillie’s fellow avant-gardist filmmaker Jonas Mekas, who died last year, described “Quixote” in The Village Voice as “visionary.”

Baillie was an apostle of meditation, not LSD. “Quixote” was edited while he was living in a shed at the Morning Star Ranch, a commune in Sonoma County, California, that Time magazine described as “perhaps the most hopeful development in the hippie philosophy to date.”

“I want to discover true American themes, the images that lay closest to the hearts of our citizens,” Baillie told a reporter in 1962. But he also looked across the Pacific for inspiration. (“Bruce Baillie lives his Zen,” poet and fellow West Coast filmmaker James Broughton once wrote.)

Critic P. Adams Sitney, who wrote of Baillie at length in his study of American avant-garde cinema, “Visionary Film” (1974), noted that “the oriental ‘saint’ in a fusion of Zen, Tao and Confucian traditions is the first of the heroes proposed by Baillie’s cinema.” “Quick Billy,” which Baillie made after a near-fatal bout of hepatitis, was a mock western based in part on “The Tibetan Book of the Dead.”

“The effect of Baillie’s films is to make the viewer feel that any moment of the viewing, any single image he is looking at, is a mere illusion that will soon vanish,” critic Fred Camper wrote in “International Dictionary of Film and Filmmakers.”

“The sensuousness of the light and colors only heighten one’s awareness of their unreality,” he added. “It is as if there is a void, a nothingness, that lies behind all things.”

Baillie was born Sept. 24, 1931, in Aberdeen, South Dakota, to Gladys and E. Kenneth Baillie. His father, a sculptor, taught art at Northern State Teachers College (now Northern State College). Baillie graduated from high school in 1949 and, after serving in the Navy during the Korean War, studied art at the University of Minnesota and the University of California at Berkeley. He went on to study filmmaking at the London School of Film Technique.

On his return to California in 1960, Baillie began making short films while supporting himself as a longshoreman and living in Canyon, an unincorporated town in the Berkeley Hills. There he helped start the Canyon Cinema Co-op, a distribution center for avant-garde films that was born when Baillie began showing films, including his own, for friends and neighbors on a sheet hung between two trees in his backyard. The screenings, which offered free wine and popcorn, soon moved to Berkeley.

“We’d show a cartoon, a newsreel, then slip in some experimental films,” Baillie’s partner in the cooperative, filmmaker Chick Strand, recalled. The audience, which included critic Pauline Kael among other local movie enthusiasts, was “all friends, artists, academics, crazies,” Strand wrote.

“It was a party,” she added, “but very quiet, very joyful.”

Children and pets were welcome. “It was not just a showing; it was also a little tribal assemblage,” according to novelist Ernest Callenbach, a Canyon regular who founded and edited the journal Film Quarterly and who also hosted screenings in his backyard.

By 1963, the Canyon Cinema shows were being held across the bay in the North beach area of San Francisco, where attendees included the young George Lucas. (Decades later, one of Lucas’ charitable foundations would help fund the digital transfer of Baillie’s films.)

The North Beach screenings were the basis for what would become the San Francisco Cinematheque. Baillie had helped found a Canyon Cinema newsletter to further publicize the work that Canyon distributed. He later taught filmmaking at Rice University in Houston, Bard College in New York state and Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

His last years were spent on Camano Island in a house that had belonged to his parents, with whom he remained close. “All the films and my life are thanks to my mother, Gladys, and my father, E. Kenneth Baillie,” Baillie told an interviewer in 1989.

Baillie married Lorie Apit, a native of the Philippines, in 1986. In addition to her, he is survived by their two children, Wind Gwladys Baillie and Keith Kenneth Baillie.

From the 1970s on, Baillie used video as well as film, working on a number of open-ended serial or multipart, often memoiristic films, including “Roslyn Romance,” “The Holy Scrolls” and “Les Memoires d’un Ange (Remembering Life).” For many critics, however, his finest films were his most concentrated, which often focused on a single location.

“Castro Street,” which Baillie said was inspired by composer Erik Satie, was filmed across the bay from San Francisco on a thoroughfare running through an industrial area of Richmond, California. The movie is a 10-minute technical tour de force, combining black-and-white and color film as well as positive and negative images, often superimposed, to transfigure a wasteland of oil refineries, factories and railroad yards into what Callenbach called “a flowing lyric poem.”

Baillie created some of the effects in the camera and others at the editing table. The fluid visual rhythms are complemented by a soundtrack of abstracted industrial noises.

Baillie’s gift for sound design was exemplified by the bright-hued and clamorous “Valentin de las Sierras” (1967), a 10-minute film shot in Jalisco, Mexico, with a hand-held 16-millimeter camera. A vivid succession of often extreme close-ups is structured around the well-known Mexican corrido, or ballad, for which the movie is named.

Writing about “Valentin” in the magazine Cinema Scope, critic Chuck Stephens called it “a sun-drenched hallucination” in which “a plaintively strummed rendition of the corrido fuses with the ambient burble and swell all around it; the camera alights on the carved, fish-headed cane of the blind and weathered singer; sunlight dances on the bare knee of a child. We hear what we see, though always slightly dis-aligned and carefully re-intertwined.”

One of Baillie’s most beloved films was also among his simplest. “All My Life” (1966), characterized by Mekas as a “koan,” appears to be a two-and-a-half-minute lateral tracking shot along a worn straight picket fence overgrown with wildflowers and occasional rose bushes.

“The shot — and the film — lasts as long as it takes for Ella Fitzgerald to sing the song of the film’s title,” Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times in 2011. The film, she added, “ends with a pan up to the sky, a gesture that is an ecstatic punctuation mark on a film revelation.”

The fence is real, but the straightness of it is an illusion; at one point the camera pans by a right-angle corner of it concealed by a rose bush, though the viewer is unaware of the change in direction. As Sitney wrote after viewing the film more than 100 times, Baillie’s “genius consisted in realizing that there must be a single point in which to plant his tripod so that the panning movement would seem to keep the fence equidistant at all its moments.”

Baillie lived his Zen.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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