Recently, on the occasion of the Venice Biennial of 2015, Jonas Mekas covered all the windows of the only Burger King of the Italian city with a transparent film plotted with reproductions of hundreds of frames of his diary films, transforming one of the strangest places for a city like Venice into a church. In the place of stained-glass, film; and in a contemporary version of the saints, filmmakers, critics, artists and their families. As I looked in fascination at that church and the lives of those saints to whom I felt much closer than those painted by Ticiano, Tintoretto or Bellini in neighboring churches, I found myself thinking of Bruce Baillie. Like Mekas, Baillie had been a catalyzing force, or one of the divine breaths (to continue in the Christian vocabulary) necessary for the flowering of that community, the life of which could now be crossed by that Venetian light. At two opposite points of the United States, one in New York and the other in San Francisco, they founded the country’s two principal experimental film distribution cooperatives, Film-maker’s Coop and Canyon Cinema, which proved to be a decisive step towards fostering, inspiring, and uniting artists who at that point had begun to experiment with and investigate film in an unarticulated and solitary way.
The similarities, however, ended there, as while Mekas transformed the battle for underground cinema into a struggle to be engaged on all fronts of the good or pure against evil (industry, censorship, stablishment), in which there were saints and monks, Bruce Baillie simply hung a sign on his home door with the words “Canyon Cinema” and waited, opening up to whomever came. The canonizing impetus always distinguished Mekas’s battle for the underground - in Lost Lost Lost, he introduced the other members of the Film-maker’s Coop as the “monks of the New Order of Cinema” - and looking back it becomes very clear that this impetus was related to his belief that the flowering and strengthening of this cinema depended as much on the artists (saints) as on strong institutions. Baillie, on the contrary, never thought of experimental cinema in institutional terms, or Canyon as an institutionalizing project. The sign on the door of his home was an invitation; a hope of breaking away from loneliness, I would say. In a certain way, if Mekas`movement (possibly necessary and certainly successful) was endogenous, towards the strengthening of a community he was a part of, Baillie’s movement was an adventurous one, of opening up to all communities that were unknown to him.
This difference, at first related to their relationship with film institutions, helped me to better understand one of the aspects of Baillie’s work that fascinated me most and for which, however, I was little prepared: on one hand, his deep opening and surrender to the world and what is not himself, on the other, his loneliness.
Two recurring images in Quixote help me in my attempt to approach these aspects: the close-up on the eye of an animal (frequently unidentifiable), and the close-up on women’s faces during the sexual act. The first cluster of images - a recurring theme in Baillie’s cinema, not just Quixote - is slow, heavy, silent, and fills the entire screen: an eye looks at us, or if nothing else, offers itself to be looked at, no more. The second is brief, angry, of elusive expression, sometimes of pain, sometimes of derision and, less frequently, of pleasure. But both are like image-apparitions, in overlays they emerge from behind other images or floating on them, and just like they appear, they may disappear. They are not announced nor do they leave evident traces (at least not in the narrative texture) in the meaning of the sentences; the narrative, the journey, and the film proceed under and over these images. As it should be with the “apparitions,” these are inapprehensible (doubly inapprehensible, I should say), as in addition to their elusive character, the images attest to existences that resist physical or symbolic appropriation.
It would be tempting to say that an animal looks at us, but it seems far-fetched: truth is, the eye of an animal is filmed, if it looks at us or not - I cannot know. Indeed, all I know is: it exists, it is there, it is large and in its almost fixed, cadenced presence resists any of my attempts to introduce it into my universe of meaning. But it hypnotizes me; I dive into what is unknown to me and into what I am not. Feminine pleasure occupies a similar place: it is inaccessible, incomprehensible, an absolute barrier between the inside and out, affection and surface, the body and sensations. But there is an element of domination or horror that distinctly arises in the two clusters of images. If the animals’ expression is mute and in a certain way hypnotic, the women’s lends itself to interpretation: pleasure is just one of the possibilities and not necessarily the most frequent. Unlike the pornographic image of the woman in the sexual act, none of these faces is seen as an invitation to enjoyment by looking. Sometimes it seems there is something violent at play, be it in the derisive laugh of one of the women, the red filter that covers the images, or in the place in which they are inserted: the last one, closing the film, and after a long sequence interspersing images of New York with Vietnam, brings the face of a Vietnamese woman whose expression seems to indicate America’s violation of her country more than her individual pleasure - “to fuck” has more than one meaning, and colonizing can be one of them.
In their mystery or horror, in their resistance to our gaze, these images attest to Baillie’s engagement with the “Other” that faces him, the extreme otherness. Other groups join these two: the Indians, the blacks, the children, the beggars. In Quixote, but also in Mass for the Dakota Sioux, Valentin de Las Sierras, Here I am or Mr. Hayashi, Baillie moves towards unfavored and marginalized subjects, those buried by history and its progress or on their way to becoming trapped by it. His camera is clearly more at ease next to them than to the modern white man: he walks side by side with them, he approaches and listens to them - even if the meaning of what is said escapes him, like with the conversation of the two elderly Indians in Quixote. The white middle class men is filmed at a distance, critically and dispassionately. There is almost a pattern in this distinction that permeates a large part of the films (especially Quixote and Mass for the Dakota Sioux): frequently, the white man (when not shown at a distance or in a group, illustrating a class behavior) is only an image appropriated from pages of a magazine, a TV program or advertisements, while the face of the “Other” ( mixed race, black, Indian, child) is filmed at length in close-up.
Quixote is a road movie of the initiation of a solitary hero encountering the America of the mid-1960s. Like all nomadic American heroes, from Whitman to Kerouac, Baillie rejects the world reified of industrial progress and consumption and looks to re-encounter something in the unfavored classes. His late arrival to this setting, however, does not allow him the same romanticism of his peers. For Baillie, the Other is not the romantic projection of the uncorrupted, of that which, left on the margin of the empire of falsehoods, maintains something irreducible. He is, on the contrary, the one who is massacred, forgotten, pushed, fought, and who, if he resists, does it on the wreckage of what has already been taken away and looking at the future where he may no longer exist (the emblematic image of Quixote: the Indians’ dance overlaid on the image of bones). The America of the present (consumerist, capitalist and expansionist) is not, in this way, the off-frame, but the constant framing of his experience, and the film is populated by all of these symbols: billboards, advertising, celebrities, Hollywood, stock market, bulldozer shovel, power plant, supermarket, plane. These two co-existing dimensions or realities overlap one another in small fusions, indicating that for Baillie, film (the film reel) can also be the field of confrontation, of history and politics.
In this confrontation in which a side is clearly taken, the film presents an ideological dimension that is absolutely rare for American cinema of the 1960s (so often criticized for its apolitical character), especially when confronted with the “new cinemas” that would come about at the same time around the world. Mekas, who frequently took on the role of spokesman of this cinema, countered this criticism with the defense that the underground did not want to change the world, rather, it hoped to renew man and his soul. Its political dimension would be in this renewal.
The history of American avant-garde film (as it is today) was based on this romantic discourse: the artist, rejecting the world of commodities, comes back to himself to affirm his liberty and imagination. It was within this framework, found in the books of P. Adams Sitney and Jonas Mekas’ texts of the time, that I first learned about Bruce Baillie - like many who live far from screening centers, my path towards the works many times started with the books and only long after arrived at the films themselves. In this narrative, Baillie is the main voice of lyrical cinema after Stan Brakhage, the poet of the castle, isolated on his mountain in Colorado, rediscovering and inventing the possibilities of his art, until then imprisoned by the corrupt principles of the modern perspective.
Indeed, lyricism is certainly one of the first qualities found in Baillie’s cinema, especially for a viewer not accustomed to experimental cinema’s flux of images. Every camera movement, fusion, overlap (and he is the unarguable master of slow fusions), lens or filter change brings with it the mark and memory of the man behind the camera. His images never pass for (or pretend to be) transparent or mere windows to access the world. They are, on the contrary, sensory, almost palpable, mediations between the phenomenological world and their creator’s spiritual and interior universe. In this way, his movement towards the Other is also marked by a formal counter-movement of return to himself, as if their opening also corresponded to an isolation, a loneliness.
But there is an essential difference between Brakhage’s and Baillie’s cinema and between the way that each conceived lyrical cinema, which needs to be noted more and more. Brakhage’s cinema - if it is possible to talk about a single cinema in such a vast production - is, in general, a cinema without the Other, or (if not to that extent) a cinema that imposes itself on the other. When he goes towards the world, he does so by abstracting his time-space coordinates and converting it into a pretext for chromatic and luminous investigations. And even when he films his family, whose presence in his films is as indicative of his cinema as his style, he does so as someone who searches for a mirror or a metaphor, or purely and simply a surface, almost never a subjectivity in dialogue, in opposition or transformation. Though the filmmaker stated that the “By Brakhage” with which he signed his films in the 1960s is “by means of Stan, Jane, and the Brakhage children,” faced with the films it is indeed hard to believe in such a generic and shared authorship. This becomes more evident as the children grow up and become aware of themselves, of their wishes and demands. No longer infants, they will more and more refuse, or accuse - through indifference or clear discomfort - the father’s gaze and camera. Curiously, this moment coincides with his cinema’s retreat to abstraction, with the films painted directly on the film itself.
Something totally distinct happens in Baillie. Though the whole range of formal resources the filmmaker uses points to a movement of interiorization and to a feeling of insurmountable loneliness, it is evident that these states are the counterpart of a movement of opening and of adventure. Baillie is the nomadic traveler, the lone knight who sets off in discovery of the unknown and always leaves his path in search of new encounters, visions, experiences, revelations - even a lateral travelling (like that of All My Life) takes a line of flight upwards towards the infinite. Perhaps this search is ultimately a search for himself, as it is that of all travelers (“I travel in order to get to know my geography,” Walter Benjamin), but it inevitably passes for his encounter with that which is not him. If there is loneliness in Baillie (and there is), it does not come from a retreat or withdrawal (like in Brakhage), but from the recognition of the otherness, of the difference and the distance that connect and separate him from the places he passes through and the people he encounters.
Even in the most “removed” and “retreated” moments of his cinema, like for example in Quick Billy, a convalescence film of a man envisioning death, the world makes itself present as a mineral and animal force. It is rock, water, and animal, and these are not surfaces to be formally explored, but guardians of mysteries and secrets about life, death, duration, and permanence. It is with attention and reverence that he looks at what surrounds him, and when he tries by fusions to combine himself with this space, it seems to be to inhabit and harvest the mystery that surround and dominates him, not the opposite. But beyond this more spiritual (let’s say) dimension, of relating with the surroundings, the world also becomes present via history and memory in films projected on the house wall. The domestic space, of retreat and convalescence, thus transforms itself into a screen for now absent and distant places, beings, and voices.
Perhaps it is time, in this moment that Brakhage’s and Baillie’s cinema has already become museums` article (or churches), to provoke our gaze once again to reframe what has already been seen. In this movement, without denying these filmmakers’ lyrical dimension, maybe it is the case of trying to look for their human dimension. It is a consensus that part of the still overwhelming power of Brakhage’s cinema resides in the radicalism of his dedication to investigating his vision, which required an absolute and complete surrender to his project, without any concession to the social and psychic demands of the world (and his family). But so many years later, and looking at his less canonical films, one may also notice the beauty of his fragility or perhaps tragedy, as there are moments in which (almost without the filmmaker realizing, like a seepage that eventually becomes a crack in the paint on a wall, or a scratch on film that hides the image during projection) the desire of those he cannot truly see starts little by little to steer his path towards the image’s surface. In these moments, the painful and tragic loneliness of a filmmaker exiled from his family, and even blind to it by his own cinema is revealed. If we allow ourselves to look at this other side of Brakhage, we can equally rethink Baillie’s cinema, starting with the double movement between opening and loneliness, expansion and withdrawal. At this moment, when the assertion of the Self was turned into a rule in the commerce of images and can hardly be understood as the sheltering of a space of liberty and expression against massification, to look at the ethical, aesthetic, and human dimension of these films (as well as their fragilities) can help us to bridge the experience of yesterday with the problems that cinema brings us today.