City Poet Bruce Baillie Returns

Johnny Ray Huston October 10, 2006

Ask the esteemed feature director Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul to list his favorite filmmakers, and one of the first names he’ll cite is Bruce Baillie, the founder of the crucially important experimental film stronghold Canyon Cinema and the subject of a program this week by SF Cinematheque, another important local organization that he established. Weerasethakul once told critic Chuck Stephens for the Village Voice that he admires the way that Baillie records “pleasure, and the sun”; even — or especially – within the darkest rooms, pleasure and the sun spill from both his and Baillie’s movies. But beyond that, both directors share a Buddhist vision that reaches above and beyond worldly desires (those latter two words are the title of one Weerasethakul video). They both possess an all-too-rare ability to discover and reveal — if only for an instant – the presence of the ineffable.

There’s a hypnotic shot near the end of Weerasethakul’s latest and perhaps best film, “Syndromes and a Century,” in which swirls of cloudy vapor seep into a dark tube. After its initial breathtaking effect, I couldn’t help but liken Syndrome’s minimalist mists to the mysterious fog of Baillie’s 1960-61 short “On Sundays,” a work that — just as much as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and perhaps more than other famed examples such as Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry” or Orson Welles’ “The Lady from Shanghai” — deserves a spot at the top of the list of great movies about and within San Francisco. The foggy horizons in Baillie’s movie play a much different role than the noir miasmas in Jacques Tourneur’s “Out of the Past,” evoking feminine and human spiritual questioning and questing rather than a single man’s existential doom.

When onlookers or bystanders disparagingly refer to experimental film as torturous or a bore, it’s a safe bet that they’ve never seen anything by Baillie, who either instinctively, or perhaps through training, dances into the presence of beauty’s myriad forms, using overlays and edits the same way a composer layers instrumentation. A centerpiece of this week’s upcoming SF Cinematheque program, “On Sundays” is a cryptic, highly individual portrait of one woman (Jean Wong) and a city (San Francisco), capturing facets of womanhood and San Francisco that aren’t seen in Hollywood films. Baillie’s movies find secret histories, ones rendered obscure or ignored, and bring them to light.

Sure, “On Sundays” follows Wong through well trod famous sights and settings, such as Union Square and the cable cars at Powell and Market. But even there, with seeming offhand ease, Baillie lands upon Weegee-like indelible shots — such as an almost hallucinatory look at endless rows of men on benches — rather than prosaic postcard images. When Wong treks SF’s natural vistas, Baillie is there to record it all with similarly awesome clarity. From mountaintop to skid row, he brings the same sharpness to visions of nature and architecture, even when the latter is disused and strewn with grafitti (shades of Weldon Kees’ 1952 Bay Area-set film “Hotel Apex,” but a huge improvement). At times, Wong seems to flit forward in tandem with the grinding of gears on the soundtrack. At other moments, the melodic music on “On Sundays’” soundtrack seems to blow in tandem with wind-gust imagery.

Why is Wong, this quiet girl in baggy sweater and blue jeans, and dancing on top of a bar at movie’s end? And in Baillie’s 1961 “The Gymnasts,” is that the tell-tale chortle of the Musee Mechanique’s Laughing Sal accompanying one bespectacled and suited man (who turns out to be Baillie) through the looking glass into a muscle-popping pommel horse-and-rings reverie? What motivated Baillie to take his camera to the East Bay Activities Center — as a sign reads, “a day program for emotionally disturbed children” — in order to film? A single viewing of 1962’s extraordinary “Here I Am” suggests the answer to that last question: he’d found another uniquely revealing place to commune with the flow of life. In that particular case, a flow that manifests in bursts of classroom and playground energy, but also autistic inner recesses.

While such early works are indelible manifestations of American life, Baillie also created mournful films during the period, such as the 1966 PSA “Termination” and 1964’s “Mass for the Dakota Sioux.” Alongside a feature-length film from this era, Kent MacKenzie’s 1961 “The Drifters” (and “On Sundays” and the life-as-a-job-wanted-ad poignancy of 1961’s “Mr. Hayashi,” for that matter), these movies make poetry from lives — and deaths — that mainstream American film pretends are invisible. It’s as if all the living spirits rejected due to commercial and even more venal U.S. societal prejudice finally find an eternal-as-celluloid home in Baillie’s movies of the early-to-mid ’60s. That’s just one of the reasons they are still potent — for equally great directors such as Weerasethakul, as well as for others — today.

“Early Baillie and the Canyon CinemaNews Years,” with Bruce Baillie in person, Sun/15, 7:30 p.m. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.