The Countercultures of "Commune"

Robert Avila February 22, 2007

The cinematic image of the ’60s commune is normally as two-dimensional as the screen it’s projected on, and rarely very kind. Whether for comedic or dramatic ends, the customary ingredients “speak for themselves” and tend to be thrown in off-handedly: sun-burnt nudity, long hair, neo-pagan rituals, New Age lingo, revolutionary postures, acoustic guitars and animal skins — all accompanied by lots of mud, acid, grass, and free love. More often than not, the picture fulfills some snide yet fearful view in the mainstream that, in rejecting the norms and values of the dominant society, Edenic idylls of this sort inevitably prove ridiculous at best and at worst conjure their Manson-Family opposites.

Bucking this well-established trend, director-producer Jonathan Berman’s new documentary, “Commune,” premiering at the Red Vic this week, offers a fresh and open appraisal of the widespread attempt in the 1960s and 70s to live apart and make the world anew.

In its history of Black Bear Ranch, one of the better-known communes of the period, established in 1968 and enduring to this day on 80 acres in Northern California’s Siskiyou County, Berman’s film paints a sympathetic and coherent, if decidedly dappled portrait. Rooted in animated, sometimes contentious personal remembrances by original members and at least two of their children (both born at the Ranch), the film firmly situates the varied impulses behind the communal experiment at the intersection of Haight-Ashbury counterculture, 1930s-style labor militancy, the radical politics that grew out of the Free Speech and Civil Rights Movements, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Moreover, in the continuing careers of its earliest members — including painter and Black Bear co-founder Elsa Marley, herbologist and alternative medicine expert Michael Tierra, and actor Peter Coyote, among many others — the film also traces a clear arc from the back-to-nature communal experience to the shape of progressive politics and culture today.

Oh, and the nudity, guitar playing, mud and free love? You bet.

Drawing on a wealth of home-movie footage and photographs, Berman’s interviews come interspersed with a considerable visual record of Black Bear Ranch, augmented by opening shots of the protests and police riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the memories of placid rural neighbors “shocked” by the invasion of naked hippies (Elliott Sharp’s moody score, meanwhile, accompanies this archival and present-day footage with an evocative mix of acoustic and electric guitar music, from slide-style folk-blues to wailing wah-wah psychedelia). A former goldmine first owned by a lieutenant governor of California, the Ranch’s main house and outbuildings sit at the end of a nine-mile dirt road completely surrounded by the million acres of the Klamath National Forest. Definitely off the grid, it remains about as remote today as it was in 1968, when a small band of greenhorns from the city spent their first winter there under a record-breaking snowfall (a story related by several survivors of that episode, which brought “Donner Party” images to at least one mind, and seems to have been characterized by a mixture of utter cluelessness, buggy determination, and real bravery).

But the colony was soon thriving — and attracting unwanted attention. Among other miscellaneous documents Berman employs are a bulk-cooking recipe for Black Bear Chimichangas (begins with 4000 lbs of Tule Lake wheat and 1000 lbs. of pinto beans) and a 1970 FBI surveillance memo relating the federal government’s suspicion that the commune “might be a training ground for militants planning insurrection in Northern California.” (Berman superimposes the memo’s typeface on black-and-white home-movie footage of what looks to be a mellow family-oriented Ranch evening around the piano, with a small child’s guileless face, illuminated by a candle, briefly filling the screen. But the feds weren’t totally off base. Richard Marley has already noted by this point in the narrative that he and several associates had early on toyed with the notion of a rural outpost for their Bay Area actions. “After all,” he says, “Castro had done it just a few years before.”

The commune had grown out of a chance visit to a realtor by Elsa and Richard Marley (the later a hardened labor organizer and a relative “grown-up” in his mid-30s), while the couple was camping near Mt. Shasta. “I had this vision and I suppose I was pretty pompous about it,” remembers Elsa, today a gray-haired and cheerful artist and teacher in Oakland, “but it was basically we’re going to go and change the world. My slogan at the time was ‘free land for free people.’” To raise the necessary funds, Elsa and several other would-be communards headed to LA to tap rich rock stars and movie people sympathetic to (and making a nice living off of representing) the counterculture the Black Bear party was creating. They were successful (although the one story related here, by Michael Tierra, concerns the failed attempt to win over actor James Coburn to the cause by torching his fountain).

At the same time, the film only partially explores Black Bear’s deeper origins in the radical cultural politics of San Francisco, where an alternative subculture deeply alienated from the priorities and patterns of modern life and a rapacious capitalist-imperialist system were putting their own ideas into action. “It’s hard for people to imagine today how poised on the brink of change things were,” explains actor and activist Peter Coyote, an early and frequent visitor to Black Bear Ranch. “A lot of people were choosing to fight the government politically. But we saw the problem as culture. And we tried to create living possibilities of an alternative culture that we hoped, when push came to shove, people would defend.”

As these and other interviews make clear, Black Bear may have been physically isolated but it was socially and politically connected with the counterculture at large, including its most radical edges. And it was hardly off the radar of the authorities either, whether local of federal. As part of a loose association of “Free Family” communal colonies up and down Northern California associated with the San Francisco Diggers — the anarchist guerrilla theater collective that grew out of the SF Mime Troupe, the Haight-Ashbury counterculture, and the radical atmosphere of 1960s Bay Area politics — Black Bear benefited from a network of material support and ideological comradeship. (Although, as Coyote points out in a chapter devoted to Black Bear in his fascinating memoir, Sleeping Where I Fall, this interconnectedness was not always a plus. “”‘Family’ members,” he notes, “would often arrive like invading birds, dropping seeds of conversation and random political ideas from the distant city, which, in that isolated environment, sometimes engendered genetic mutations barely resembling the parent notions that spawned them.”)

Inexplicably, Berman’s film makes no direct mention of the Diggers, and in general gives only the slimmest background on the core members of Black Bear Ranch. There’s also no attempt to situate the unprecedented number of communal projects of the 1960s-‘70s in a larger tradition of American radicalism and utopian experiment. What it does well, however, is broach the particular dynamics and tensions that made Black Bear a volatile but transformative experience for its members. No ’60s way station, but a crucible of radical reinvention, especially with regard to relations between the sexes, Black Bear was the place to truly reexamine and rework the most basic roles and relationships handed down by the dominant culture. If the line between the outside “bourgeois” world and the “new” one was never fixed or impermeable, the distance achieved was often productive.

The distances could also be painful. Experiments in enforced polyamory were soon abandoned, for example. And by the late 1970s, after many children had been born at the Ranch, traditional and communal notions of childrearing would collide. An inter-title notes that many new families left at this time to find schools in towns for their children, while others went “off to pursue careers, often based on what they learned at Black Bear.” Elsa and Richard’s son Aaron expresses some of the dissatisfaction among the second generation. But the most dramatic story comes from Tesilya Hanauer, now an editor in Berkeley, who, as a girl of five, was whisked away to East Asia and India by a wandering child-worshipping cult, the Shiva Lila, who arrive and ensconce themselves at Black Bear in 1979. (Several ex-Shiva Lila members are interviewed about this period as well, adding an interesting counterpoint to the accounts by Black Bear members of an encounter that eventually culminates in the expulsion of Shiva Lila from Black Bear. And there’s some spooky audiotape from the group’s guru, Gridley Wright, on his trip.)

“Commune” could have filled in much more of both the immediate and historical context in which Black Bear Ranch makes sense as a product of an American radical tradition, but Black Bear’s legacy — which in particular feeds the earliest tributaries of the modern environmental movement as well as the rise of alternative medicine and a new attention to human health — clearly points here to connections between the communal experience in nature and progressive politics and culture today. The film itself may even have helped spur it forward. “When the older Bears got together for the filming of ‘Commune,’” explains Elsa on a page of the Black Bear website devoted to a recent art auction for necessary improvements, “it stimulated discussion about our vision of the Ranch into the 21st Century.”

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