It is good for us modern citizens to be lost.

--Bruce Baillie

Film Culture No. 67-68-69, 1979

The artist in this soc. makes the wrong assumption in seeking, or expecting to communicate, in the sense of trying or wanting to find a place in the soc. Reknown can be the death of him.

--Bruce Baillie

More than any other American independent film artist, Bruce Baillie's use of light suits the metaphors given to the word.

--Anthony Bannon


Bruce Baillie

on scrap of notebook paper

("found poem, by the river I think, 5-78")

If only for one stolen moment
we might live forever
warm and lovely mystery
can you hear the choir
voices can no longer hold
    my desire
leave the past to your sad history
meet me in the fire
  angels wait to take us
   higher and higher
  low under the falling sky
easily we will
while I bring
   it to
Warm and lovely mystery
free smilin through,
before this moment fades away I want
to know you,
I got lighnin' in my pocket
thunder in my shoes
have no fear I got somethin' here
   I want to show you,
   low under the falling sky
   easily we will lie
   while I bring it to you.
   low road, high wire
   crossing from me to you
and in your eyes the distance,
there is showing through.
I got a feeling like an ocean
blood flowing through my skin
to your bright fields
this prisoner's opening
  our shadows wake each day
thought they don't know why
  hope and try
                 live and die
                 so leave them
                  in their frozen
                  world come
                    and be

Baillie and a Bolex

Baillie, 1953
Bruce Baillie (b.1931)
Independent Filmmaker

Bruce Baillie is often associated with the American avant-garde film movement known as New American Cinema. The perceptive filmmaker, historian and teacher Paul Arthur has written that Baillie's films "are as American as apple pie." And while many Americans know apple pie, the films of Baillie are somewhat less well known.

A number of attempts, intelligent and otherwise, have been made to categorize the diverse product of American avant-garde film. One unifying concept is that avant-garde films are made independent of the dominant so-called "Hollywood" film industry. Filmmakers like Baillie work outside of the Hollywood movie matrix and reject what Charles Boultenhouse refers to as Hollywood's "empty idea" that "entertainment must be superficial distraction."

Avant-garde films are frequently referred to as "personal" films. But it would be a mistake to assume that such work is obsessed with the illusion of central position. "Personal" film does not automatically mean self-indulgent film and Baillie's work is strong proof of this. His films are very personal, beautiful and meaningful in a number of different contexts and on a number of different levels. The political content of films like Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1964) and Quixote (1965-1967) cannot be ignored nor can the sheer beauty of the imagery be overlooked.

Within the relatively circumscribed circle of avant-garde filmmakers, viewers and critics, Baillie's work is well known and well respected. Several of his films are included on the list of "Essential Cinema" as compiled by the Anthology Film Archives organization, the de facto standards committee of American avant-garde film practice. And many overview programs of New American Cinema will include one or more of his films. There have been a variety of scholarly essays, reviews and studies of his work in film magazines like Film Culture and the Millennium Film Journal. In 1991 he was a recipient of the American Film Institute's Maya Deren Award.

Maybe artistic rebellion is as American as apple pie. Eschewing the financial benefits of making films within the established business culture of production means making inexpensive films. Baillie's films generally do not have paid or professional actors and the film's crew most often consists of just the filmmaker. While making Roslyn Romance (Is it Really True?) (1974) Baillie describes preparations for some shooting:

The truck loaded well I think. Two 3200K lights, 50 foot cord, camera, motor, batteries, recorder, charger, tripod, film, and food in a cold box I found last year at the dump.

Evolving from early documentary-like work in the early 1960s Baillie emerged by the end of the decade as a phenomenally sensitive film poet who used a balance of image, color, superimposition and sound in the construction of his expression.

Massage of the Visionary Message

Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1964, 20 minutes, 16mm) is dedicated by Baillie to "the religious people who were destroyed by the civilization which evolved the Mass." It is on one level a "Mass" for the American Indian conquered and displaced by the white American in quest of manifest destiny. A quote from the native American Sitting Bull opens the film,

No chance for me to live mother
You might as well mourn

But this conflict of American history is also an echo of the artist's own dilemma. Like the Beat Generation poets and writers, Baillie is situated outside the mainstream. He is an outsider looking in. His vision, personal, perceptive, unique and unmitigated by the profit motive defines the role of the contemporary artist.

Creating descriptions of non-narrative films is always a challenging process for the writer. The usefulness of such descriptions varies from reader to reader. We offer here three descriptions of Baillie's Mass for the Dakota Sioux. We offer these selections primarily for the benefit of those that have not seen the film and as a small study in the art of writing about art.

The following selections come from Baillie's own notes to the film; from an essay by Paul Arthur written for the film exhibition "A History of the American Avant-Garde Cinema" produced by the American Federation of the Arts; and from Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978 by P.Adams Sitney. Arthur and Sitney are both discriminating viewers of American avant-garde film and of Baillie's work in particular.

Filmmaker's Notes to Mass for the Dakota Sioux by Bruce Baillie. Canyon Cinema Cooperative Catalog No. 3

A film Mass, dedicated to that which is vigorous, intelligent, lovely, the best-in-Man; that which work suggests is nearly dead.

Brief guide to the structure of the film:

Introit: A long, lightly exposed section composed in the camera.

Kyrie: A motorcyclist crossing the San Francisco Bay Bridge accompanied by the sound of Gregorian Chant. The epistle is in several sections. In this central part, the film becomes gradually more outrageous, the material being either television or the movies, photographed directly from the screen. The sounds of the "mass" rise and fall throughout the epistle.

Gloria: The sound of a siren and a short sequence with a '33 Cadillac proceeding over the Bay Bridge and disappearing into a tunnel.

The final section of the communion begins with the offertory in a procession of lights and figures in the second chant.

The anonymous figure from the introduction is discovered again, dead on the pavement. The touring car arrives, with the celebrants; the body is consecrated and taken away past an indifferent, isolated people accompanied by the final chant.

from Visionary Film, 2nd Edition by P.Adams Sitney.

At the very beginning [Baillie] shows a man struggling and dying on a city street at night, ignored by passers-by as if he were a drunk collapsed in the street. In the subsequent weaving of moving camera shots, in counterpointed superimpositions of factories, expanses of prefabricated houses, traffic, parades, and markets, all complemented by a soundtrack that blends Gregorian chant with street noises in shifting degrees of priority, the viewer tends to forget the dying man or to see him as the forecast of the section of the film that enjambs bits of war films with advertisements shot directly off a television without kinescopic rectification so that the images continually show bands and jump.

Contrasted to the images of waste and violence, a motorcyclist appears in the traffic and Baillie follows him, shooting from a moving car for a very long time. He is the tentative vehicle of the heroic in this film. But when he too disappears in the welter of superimposition, we do not expect his return. Instead the movement shifts to the grill of a 1933 Cadillac as it cruises the highway. As the second part of the film circles back on itself, the Cadillac turns out to be the ambulance/hearse which brings doctors to the man on the street and which carries away his dead body. Then when it reenters the highway, Baillie again shifts the emphasis to the motorcyclist, whose second disappearance concludes the film.

Two images demonstrate the ironic pessimism with which Baillie views the American landscape at the center of the film. Over the sprawl of identical prefabricated houses he prints the words of Black Elk: "Behold, a good nation walking in a sacred manner in a good land!" Then he pans to an American flag waving on a tall pole in the distance. By changing the focus without cutting from the shot, he brings to view a previously unseen barbed wire fence between the camera and the flag.

from A History of the American Avant-Garde Cinema, American Federation of the Arts. Essay by Paul Arthur.

[T]he first image is a close-up of clapping hands- a framing device that recurs following the central section. On a dark sidewalk we see a man crawling just beyond a square of light. He appears to be drunk or seriously ill.

After this introduction is a section- much of it superimposed- of city shapes and movements. Smokestacks, telephone lines, a busy street corner, an automobile harboring a face in the window, drift through the frame articulated by slow panning shots and dissolves. The filmmaker is glimpsed for a moment through a luminous haze that surrounds much of the footage. In this section, Baillie sets up a cross-directionality of screen movements- with specific images seeming to advance or recede through layers of texture- that conveys both a sense of weariness and ritual motion and has a precise parallel in the soundtrack. Street noises intermingle with the Gregorian chant, one element then the other assuming audial dominance. As the voices of the chant rise and fall in pitch, the patterns of imagery shift in direction or velocity through matched editing.

In the second section of the film, a long travelling shot precedes a clear image of the cyclist, possibly the protagonist and mediator of the urban vision. A long pan across rooftops is connected to a shot of rows of suburban houses squeezed together on an incline. A title appears: "Behold, a good nation walking in a sacred manner in a good lan." The resemblance of the peaked roofs to Indian tepees underscores the bitter irony of a displaced people.

This signals the start of the central and most intense portion of the film, elaborated by increasingly ironic and politicized juxtapositions. A frieze of the Virgin is enjambed with the face of a church gargoyle. A montage of television images- Boris Karloff, commercials, a marching band- develops a theme of spectatorship and mass destruction. In one sequence, a shot of a street derelict cuts to a woman's face in an advertisement: "Doctor, I've been having these terrible muscle spasms in my arm." The next shot is of a field cannon spasming as it discharges its shell. The implication that media- and the culture in general- trivializes pain and death thereby fostering acceptability of human and ecological disaster is extended through a series of violent match-cuts.

At the end of this section, three men and a boy are seen against a window clapping enthusiastically. This highly problematic shot simultaneously offers a climax to the preceding sequence and acts as an uncomfortable distancing device to the film's structure.

In the midst of the rapid montage- and later at the close of the film- an image of waves breaking onto a beach tries to insert itself through the welter of urban violence. But this invocation of the "natural," the peaceful, is finally unattainable. The ocean is filled with battleships or, in the second to last shot, is screened by a bright haze with the silhouette of a solitary figure poised at its edge. The exploration of what Sitney calls the "heroic" in Baillie's films has its locus in the condition of the "outsider," one incapable of sustaining meaningful contact with either the victims of a culture he condemns or with his nostalgic intimation of a pastoral existence. This is one of the supreme tensions underlying all of Baillie's work...

It depends on your point of view, no doubt, whether or not these descriptions and comments on a 20 minute 16mm film made in 1964 stimulate your interest.

Mass for the Dakota Sioux like Baillie's other films is just the opposite of "superficial distraction." One can easily get lost in the complexities of the film much like the filmmaker himself seems lost in the deep rubble he rues. In Baillie's art, "lostness" is made pervasive.

Bruce Baillie at the Cosmic Baseball Association

Baillie was an original player on the Visionville Beasts, the Cosmic Baseball Association's original team of avant-garde filmmakers (the Beasts transformed into the Poetics after the 1996 cosmic season.) For fifteen seasons he has been a reliable catcher whose defensive abilities are more consistent than his offensive capabilities. The influence of Eastern philosophy and religion, apparent both in his films off the field and in his work behind the plate on the field is notable. He has a discernable calming influence on pitchers, especially the younger ones who can easily get caught up in the emotion of the moment.

Career Highlights
  • An original member of the Visionville Beasts

  • Fewest Passed Balls in a Season: 2 (1997)

  • Most At Bats for a Catcher in a Season: 667 (1997)

Bruce Baillie Links

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Bruce Baillie Season 2000 Plate
Published: January 14, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by the Cosmic Baseball Association