Encounters at the Ann Arbor Film Festival (Part 3) - Bruce Baillie

The Ann Arbor Film Festival honored a master and progenitor of the American Avant-garde this year by hosting three retrospectives of films by Bruce Ballie.  Ballie is perhaps most known for his hand made visual poems of the 1960's, which comprised the entirety of the first retrospective, including some of his early, less commonly screened work like Mr. Hayashi (1961) and Here I Am (1962).  Here I Am is a portrait of a school for emotionally disturbed children, capturing in intimate, stark detail the mundane sound and movement of a hidden institutional existence, particularly in the early 60's.  Ballie cross-breeds his early experimental inclinations with the documentary form in Here I Am, and provides the first sign of his signature attention to rhythm and movement in editing.  This style fully takes flight in the highlight films of the evening, Mass For the Dakota Sioux (1964), and a film commonly considered his masterwork, Castro Street (1966), which Ballie has described as being "made by the most horrendous effort of intellectualization and intuition, using the back and front of the brain simultaneously, which blew my fuses for life."

The interviewer who captured that quote was Scott MacDonald, author of "A Critical Cinema," who also introduced Ballie at this year's AAFF, making note of Ballie's highly influential work with Chick Strand and Canyon Cinema, which had it's beginning in Bruce's backyard in 1961, and was ultimately essential in establishing community-based film exhibition in the US.  MacDonald ended his intro by suggesting that Ballie's work itself needed no introduction, which I can now say with all confidence is true.  Baillie's work is the kind of visual poetry that washes over one's consciousness, establishing a rhythm of imagery that allows a connection to the past, to the Bay Area of the 60's, and to the mythic and spiritual reaches beyond.  Ballie introduced these works in a manner that assured the audience his true art is perhaps bound to his images, and not to his skills as a public speaker.  I don't intend this as a negative criticism, seeing as Ballie's introduction was one of my favorite moments of the festival (and a welcome downshift in pace from Craig Baldwin's somewhat manic oration, which preceded Ballie's retrospective).  Like MacDonald, Ballie did not attempt to unpack or address the content of his films, but opted for a more casual introductory style.   With his backpack in tow, Ballie first remarked that he was more used to speaking to 10 or 12 people, as opposed to the rather well attended Michigan Theater main room.  He then continued what I can only describe as a masterful, rambling impromptu bit of public speaking that recalled some of Ballie's history with Ann Arbor and the festival's creator George Manupelli, but mostly consisted of a strikingly casual recollection of the plot to one of his favorite Seinfeld episodes (the one where George and Jerry unwittingly take a ride in a limousine meant for a Neo-Nazi author), and ultimately careened into his recollections of a time in the early 60's when he lived in a seat-less VW and often engaged in freelance firefighting ("I guess nowadays you have to be one of those guys with a helmet...").  As with his films, some were left puzzled, and others, like myself, delighted.

Where Mass for the Dakota Sioux and Castro Street are fairly complex in their construction, with strophes and counter-strophes of images opening upon one another, creating a mediation that transcends the often "every day" nature of the visual subjects, the simplicity of All My Life (1966) shows Baillie's truly gentle touch as a film maker, using Ella Fitzgerald (singing the tune of the same name) to underline a slow pan across a fence row, revealing the occasional outburst of radiant, flowering bushes (the cover image of the 50th AAFF's program booklet), and finally the ocean blue sky.  Clocking in at under 3 minutes, All My Life was the perfect coda to this retrospective of early works, proving that the core of Baillie's work lies in the effect rather than the technique.

Apart from the two retrospectives that followed, Baillie also invited those who were interested to an informal screening of his more recent work at 10am the following morning.  Baillie's battle with oration continued in an even more disjointed fashion the next day, as he likened his struggles to speak in public to a quote from one of his favorite films, 1953's The Cruel Sea:  "It's this damn war."  Baillie wasn't sure if he'd gotten the quote quite right, but the military theme followed suit with his shorts The P-38 Pilot and Tribute, the first installment of his intended 3-part trilogy titled Memoirs of an Angel.  Baillie prefaced these video pieces by letting the film students know he has no access to "fancy" equipment, and doesn't shoot in HD.  He ended with the humorous, self-effacing notion that even though we had all gotten up early, expecting something "entertaining and beautiful" that we could rest assured "...there's none of that here at all."  What was most fascinating to me about Baillie's current work, particularly in contrast to his earliest attempts at film making, was just how singular his aesthetic has remained.  Often the Avant-garde is aligned as being the most pretentious ends of the cinema arts, but Baillie's work, as well as his unique personality, continues to shine a joyful, innocent light on the presumption.

Baillie's work is available for the first time in two DVD volumes from his website.  For those interested, please look into purchasing them here.  

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