Tuesday, August 26, 2008

FROM THE VAULTS: THE BEST & WORST OF 2006


So I was poking around the computer at work, and what do I stumble upon? My Film Monthly "Year In Review" for 2006. Surprisingly unashamed of the writing-- though I did go a little overboard with the adjectives-- I've decided to post the damn thing here, warts and all. In the interest of historical accuracy, I haven't altered a line, but I would like to preface with a couple of after-the-fact amendments. I hadn't seen David Lynch's Inland Empire at the time; in retrospect, it deserves a spot on the list, probably around #5. Look Both Ways gets the drop, and The Departed moves to #10-- I still think Scorsese's Oscar winner is a blast, but it doesn't hold up as well under repeat viewings. As for the honorable and dishonorable mentions: I'm not so enamored of Pan's Labyrinth anymore, and a belated return to Michael Mann's Miami Vice reveals it to be a fascinating art-house mood piece disguised as a dumb, joyless action movie. They both gotta go.

No more disclaimers. I humbly present The Best and Worst of 2006, posted on February 1st, 2007 on Film Monthly Magazine.

YEAR IN REVIEW: 2006

War, social and political unrest, global warming—the world didn’t get much better in 2006 than it was in 2005. The good news, for cinephiles anyway, is that movies did. Weathering the storms of our time with conviction and bravado, artists both old and new found the silver lining in some very dark clouds. Directly or indirectly, with hope or with apprehension, they offered distinct visions of our collective present, filtering a messy, chaotic year through the complicated shades and vibrant hues of their work.

To those who speak of a disintegrating film culture: you just aren’t looking hard enough, or in the right places. The nearly unanimous support given to middling affairs like The Queen and Babel says less about what critics did see last year and more about what they didn’t. It was a remarkable year for cinema on the fringe, for low profile triumphs that flew slightly under the radar. Micro-budget moviemaking carved out a niche for itself in the art house market, thanks largely to the efforts of true indie prodigies like Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation), Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy), and the Duplass brothers (The Puffy Chair). Just as exciting was the steady flood of first-rate imports—from Almodovar to Hsiao-hsien to a veritable Australian film renaissance—and the rising popularity of documentaries. The political filmmaking of ‘05 continued unabated in ‘06, manifesting itself through both direct attack (the Iraq War docs) and roundabout, ostensibly harmless tactics (Mike Judge’s scathing Idiocracy, suspiciously and unceremoniously dumped by Fox this past fall).

Yet the majority of America saw none of these films, a fact I’d attribute to both limited availability (most of them never opened wide) and limited interest. What people saw instead was a whole lot of flashy, weightless spectacle and expensive, escapist fluff—remember, the big commercial success of the year was a sequel to a movie based on an amusement park ride. I usually don’t take too much stock in the distinction made between Hollywood and “independent” filmmaking, mostly because that line has become irreparably blurred: when the indies look like studio pics (i.e. a $10-million, star-studded spectacle like Bobby) and the studio pics look like indies (i.e., a gonzo anti-blockbuster like The Fountain) what’s the point in categorizing? Yet in 2006, almost all the challenging, relevant, and innovative work—the art, in other words—was made outside of the studio system.

Almost all of it. I must confess an admiration for at least some of this year’s Hollywood output—not the superhero epics or the romantic comedies or the Oscar bait, but the gloriously accomplished genre fare. The Departed and Casino Royale reminded me of how thrilling big-budget action movies can be when they’re really done right. The hot shots of indie filmmaking may have a monopoly on art, but, when it comes to pure entertainment, Tinsletown still has the edge.

Without further digression or summation, a year in movies.

THE BEST

1. The Proposition- Progress and tradition, loyalty and justice, entrenched past and encroaching future—The Proposition is a drama of collision. That’s also an apt metaphor for the way in which director John Hillcoat and writer/composer Nick Cave approach an ailing, faded genre: both adhering to and subverting its conventions, they’ve re-contextualized the modern western for a new land and a new mythology. Set on the scorched open plains of the Australian outback, this rousing, violent, poetic work is a triumph of collaboration, one in which everyone involved is working at the absolute peak of their game. The acting is uniformly outstanding, with Guy Pearce as a gaunt cipher, Ray Winstone as a hardened lawman, and the great, scene-stealing Danny Huston, funny and terrifying, as a Zen sociopath. Upstaging them all is the film’s sprawling backdrop, a savage kingdom as beautiful as it is stark and remorseless. Yet it’s the balance of visceral style and cerebral content that positions The Proposition at the very top of this year’s cinematic echelon. The cost of civilization, the bonds of brotherhood, the very nature of mankind—these are rich, profound themes, yet they never overshadow nor interfere with the narrative pleasures of this powerful, exhilarating genre piece. Simply put, it’s one of the best westerns ever made.


2. Conversations With Other Women- A man and woman—unidentified, anonymous ex-lovers—meet at a wedding reception and talk an entire evening away. That’s the long and the short of Hans Canosa’s exquisite second feature, a forceful reminder of how purely satisfying it can be, in this hyper-stylized age, to just watch a pair of actors connect on screen. Aaron Eckhart and Helen Bonham Carter are said actors, and Conversations With Other Women is their tango and their duet: they flirt, they reminisce, they conjure up the entire history of a lost love affair in 84 sparse minutes. The film does have a gimmick: it’s shot entirely in split screen, with him on the left and her on the right. Far from a distraction, this nervy stylistic trick strips away all periphery action, keeping the focus squarely locked on its magnetic leads and their heady, seductive, intoxicating chatter. Screenwriter Gabrielle Zevin has a rare understanding of the way middle-aged, white-collar sophisticates interact, and her dialogue—natural and eloquent, layered with subtext yet thrilling in its spontaneity—is the secret weapon of this underappreciated masterwork. In its own tidy, insular way, a near-perfect film.


3. Children of Men- It took two viewings for me to see the full scope of what director Alfonso Cuarón has accomplished with Children of Men. Maybe that’s because I spent the first viewing picking my jaw up from off the floor. The technical achievements of this bleak dsytopian epic are stunning and unparalleled: Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki infuse each and every scene with a breathtaking, kinetic urgency—there are set-pieces here that rank among the best ever filmed. Yet it would be wrong to suggest that the movie’s dazzling aesthetic glories were all it had to offer: envisioning a nightmarish near future where women are infertile and society lies on the verge of collapse, Children of Men courses with rage, compassion, and, most rewardingly, a hard-won idealism. As a lowly bureaucrat entrusted with the fate of the human race, Clive Owen, in the performance of his career, personifies the central philosophical conceit of the movie: a belief in hope as the key to revolution and to change. That the film works as either a mournful elegy for a dying world or a cathartic salute to a surviving one—not to mention a brisk, remarkable chase picture—is a testament to the democratic ambiguity of Cuarón’s poignant and staggeringly intense vision.



4. Dave Chapelle’s Block Party- The concert film as celebration—of music, of community, of life itself. In 2004, standing on the brink of super-stardom, comedian Dave Chapelle organized the music festival of his dreams: a one-day extravaganza in Brooklyn, featuring some of the premiere artists of contemporary hip-hop. Block Party chronicles that experience, and, as directed by whimsical wunderkind Michel Gondry, it’s about as joyous and uplifting as movies get. The director dices the big event into fragments and moments, mixing up space and time, shifting perspective from the performers on stage to the kids in the crowd and back again. At the center of it all is Chapelle, who’s loose, funny, and impassioned—a spirited ringleader of the festivities and a guiding voice throughout. His cultural and political insights lend the film a bold revolutionary slant, but, like all great music docs, this one derives most of its power from its music. Block Party should be required viewing for anyone who dismisses hip-hop as fundamentally negative or nihilistic: the artists—who range from The Roots to Jill Scott to a triumphantly reunited Fugees—rap about love and change, growth and perseverance. If this movie doesn’t put a bounce in your step and a smile on your face, nothing will.


5. Casino Royale- I’m as surprised as anyone to see this on my list, but against all odds, the 21st installment in the creaky ol’ Bond series is a sinewy, elegant, effortlessly cool affair. Really, it’s a reinvention, a return to basics: in taking us back to 007’s very first mission, director Martin Campbell strips the tried-and-true formula down to its bare essentials—no gadgets, no cartoon super-villains, just guns, girls, and high-stakes espionage. The action sequences are breathlessly exciting (especially that doozy of an opening chase), but the giddy joy of Casino Royale is the way in which it transforms a cheeky, quip dispensing icon into a real character again, a flesh-and-blood person with real fears and real desires. This Bond is brash and brutish, decidedly rough around the edges, and he’s played, with mesmerizing intensity, by a brooding, steely-eyed Daniel Craig. Getting to the heart of the super spy’s callous nature—his flippant nihilism, his casual misogyny—Craig does something downright transcendent: he turns this latest entry in the blockbuster franchise into a devastating human tragedy. A Bond film that’s actually about something? Move over Goldfinger, we have a new champion!


6. Three Times- A simple title for such a complicated movie—complicated not in its plotting, but in the tangled web of ideas that it weaves. The latest from Hsiao-hsien Hou, a Taiwanese filmmaker whose movies rarely screen in the U.S., this gorgeous, mannered, esoteric anthology explores the amorphous nature of love, and how it evolves or withers with time. There are three stories, each set in a different era, but with the same leads, Qi Shu and Chen Chang. Alone, these self-contained vignettes—tonally, thematically, and aesthetically disparate—are wholly satisfying. Together, though, they form an even greater whole, a complex cinematic thesis and three-act tone poem that charts an uneven path from the sweet innocence of first love to a distinctly modern brand of romantic disenchantment. Admittedly, it isn’t entirely easy to decipher or deconstruct all of Hsiao-hsien’s artistic intentions, which he hides behind layers of dreamy ambiance. But when the journey is this rapturously beautiful, this visually and sonically appealing, you can hardly complain about getting lost along the way. Three Times is a film you’ll want to get lost in, again and again.


7. The Departed- There’s nothing quite like watching a master at play, and The Departed is Martin Scorsese’s greatest toy in ages. A suped-up remake of the Hong Kong action thriller Infernal Affairs, this violent, razor-sharp crime opus crackles with maniacal energy and bracingly funny black humor. Yet to dismiss it as fun but regressive backsliding (as some critics have done) is to deny the very nature of its construction: mixing the messy, rock-and-roll vitality of his earlier work with the control and artistic maturity of his latter day experiments, Scorsese has made the first film of his career that’s got both the gritty swing of Old Marty and the operatic grandeur of New Marty. But even if the detractors were right, this electrifying tour through the mean streets of Boston—with a searing Leonardo DiCaprio as a mole in the mob and a cunning Matt Damon as his undercover counterpart in the police force—would still be the year’s most purely entertaining ride. William Monahan’s script is tough and smart and Howard Shore’s music pulsates and soars, but, bottom line, this is the Scorsese Show. And oh, what a show it is.


8. The Science of Sleep- More than any other artistic medium, cinema seems an appropriate conduit for the expression of the unconscious mind. Like David Lynch, writer-director Michel Gondry (who had one hell of a year: see #4) understands and embraces the opportunity to recreate the dream world of his imagination. The Science of Sleep, like the artist’s iconic music videos, is a series of airy, abstract wonders, surreal dream sequences that bear the personal, idiosyncratic mark of their creator. The visual effects—all papier-mâché and stop motion—have a charming organic quality, but it’s the awkward romance between Stefan (the fiercely talented Gael Garcia Bernal) and Stefanie (the lovely French movie star Charlotte Gainsburg) that grounds this whimsical fantasia, keeping it from floating off into the ether. Stefan can’t distinguish his dreams from reality, but that’s the least of his problems: he’s a lovesick fool—insecure, selfish, and plagued by doubts. As a lilting, Gen X love story, The Science of Sleep is no match for Gondry’s own Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But as a vigorous tug-o-war between the filmmaker’s id and superego—cast as the struggle between Stefan’s epic fantasies and the stark reality of his life—it makes for a charming, fascinating trip.


9. Brick- You know those modernized Shakespeare adaptations, the ones in which entire pages of dialogue and full storylines are transported to a contemporary setting? That’s Brick for you—just substitute Dashiell Hammett for the Bard. Rian Johnson’s hypnotic and deviously clever first feature has all the trappings of a hard-boiled, 1940s detective movie: double-crossings, labyrinthine plot twists, slinky femme fatales, crooked cops, menacing thugs, even a McGuffin. It’s got all these things, yet it plays out not in some shadowy urban jungle, but, rather, in and around a suburban high school. Call it Teenage Noir, if you must, but don’t call it a stunt: though it’s funny and jarring to hear Johnson’s spot-on, rat-a-tat-tat vernacular spilling out of the mouths of freshly-scrubbed, So-Cal valley kids, Brick transcends its film-school premise. As a junior Sam Spade, Mysterious Skin’s Joseph Gordon Levitt has the charisma and presence of a young Bogie, and the movie built around him is a moody marvel. Johnson smartly equates the backstabbing power struggles and hot passions of seedy crime thrillers to the every-day drama of high school—and in the process comes closer to capturing the real spirit of noir than a cartoon homage like Sin City ever could. Obscenely enjoyable.


10. Look Both Ways- There are any number of films that might have occupied this tenth and final spot on my list (see the honorable mentions below), but I can’t pass up an opportunity to pay affectionate tribute to one of 2006’s unheralded triumphs. The debut feature from Australian filmmaker Sarah Watts, Look Both Ways traces the lives of several characters grappling with their own mortality in the wake of a sudden, public tragedy. There are shades of Altman and P.T. Anderson here, but Watts’ vision is scarcely derivative. In a year in which style and substance weren’t mutually exclusive—where they mingled and co-existed instead, complementing each other even—the writer-director boldly employs flashy techniques (like rapid photo montages and beautiful, watercolor animation) in service of old-fashioned good storytelling. And though it relies a bit too heavily on the conventions of the ensemble drama (i.e. the mournful montage set to a pop ballad), the film’s life-affirming climax is overwhelmingly emotional. With superb acting and an exceptionally strong script, this quirky gem deserves—nay, demands—to be discovered by a wider audience. Spread the word.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

I saw 99 new movies in 2006. That’s more than I’ve ever seen in one year, and though many of them were unremarkable or worse, a good number were well worth checking out. In other words, in a weaker year, any one of the following films could have made my Top Ten list.

The honorable mentions of 2006, in alphabetical order:

The Descent, Half Nelson, Little Fish, The Lives of Others, Marie Antoinette, Mutual Appreciation, Old Joy, The Prestige, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Puffy Chair, A Scanner Darkly, Sherrybaby, and Volver.

THE WORST

1. Running Scared- Irredeemably atrocious. If Tony Scott dropped acid, then spent a week watching music videos and playing Grand Theft Auto, he might come close to making something as vile and mind-numbingly stupid as this. Wayne Kramer’s shamelessly plagiaristic style is matched only by his gleeful sadism and moral bankruptcy: in the writer-director’s warped mind, a child blowing away his abusive father with a stolen handgun is cause for righteous celebration. Aesthetically and ideologically repugnant—not just the worst movie of the year, but one of the worst I’ve ever seen.

2. Bobby- On the opposite end of the spectrum, a preachy liberal wank fest, as embarrassingly earnest as a Hallmark card. A labor of love from triple-threat Emilio Estevez, Bobby tells a dozen stories, none of them interesting. Movie stars play dress-up to the Super Sounds of the ‘60s, pausing now and then to deliver a heavy-handed speech. Of the film’s many sins, its greatest is the way in which it tidily reduces the entire spirit of a decade—the hopes and dreams of a generation—to a series of bumper sticker slogans. Sitting through two hours of this didactic bullshit makes me want to vote Republican.

3. Running With Scissors- A shrill hissy fit of a movie. "Nip/Tuck" creator Ryan Murphy transforms Augusten Burroughs’ best-selling memoir (beloved by many, unread by me) into a dysfunctional-family sitcom, one that’s alternately hateful, saccharine, and self-consciously quirky. Joseph Cross, bland and whiny, is our long-suffering hero, forced to spend years dealing with his unstable mother and the wacky antics of his off-the-wall surrogate family. Compared to those who actually saw this dreadful film, Augusten got off easy.

4. You, Me, and Dupree- The jokes are as stale and lazy as the premise. It’s as if the producers got Owen Wilson attached and thought the movie would write itself. Wilson does his usual nice-guy doofus routine while Matt Dillon scowls and Kate Hudson scampers around in cute outfits. For two hours. I like broad, scatological comedy as much as the next guy—well, okay, maybe not—but this is just inexcusable.

5. The Last King of Scotland & Little Children- Proof apparent that all it really takes to be a winner is to dress like one. There’s no other explanation for the baffling acclaim that these pandering, condescending, middlebrow trifles have garnered. Last King is a racist potboiler posing as a social-outrage polemic. Little Children is a shallow suburban satire, a shameless amalgam of American Beauty and Happiness. Neither of them is worth a damn. Both of them are nominated for Oscars. What was I saying earlier about a disintegrating film culture?

(DIS)HONORABLE MENTION

Being a film buff isn’t all sunshine and lollypops: there’s a dark side to spending all your free time at the movie theatre. None of the following pics are quite as wretched as the six I just listed, but if that isn’t the biggest backhanded compliment I’ve ever given, I must be mincing words.

The runner-downs, the bronze medal atrocities, the dishonorable mentions of 2006:

The DaVinci Code, Hostel, Lady In the Water, Lucky Number Slevin, Miami Vice, and X-Men: The Last Stand.

SO, WHAT’S NEXT?

One of the most rewarding and daunting things about being a film enthusiast is that it’s a full-time job. There’s never a time in which new movies aren’t coming out. This means that even as I close the book on a year of cinema, I have to gear up for the start of a whole new one.

If 2006 was the year of indie breakouts and big-budget sequels and Martin Scorsese, what will 2007 hold for us? What will be the big grosser—Spider-man 3 or Pirates 3? Will the horror bubble burst—or, with at least two new fright flicks opening every month, will it just get bigger? Will the new one from Francis Ford Coppola be the triumphant return-to-form many have been waiting for? Will Grindhouse be as much fun as it sounds? For me, 2007 will probably be all about David Cronenberg and David Gordon Green, Spike Jonze and Spike Lee, Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson. Oh, and Wong Kar-Wai, of course. But then again, who knows? We’ve got a full year ahead of. And, personally, I can’t wait to see what surprises lie in waiting.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Manny Farber, 1917-2008


"{Evaluation} is practically worthless. The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not; the problems of writing are after that. I don't think it has any importance; it's one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies."

That's Manny Farber, painter, teacher, and, though he'd likely have resented the qualifying title, greatest of the great film critics. Farber died last night in his sleep at the age of 91. Of all the famous folk that have passed away this year-- and my, have there been a lot of them-- the loss of this essential figure has hit closest to home for me. It's not just that he was one of the most influential writers in his field, what Phillip Lopate called "a film critic's film critic," cherished and admired by everyone from Pauline Kael to Susan Sontag to Jonathon Rosenbaum. It's that discovering Farber pretty much single-handedly destroyed my narrow notion of what film criticism could and should be. Before stumbling upon his dense, heady, acrobatic musings-- sometime in the spring of 2004, as an undergraduate English major at Michigan State University-- I weened myself chiefly on the palatable conversation pieces of Roger Ebert and the grade-happy summaries of Entertainment Weekly. (Ah, the follies of youth.) Farber taught me that criticism should be a journey itself, and that writing about a movie is as much about wrestling with yourself-- your own ideas and conceits, your complicated reactions and responses and prejudices-- as it is about rendering some empirical judgment. Farber taught me to love the high and the low, art movies and "trashy" genre larks. He also taught me to distrust the middle, those pandering, tasteful, crowd-pleasing prestige pictures. (We call them Miramax films today.) Hell, I almost titled this very blog "Termites and Elephants," in honor of the man's most famous essay, his salute to hungry and unpretentious, go-for-broke "termite art."

I'm gushing a bit, but there's blame to be placed here, too. After all, it's Farber that gave me this damn criticism bug in the first place. Had I not hitched my wagon to his stubborn, careening star, I might be set on a more lucrative career path. We film critics are an endangered species; each new month seems to bring the retirement or layoff of another iconoclastic newspaper or magazine critic. You know you've settled on an unstable profession when seasoned insiders are telling you to take the safer route and become a damn screenwriter.

Still, for better or for worse, for riches or shambles, criticism appears to be my calling. Maybe it's more of an echo, aspiration born of admiration, passion sounding off into the night and coming back to energize me anew. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Farber was, is, and shall remain my echo chamber. And though he's gone now, I can still use his difficult, knotty, digressive think pieces as my creative sounding board. Scream into that negative space and be greeted by the returning, deafening trumpet call of the true cinephile.

Rest in peace, Manny. You will be missed.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

INTO THE PAST: Notes on Death, Memory, and the Poetic Cinema of Bruce Baillie


They unfold like fragmented reflections—clear as day, but distant somehow, like memories bubbling out of the deepest recesses of the unconscious mind. These aren’t complete thoughts. No, they’re more like slivers of recollection, fluttering transmissions from some half-forgotten place or half-imagined time. You’ve been here before, they whisper. You’ve seen these things. You’ve smelled them and touched them. Dirt, water, and sky. A mighty train careening through the wilderness. The shifting eyes of a horse… or is it a cow, or a dog? If the past is a puzzle, these moments out of time— striking images of man, nature, and where they collide—are the scattered pieces. But to what do they add up? To whom do these memories belong, and what truths do they illuminate?

There are answers here, but you could get lost searching for them. Then again, Bruce Baillie makes the type of movies you want to get lost in. To this impassioned poet of the avant garde, founder of San Fransisco’s Canyon Cinema, the past is not a concept. It’s a journey—a strange, beautiful, and elusive one, colored not by warm nostalgia so much as a deep, melancholy longing for that which is gone. Concerned, as French filmmaker Alain Resnais always has been, with the dialectic between the past and the present, Baillie possesses that rare understanding of film as an intrinsically elegiac medium—what are movies really but dead moments, frozen in time and looped for eternity? Consequently, all of the man’s works, each lyrical portrait of a person or a place, feels like something of a eulogy. Some are celebratory, others are mournful. All are built from scraps and fragments, echoes and hints of some mythic yesterday, some purer world no less lovely for its first signs of decay.

Baillie’s films thrive on a kind of fascinating contradiction: though gentle and quiet as a light breeze, serene and even comforting in their long stretches of picturesque tranquility, they’re also fueled by something that feels an awful lot like unbridled social outrage. His is a poetry of dissent, of rich empathy spiked with burgeoning discontent, of what critic Jonathon Rosenbaum often refers to as “radical humanism.” Indeed, sitting in the dark and hallowed halls of the University of Chicago, watching an all-too-brief selection of Baillie’s infrequently screened work, I thought more than once of Forough Farrokhzad’s classic Iranian short, The House Is Black. Released in 1964, the dead center of Baillie’s first and most prolific decade, Farrokhzad’s tone poem documentary, about a leper colony and its isolated inhabitants, feels like a spiritual cousin to any number of Baillie’s mixed-mode trips down memory lane.

Take, for instance, the first short in Doc Film’s program: the foggy, fleeting Mr. Hayashi (1961). A lone man, a Japanese immigrant, digs at Earth with shovel and hand. He wanders through a vast field, speaking, via monotone voice-over, of his troubles finding work in America. Lonelier and bleaker even than The House Is Black—at least those exiled lepers have each other—the piece ends as quickly as it began, abruptly fading out on Mr. Hayashi’s plight, abandoning the lone traveler to his private and desolate trail of tears. Yet as with Farrokhzad’s celebrated film, desperation is undercut by a redemptive faith in the human spirit, a silver lining brightened and magnified by aesthetic design. Baillie’s close-ups never rob his subject of dignity or autonomy. The filmmaker focuses empathetically on the lines and crevices of the man’s visage, on his poise and posture, on the steady pace of his endless stride. Baillie lingers on Mr. Hayashi; in turn, Mr. Hayashi lingers in our own thoughts, gone but not forgotten—a weary stand-in for a million others like him, giving voice to the voiceless and a face to the faceless.

Shrewdly sequenced in chronological order, Doc Film’s program sketched a compelling picture of Baillie’s stylistic and ideological evolution, an enlightening overview of his accelerated growth as both artist and thinker. That flicker of social conscience, clear as day in the early Mr. Hayashi, would blossom into a veritable humanistic crusade by mid-decade. The epic poem Mass For the Dakota Sioux (1964)—screened third, just before intermission—offered the night’s most overt political message, not to mention Baillie’s boldest choices of juxtaposition. Alternating between shots of beatific natural wonder, encroaching modernity, and the spectacle of a lone biker crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—he a symbolic specter of the murdered and betrayed Sioux, I’d wager—this is one of Baillie’s most powerful eulogies, an ambitious lament for a consumed civilization. (Admittedly, it does succumb to some bitter and uncharacteristic irony, most notably in its on-the-nose savaging of suburban planning.)

By the mid-60s, Baillie was actively toying with the very medium of film, eschewing the stark naturalism of his earliest efforts in favor of formal experimentation. Though not as daring in his aesthetic choices as some of his celebrated, avant garde contemporaries, the filmmaker consistently introduced new techniques into his repertoire, constantly tugging at his style, finding exciting new ways to express the common themes of his work. In Mass For the Dakota Sioux, ghostly superimpositions suggest the haunting of the present by a damaged past, unpleasant memories creating ripples in the collective subconscious. Similarly, one could read Castro Street (1966), with its eerie, de-saturated imagery and inverted color scheme, as a treatise on the way that history is obscured and repressed by tradition-as-mythology—we bubble-wrap the past in fairy tales, comforting lies that stick well to the buildings and monuments and boulevards of our great cities.

These are fascinating plays in form and function, but, for this particular viewer, Baillie’s most rewarding work is his simplest, aesthetically speaking. Of the six or seven shorts screened by Doc Films, two in particular remain fixed in my mind, like the scant traces of lucid daydreams, tough to remember in full but impossible to forget. In the curiously titled Have You Thought of Talking To the Director? (1962), a shell-shocked man in a hospital or rehab clinic or asylum—it’s tough to say which—drifts into a surreal adventure of the mind, a road-trip through Small Town America, punctuated by the occasional, foreboding appearance of a cowboy cipher. The film has the oddball, nonsense logic of a David Lynch mystery; it flirts with narrative structure, only to make tangential left-turns every time a coherent arc begins to take shape. More than anything else screened that night, Director? evokes the very process of remembering, the way that we assemble shards of experience and flashes of potent, nearly-forgotten imagery—faces and places from our past, encased in emotion but free of context—into something scarcely resembling a “story.” (After all, there’s comfort and safety and logic in stories, even artificially constructed ones.)

But the crème de la crème of Baillie’s oeuvre, perhaps, is Valentin De Las Sierras (1967), the last short in Doc Films’ program. Though supposedly a salute to Mexican folk hero Valentin—his song, beautifully played and sung by Jose Santollo Nasido, runs on the soundtrack—the film feels more like a tribute to all of Mexico, albeit one devoid of any actual landscape shots. His camera locked in perpetual, extreme close-up, Baillie lovingly lingers on brilliantly vivid details: the eyes and hair of beast and men, dusty roads, blades of grass drenched in summer light. It’s an idyllic portrait of community, one enriched by Baillie’s deep respect and empathy for his human subjects, the men and women he catches in fleeting glimpses and telling glances. Valentin feels like a throwback to the compassionate intimacy of Mr. Hayashi—it was the perfect bookend for Doc Film’s Baillie Sampler—yet the substitution of hope for despair and kinship for isolation suggests a refreshing abandonment of the filmmaker’s entrenched, less-than-useful cynicism.

Whether the optimism of Valentin carried over to Baillie’s post-60s work is a question for someone more familiar with the man’s complete canon. A totally marginalized artist and filmmaker, Baillie’s never seen an official, home video release of any of his movies; if you’ve caught even one of them, you were attending some ultra rare screening at a university, film festival, or inner-city art house. According to his website, he’s self-producing DVDs of his films, hoping to drum up enough funds to finish his final project. It’s a shame, really: his sublime, profound and wholly accessible work warrants—nay, demands—the kind of lavish treatment Criterion afforded Stan Brakhage a few years ago. Film lovers, take heed: without such renewed interest, Bruce Baillie could end up another casualty of history, gone and forgotten, consumed by the same billowing fog as the beleaguered Mr. Hayashi. Let’s keep him alive, in our minds and on our screens.