As Manohla Dargis writes in The New York Times, “one of the most perfect films that I’ve ever seen runs a total of three minutes. Shot in 1966, Bruce Baillie’s All My Life opens on a pan of an old picket fence framed by the blue sky above and a stretch of summer-brown grass below. On the soundtrack, you can hear the crackle and hiss of an old record that’s soon filled with the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘All My Life’ in a 1936 session with the pianist Teddy Wilson.
In many respects, the image is perfectly ordinary, the kind that you chance on if you’re driving along, say, a California road, as Mr. Baillie was when he popped out of a car, seized by inspiration. Yet, as the camera continues to float left and Fitzgerald begins singing (‘All my life/I’ve been waiting for you’), something magical — call it cinema — happens in the middle of the first verse. As the words ‘my wonderful one/I’ve begun’ warm the soundtrack, a splash of red flowers on the fence suddenly appears, as if the film itself were offering you a garland.
Of course it’s Mr. Baillie, now 84, who, with artistry and sensitivity — to color, nature and a camera movement that unwinds like a scroll — found the precise moment to join that song with those flowers, a union that illuminates the sublime in the everyday. The film’s genesis, Mr. Baillie told the writer Scott MacDonald in 1989, was that Fitzgerald recording and ‘the quality of the light for three summer days’ on a stretch of Northern California coast. After days of admiring the light’s beauty, Mr. Baillie said he decided, ‘No, I cannot turn my back on this!’ By the final day, he had begun immortalizing that light with a camera, a roll of outdated Ansco film stock and a tripod.
You can watch All My Life and other Baillie films online, but don’t. If you really want to see that masterwork the way it was meant to be experienced, you should watch it in the partial retrospective of his work that begins Saturday, April 9 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Organized by Garbiñe Ortega, this traveling five-program series, All My Life: The Films of Bruce Baillie, includes 14 of his films dating from 1961 through 1977, as well as 13 short titles by contemporaries like Stan Brakhage, Robert Nelson and Chick Strand. In New York, the Baillie screenings, which begin April 9, are part of a larger Film Society documentary series, Art of the Real.”
Baillie has been patiently working on these films for years, and almost studiously avoided the limelight; in addition to the films that Ms. Dargis mentions, I would add several of my own favorites – Quixote (1965), Quick Billy (1968-1969), Have You Thought of Talking to The Director? (1962), Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1964), and A Hurrah for Soldiers (1963), one of the most effective and elegiac short films ever made, which Baillie describes as being “dedicated to Albert Verbrugghe, whose wife was killed in Katana by U. N. soldiers.”
Baillie’s films are simply “essential cinema” in every sense of that oft-used phrase, and the chance to see his work in a gallery setting should not be passed up, if you can possibly attend these screenings. As Baillie said of his film work, “there were ages of faith, when men made natural connections between themselves and the place in which they lived, the plants they cultivated, the fuel they used for warmth, their beasts, and their ancestors. My work will be discovering in American life those natural and ancient contacts through the art of cinema!”