Breakfast with Dr. Bish

Visionary filmmaker Bruce Baillie speaks
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This weekend brings a major event: the rare return of Bruce Baillie — whose visions of San Francisco are just as brilliant and uncanny, if not as famous, as Alfred Hitchcock’s — to a movie screen in the city. Contemporary filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the director making the most revelatory commercial features today, cites Baillie as his favorite experimental filmmaker. Though Baillie primarily made short films, the philosophical rivers of beauty that run between their works are deep. The moment seemed more than right for a conversation between Baillie and filmmaker Michelle Silva, who helps run Canyon Cinema, one of the two organizations (along with SF Cinematheque) that Baillie founded. They got on the phone and let the tape roll. SFBG We're recording. BRUCE BAILLIE How do they say that in the industry? SFBG "For quality assurance, we're recording this conversation." BB Well, for the recorder's sake, I might be mumbling a little, because I'm still eating my second bowl of cereal. It's the famous Dr. Bish's elixir, which all filmmakers require. SFBG You’ve built a monumental body of cinema now housed in our Library of Congress. You've also founded two distinguished organizations, the avant-garde film distributor Canyon Cinema and the experimental film and video exhibitor San Francisco Cinematheque, which both began in your own backyard over 40 years ago. At the beginning, did you have any forethought about the significance of your work and the movement you would initiate? BB To give a generic response, probably not. People don't operate that way generally. Adolf Hitler probably had a pretty grand idea at the beginning, but it was ill founded. Theater was always one of the bases. I was very taken by Balinese theater and Noh theater. Also [Jean] Cocteau's admonishments that all theater must arise from local familiarity. We had all those ingredients there, almost like baking bread, and it did arise very nicely and warmly and simply. We had a theater in the woods with the neighbors coming over and putting up park benches. There was a big old willow tree by our house and conveniently, a hill behind that held the big surplus screen nicely. I always say to myself, "What is theater made of?" and it really is any collage collection of sticks and stones. It can be highly technical or it can be like the charred bones and the fire out in the desert of Mongolia. If it's done with that kind of ancient mind-set, that kind of respect and adulation of the content — and also the Irish tradition of the manner of presentation — then you're all right. It could be under the apple tree that I'm looking at now while we speak. I'm not too worried about all the modern stuff, aside from the problem of the way semiconscious people identify with the mere technology of it and become two-dimensional. Then you don't have theater, you have President Bush at Harvard taking business administration. SFBG When I watch your films, such as Here I Am, the tightly framed faces reveal unconventional beauty. Could you talk about the people who do appear in your films? BB I will try ... I'm going to have to wash the Bishery off my teeth. The only trouble with the Bish formula at breakfast is that it not only gives you thick ankles eventually if you keep eating it, but it's also hard on the dentures or teeth. We don't like to admit it on the labels. We have a big business shipping this stuff out of the house in a dehydrated form to all the filmmakers in the world. Especially in Asia, it's very popular. We sent a batch to South Korea for a festival. I just got their booklet back, from a Dr. Kim. I didn't realize she was such an esteemed colleague of the doctor here. Apparently the huge batch of dehydrated Bishery was rejected by most of the younger people there, who prefer their own diet, so they sent it up to North Korea. I don't know what's going to come of that. I might be able to save us from the bombs and everything they're trying to throw over here.

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