Bruce Baillie – Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1964)

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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.

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