Bruce Baillie – To Parsifal (1963)

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The Structure of Lyric:
Baillie’s to Parsifal
Alan Williams

It’s difficult to say exactly where or how To Parsifal is a lyric film and where or how a narrative work. For this reason, ordinary critical vocabularies (based on certain “types” of films) do not apply with much usefulness to Bruce Baillie’s abstractly assembled color images, nor to the nature and functions of his sound track. To get a sense of how this film works it will be necessary first to break it down, outline it, in order to see how the (implied) viewer puts it together.

The 16-minute film falls neatly into two nearly equal parts, separated by fades to and from black.

Part one depicts a sunrise, a journey out to sea in a boat, then gulls flying around the boat while fish are cleaned, and finally the journey back and the reappearance of land. This is, narratively, a reasonably clear presentation of a fishing voyage; the only strange thing, informationally, is the absence of human beings (except for the hands seen cleaning fish). In part two the setting changes from sea and coastline to a mountain forest traversed by railroad tracks. Workmen are seen repairing the tracks, after which a train passes through the forest while a nude woman stands nearby. The woman washes herself in a stream as insects move on ground and water. Then the workmen are again seen repairing the tracks; a train appears and a man’s hand pulls the woman away from the camera as the train continues through the forest, illuminated by a setting sun.

The two parts function as one larger unit by similar patterns of development and by a strong sense of temporal progression. Part one begins at sunrise and seems to end during the afternoon. The second part begins at some time in the morning and ends with a sunset. Whether we are to take the film as occurring during a single day or during two days seems beside the point; the work has an almost mythic sense of time. As the beginning of part one and the end of part two are connected by the presence of the sun, the end of the first part and the beginning of the second are connected by the presence of mist (subtly underlined by the foghorn on the sound track during the darkness which separates the two units).

Both parts exhibit a circular (symmetrical) construction which also contributes to the mythic—ritualistic—aspects of the work. This is most striking in the ABA movements of the fishing voyage: land to water to land again—voyage out, fish and gulls, voyage back. There is another large ABA structure at work in part one, not specifically connected with the story as such (though it contributes to the overall formal structure). This is the alternation on the sound track between music and “natural” sounds. The film begins with a coast-guard weather report, recorded (seemingly) on the boat. This continues to the fourth shot of the film, where it slowly fades out as music fades in—an excerpt from Wagner’s Prelude to Parsifal . This music continues almost until the end of part one, when foghorns and boat noises are heard, continuing through to the dark screen which divides the work.

Part two is more complex, as may be seen merely from its density of shots (65 as opposed to part one’s 43) and from the more frequent alternations on the sound track. Nevertheless, the same formal principles are at work. The workmen and the train appear twice, at the beginning and end. The middle portion (woman bathing and the insects) is not repeated and does not incorporate any elements which precede or follow it—except for the woman, who is seen in a different place, in a different light (this being the brightest tonality in part two), and from a different camera angle and position. The principal elements new to the repeated “A” section in part two are the man’s hand and the sunset, but both have their equivalents in part one: the hands which clean the fish, and the rising sun. What is lacking in the forest scenes is a means of “explaining” the images, as part one can be called a fishing expedition. (We will see later that much clarification of this part’s “story” can be obtained by relating it to Wagner’s opera.)

The sound track for part two is more complex than that of part one, but it still proceeds by an alternation of music and “natural” noises. There are four sections of music, drawn from the body of the opera, which alternate with three types of sounds associated with the train: the voices of the workmen, wheels on the tracks, and the train whistle. This grouping is similar to that in part one where all “real” sound was connected with the boat. Thus we can represent the structure of part two as an expansion of the circular pattern already noted in connection with part one. If A signifies music and B natural sound, the pattern is AB ABA BA. Part one begins and ends with natural sound-effects, whereas part two begins and ends with music.

So far I have been indulging in what would most frequently be called a “formal” analysis of To Parsifal . The question most frequently raised by such a procedure (and rightly so) is: where does it lead? What does this analysis say about the text and its production of meaning? The ABA structure (and its expansion) which we have isolated, first of all, does contribute to the “mythic” feeling of Baillie’s film. But more importantly, the heavy formal equivalences between the two sections of the work permit us to draw some tentative conclusions about the visual and thematic equivalences between these sections.

The boat with its wake and the train with its track have similar places in the formal configurations of parts one and two. The fish and the woman, as well as the animals that surround them—gulls and insects—appear only in the “B” sections of the two parts. Constant in both sections are the functional equivalences between ocean and land, masts and trees. Thus, the formal parallels we have noted have repercussions on what might be termed a thematic level. Significantly, the visual treatment of these same elements (particularly masts = trees, wake = tracks, and ocean = land) matches up through composition within the image.

These tentative conclusions will have to suffice until we have investigated the formal structure of the film a bit further. The patterns we have observed have analogues at levels beyond the global movement of each section of the film. Our brief summary of the fishing expedition as presented in To Parsifal may be summarized as follows:

1. Prelude (sunrise): land, water, boat

2. Journey out to sea

3. Gulls and fish cleaning

4. The journey back

But are there any other criteria than narrative structure which make this grouping more valid than any other? For example, how do we separate segments 1 and 2, by what principle and at what moment?

There are some important formal principles differentiating the various segments which we have identified. Aside from shot content (which is still quite important), these segments are distinguished by emphasis on movement within the frame (segments 1 and 3) and movement—generally tracking—of the camera (segments 2 and 4). This is a distinction which will remain important for the second part of the film. Segments 2 and 4 are composed almost exclusively of tracking shots taken from the side of the boat. To this moving depiction of immobile objects is contrasted the fixed-camera shots of the moving sun, grass, and hands cleaning the fish in segments 1 and 3. This general tendency is contradicted by occasional shots, but as an overall structure device it remains remarkably constant.

The passage from one type of shot (and segment) to another is accomplished so smoothly as to be almost imperceptible. Shots 8 and 9 of the film, which demarcate what we have termed segments 1 and 2, are a good example. The camera, fixed, shows a close-up of water in motion, all white, taken from the shore. The new shot begins as apparently the same thing, until an upward pan to smoothly moving blue water reveals that we are now tracking with the boat, the first of a series of such shots which will continue until the beginning of the third segment, where lateral tracking is either absent or considerably de-emphasized, depending on the shot.

Another way in which these segments are differentiated is by their internal coherence. When we examine groupings of shots in To Parsifal we find a precise, almost abstract way of juxtaposing images and forming larger units with them. Two principles of coherence seem to be at work (these are common, it should be said, in many types of film). The first we might call a principle of alternation: given two types of shots—from different angles, distances, of different subjects, and so on—the two elements may alternate, ABAB and so on. The second principle we might term variation by distance: given a single subject or type of shot, the camera distance may change from long shot to medium to close-up or vice versa. In To Parsifal these two procedures occur sometimes independently, sometimes in combination. Breaks in the narrative structure and significant individual shots are emphasized by the absence of these two types of coherence.

Described in this fashion, these two principles of organization may well seem artless and mechanical. Their action within the film, however, is subtle and balanced. Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate the work’s artful manipulation of such formal principles is to study the “fish and gulls” segment in part one. The core of this segment is formed by the perfectly symmetrical development of images of the fish being cleaned:

Medium shot, camera up: many gulls flying by the boat; the rope swings briefly into the foreground, with water seen at the end of the shot (20 seconds)

Extreme close-up, camera down towards table: bloody fish’s mouth, very red (1.7 seconds)

Medium shot, up: sky and a gull flying alongside the boat, mast and cable (11 seconds)

Close-up, down: fish’s body, knife cutting both the frame and the fish’s belly (3.3 seconds)

Medium close-up, down: three fish on a table, hands cleaning one of them (6 seconds)

Close-up, down: one fish, split open; the knife passes through its body and the frame of the shot (4.0 seconds)

Medium shot, up: sky and gull, mast and cable (same set-up as the third shot of this series; 2.7 seconds)

Medium close-up, up: gulls flying, sky, no boat parts (1.7 seconds)

Extreme close-up, down: a fish’s head, its yellow eye in the right center of the frame (1.3 seconds)

Medium shot, horizontal: empty sky framed by a doorway; the gulls fly in and out of the frame (8.3 seconds)

We may see that these shots are centered on the most distant (medium close-up) and longest (6 seconds) image of the fish. This shot is surrounded by briefer, closer images of fish, and this group of three is in turn surrounded by other shots of fish and of gulls, arranged symmetrically.

Thus, the appearance of the fish is regulated both by alternation with shots of gulls and by variation by distance. This new material—the fish—is introduced in a manner typical of the film as a whole: alternation is the rule, with subjects and formal procedures held over from the part of the film which immediately precedes. This is true, for example, in the distinction which we already made between movement in the shot (fish and gulls) and movement of the camera (tracking with the boat): the latter does not totally disappear in this segment but is phased in and out through the principle of alternation.

The use of color and shot duration in this segment is also characteristic of the development of the film as a whole. The first introduction of the fish motif is accomplished in a brief shot, particularly short in comparison to the 20-second shot which precedes it. The tonality of the film to this point has been largely blues and greens, with some yellow in the introductory segment, and the first shot of the bloody fish introduces an extreme hue of red which, in contrast, is nothing short of shocking. The last (equally brief) extreme close-up of the fish introduces a brilliant yellow not seen previously.

This “fish and gulls” segment is more rigidly developed than others in the film, in keeping with its central thematic importance. The opening (what we have labeled segment 1 of part one) of To Parsifal , on the other hand, shows much freer construction, even though it is still based on the same sorts of development and linking of images. This segment consists of:

Long shot, horizontal (vertical motion with boat): silhouette of boat on left in foreground; water, shore, sky lit by sun behind hills; title fades in and out over boat (27 seconds)

Medium long shot, horizontal: grass, hills, sky lit from behind hills (5 seconds)

Very long shot, horizontal: grass rustling, fence, hills, grey sky (8.6 seconds)

Long shot, horizontal (vertical motion with boat): boat parts in right foreground; water, hills, the sky lit by more light than previously (20 seconds). Dissolve to:

Long shot, horizontal: grass in foreground, hill, sea, sky (looking towards the sea; 10.8 seconds)

Long shot, horizontal: grass in foreground, moving furiously, hills, sky, no water (9.8 seconds)

Medium long shot, horizontal: rocks (one in foreground at right), sea, sky (10 seconds)

Close-up, downward camera: rocks, water in rapid movement, no sky (6.4 seconds)

We can see the principles of alternation and variation by distance at work in these shots. The second image, for example, appears to be (though from its lack of movement evidently is not) a closer shot of the hill with the sun behind it seen from the boat at the film’s very beginning. Shot 3 introduces a new type

of image—hills and grass, not at dawn—and is followed in shot 4 by a return to the elements of shot 1. Shots 5, 7, and 8 are successively closer views from a new vantage point (looking towards the sea) of rocks, shoreline, and water. Shot 6, on the other hand, is a closer view of the same elements seen in shot 3. In terms of content we could schematize this series as AABACBCC. This complex yet symmetrical pattern recalls the careful construction of baroque music or certain types of rhyme schemes in French poetry. Lest we give the impression of too much formal rigor we should note that duration of shots varies considerably in this segment. In general, it follows the film’s tendency to accord more running time to more distant or complex shots at the expense of close-ups or simple visual groupings.

One more comment should be made about this opening to Baillie’s film. The shots which we identified as types “A” and “C” are essentially the same type of shot taken from two directions, which will be the two directions of the film as a whole. Shots 1, 4, and presumably 2 are taken from the sea looking toward shore and rising sun. Shots 5, 7, and 8 are taken from the shore looking toward the sea. Thus the division we may note between shots 4 and 5, which is the point at which the segment folds back on itself formally (this emphasized by a dissolve), is explicable as the meeting of water and land—and the two different directions (and angles—up and down) from which they can be viewed. (Shots 4 and 6 are distinct in this series by including no reference to the sea or to direction at all; they seem to have been taken at an entirely different location and time of day. Indeed, they seem to refer to the second half of the film, particularly since they are strikingly similar to several of its shots.)

The second half of To Parsifal is, as we noted, more complex than the first. It is possible to carry out the same operation of segmentation as we did with part one, though the result is a bit less elegant. What is more important here is to explore further the structuring principles of the work and its possible meanings.

In examining the overall structure of parts one and two we posited an equivalence between the nude woman and the fish being cleaned. As the position of the woman will lead us into the central problems of an interpretation of Báillie’s film, we will note the stages of her presentation. She first appears in a very brief close-up of the back of her head. This shot is surrounded by two almost identical shots of the train in motion. This procedure is comparable to the position of the first close-up of the fish (also, significantly, of its head), which is surrounded by shots (looking up, as with the train) of gulls. Use of color is analogous in the two cases: the red of the fish is the first use of this color in the midst of dominantly blue and white images, while the woman’s blond hair is an almost equally great contrast to the muted greens and browns of the shots which surround it. Both woman and fish are introduced in shots

of such short duration that it is only with their second, longer appearances that the initial shots can be identified, in retrospect.

But the development, on a shot-to-shot basis, of the motif of the woman does not continue to parallel that of the fish. Later, where we might expect a more distant shot of the woman’s hair and body, we see instead a tracking/panning shot of the woman as seen from the train. There is only one similar shot, in terms of movement, in the film. This is in part one, where we see a gull on the water from the moving boat. Paradoxically, these links establish a sort of formal equivalence between woman and gull, as well as between train and boat, ground and water.

In the center of what we termed the large, “B” section of part two the woman reappears. Shots of her are cut into a series depicting mainly water-strider insects on the mountain stream. She is in the water in these shots, and no train or tracks are visible. Again, she appears only twice, briefly, and then is not seen for ten shots, when she is shown in medium shot, from the back as before. This is a more distant shot from the same position as the previous ones, and is followed later by a return to the original distance, giving a progression by symmetrical variation of camera distance similar in method to the development of the images of the fish in part one.

Finally, in the return to the “A” segments of part two, the woman is again alternated with shots of the train. These images work by an opposition of camera angles similar to that in the fish/gulls segment of part one: shots of the train (and from the train) are angled up, whereas shots of the woman emphasize a downward angle.

Near the end of the film, we see the first shot of the man’s hand, which will be present in all subsequent images of the woman. The last three shots of woman and hand (always alternating with shots of the train) are particularly intriguing because they introduce a change of direction. These are the first images of the woman from the other side of the “action”—of her belly and neck rather than back. In the first shot of this type, leaves and foliage frame the grasping hand, a composition which recalls the first appearance of the train in part two, where small leaves on the edge of the frame surround the more distant train. This comparison implicitly gives support to the idea of the train as “masculine” principle—as phallus. We should note in connection with this shot that the hand is not pulling the woman out of the path of the train, as has been suggested in some commentaries on the film. Rather, it pulls her out of the stream (and, if we are to believe the matches established previously in the film, towards the train). But here we encounter problems beyond the level of segmental structures and formal oppositions.

The question arises: to what extent can we use this brief study of structural features of To Parsifal as part of an attempt at a general interpretation of the film? To approach this problem we must begin by placing the film in a larger context, that of the Parsifal legend. For Baillie has, by the title of his film and by the use of music from Wagner’s opera, grafted his relatively abstract images onto a traditional Western narrative. In its essentials the Parsifal story begins with a kingdom mysteriously laid barren by the illness of its ruler, the Fisher King. The king suffers from a wound of unknown origin, and the land of his kingdom is infertile by response. The king and land can only be restored to health by the quest of a pure knight for the Holy Grail, the vessel in which Christ’s blood was gathered during the crucifixion. The knight must resist the seductions of a temptress (Kundry, in the Wagner opera) and perform various acts of bravery.

Even from this brief summary we can see points of congruence with Baillie’s To Parsifal . There is a “wounding,” as we have seen, quite prominent in part one—that of the fish. What better representation of the “Fisher King”? And a naked woman appears in part two—accompanied on the sound track by an excerpt from Act II of the opera, in which Kundry sings seductively to Parsifal to stay with her and abandon his quest. We could postulate, therefore, that part one of the film depicts the wounding of king and land and that part two concerns the quest for redemption and fertility. But this interpretation raises many questions. Should we therefore see To Parsifal as an anti-technology film, depicting the “rape” of nature by man’s interference? Who or what in the work is Parsifal? Why the presence of the train in part two? Is the quest successful? These questions can only be approached in conjunction with a consideration of internal relations in the film and its place in the larger body of Baillie’s cinema.

We can begin by considering the parallels established between parts one and two. These parallels have profound effects on meaning (indeed, such structures

create meaning). The insistence on modes of transportation, on water, the similar introductions of woman and fish, the resemblances between many shot-types and visual elements common to both parts, the repeated oppositions established by parallel editing between up and down, moving and non-moving shots, and so on—all suggest that the two parts of the film depict similar states, or perhaps different aspects of the same problem.

If part one depicts the wound (rape) of nature and part two the quest for renewed fertility (and it would seem that this is a reasonable assumption, considering the mythic context Baillie has given the film), then the parallels between parts one and two suggest that in To Parsifal the rape of nature and the return of fertility are different aspects of the same act. We should note in this regard that some versions of the Parsifal legend indicate that the knight who must search for the Grail is also originally responsible for the wounding of the Fisher King. This interpretation—the continuity and interdependence of the wound in nature and the quest for health (the “freeing of the waters” in the legend)—would help explain the establishment of a mythic time in the film, marked by sunrise and sunset. The work depicts not a closed series of events but a cycle, a process continually in play, and not a redemption found once and for all.

This set of meanings is put in explicitly sexual terms. Many aspects of the film’s structure suggest a basic division of its elements into cultural stereotypes of masculine and feminine forces—yin and yang. The woman and the fish are both strikingly associated with water and are presented as comparatively static (“passive”). They both are only seen from horizontal or downward camera angles. The boat and the train, on the other hand, both ride over land and water, on tracks and wake, and are presented as causing motion (“active”) and are only seen in horizontal or upward angles of the camera. A number of shots suggest that boat and train leave not only marks but wounds on the surface of land and water. We might generalize from these associations to see nature as a “feminine” element (given the prevailing mythology of our culture) and technology as a “masculine” one. But this notion in no way makes To Parsifal an anti-technology film. Rather, the work seems to be a song, a hymn (in ideologically suspect terms . . .) to the cycle of infertility and fertility, wounding and healing, intercourse and childbirth.

We can find some justification for this point of view in the singularly sexual connotations of many images in the film. Examples in part one include the boat’s masts, the knife which passes through the red lateral opening in the fish, and the boat passing under the bridge. In part two we might cite the train seen moving through the framing leaves, the trees set off at a marked upward angle, the workman’s wrench by the tracks, and, of course, the man’s hand clutching the woman’s body and the long tracking shot from the train forward through the trees—after the woman has been pulled from the water (like a fish).

To examine these hypotheses, it would seem reasonable to broaden the corpus under examination to include all of Baillie’s films. Is what we have suggested about To Parsifal contradicted or supported by the structures and themes of his other work? To Parsifal (1963) is the first of three films concerned, as Baillie has said, with problems of “the hero.” The other two works in this series are Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1963–64) and Quixote (1964–65). One of the major problems of To Parsifal is finding in it any “hero” at all. Likewise, in the two other films there is no single Hollywood-style protagonist. Rather, the heroes of these films are collectivities, mythically linked in each case with a legendary hero—Don Quixote and Christ—just as the Parsifal story supports the images of To Parsifal . Thus Baillie’s conception of the hero in these works seems not that of any individual actor , but rather of a force at work in many guises. The only existence allowed the “hero” as distinct individual in Baillie’s cinema is in the myths which structure the films. But the forces at work in To Parsifal seem hardly human at all. The two centers of the film are the boat and the train. If a hero is to be found it would seem that they are its active representatives. The boat journeys to sea and causes (in terms of what we see) the wounding of the fish; the train passes through the forest without stopping as a nude woman stands seductively by the tracks. These are precisely the actions of the legendary Parsifal. The hero is the “masculine” principle here embodied by technology.

Despite the frequent beauty of its images of nature, Baillie’s cinema is not one of protest and contestation of “progress.” Castro Street (1966) seems particularly relevant here, because its central image is the train. Shots of switch-engine, street signs, factory buildings, and other elements of the locale are superimposed in a contrapuntal fashion; nothing in the film suggests any commentary other than a reveling in the abstract beauty of these forms. Baillie has said that one image of a train engine near the end of this film represents “for the film-maker the essential of consciousness.” Tracks and a cablecar also figure prominently in his first film, On Sundays (1960), though their thematic position in that film is not clearly defined.

We should note, finally, in considering To Parsifal in the light of Baillie’s work in general, a pervasive differentiation between male and female. Whether these films should be considered as overtly sexist is not a concern here. We should note, however, that all of Baillie’s films indicate an adherence to cultural stereotypes of masculinity and femininity which we found helpful in decoding To Parsifal . In particular, the women in On Sundays, Valentin de Las Sierras , and Quick Billy (1971) are presented as passive objects of men’s more active interest.

Thus, we can find in Baillie’s other work three of our centers of interest in reading To Parsifal —the hero, technology, and male/female differentiations.

All these topics seem to reinforce our analysis of the film: through a traditional grid of “masculine” and “feminine” elements, the work celebrates the eternal cycle of death and rebirth, sterility and rejuvenation.

It remains to be seen how we can justify the project of such a reading. None of these ideas are literally “in” the film. At the beginning of this study I attempted to read the implicit viewer into the film text. The viewer, it will be recalled, is that system or set of systems which may “make sense” of the work. This operation is far from being innocent or “natural,” for the text by itself is a set of fragments. Without some notion of the viewer, criticism risks reducing any text to its discontinuities.

There is a certain sort of structuralist criticism which pretends to totally evacuate the viewer from the study of film. Such an operation is, to my way of thinking, illusory. To pretend that in film the spectator is wholly passive is sheer nonsense, a form of elitism worse than the bourgeois individualism of the “every person sees his/her own film” point of view. Thus, in this study of To Parsifal , I have frequently referred to the “viewer,” but not to my own or anyone else’s direct experience of the film. Rather, what is here called the “viewer” is in fact the set of ways of giving meaning to the work. The film text needs the spectator, and the spectator’s function is to create coherence from it.

To Parsifal , like any film, cannot be studied without first giving an approximation of how it is read. In this study I have suggested, hopefully, part of this operation. The objective of structuralist criticism is not the negation of experience; rather, we must account for experience outside of its own terms . Binary oppositions, ideological schemas, and the like are useless without some explanation of what happens to us when we go to the movies.

The independent American cinema is a worthy object of study for such a criticism precisely because so much is left to the implicit (textually defined) viewer. A critique of the cinema of Bruce Baillie is impossible without a notion of how his films “work.” Movies, to use Godard’s formulation, are machines. You pay your money and take the effects. You like them or not. But we as viewers are part of the machine, and nowhere more so than in films such as To Parsifal . The machine exists through us, as well as through other factors—ideology first of all—beyond any immediate perception. But to understand it all, even to begin to understand what happens, we first must know what happens at the most basic levels—at our end of the machine.[B]

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