Castro Street :
The Sensibility of Style
I do not place the artist on a pedestal as a little god. He is only the interpreter of the inexplicable, for the layman the link between the known and the unknown, the beyond. This is mysticism, of course! How else can one explain why a combination of lines by Kandinsky or a form by Brancusi, not obviously related to the cognized world, does bring such intense response . . . granted the eye becomes excited, why?
Edward Weston, The Flame of Recognition
In making this entry of April 7, 1930, in his classic Daybooks , Edward Weston touched upon one of the central mysteries of our response to art: the manner in which pure forms can speak to us and impress us with a sense of their meaning. He characterizes the process as essentially mystical; but his consciousness of the materiality of form and structure seems to render him somewhat uneasy with that conclusion and he ends the passage much as he began, still questioning why.
It is thoughts of this nature which inflect our response to Castro Street , by Bruce Baillie. Like the works of a Brancusi or Kandinsky, it is fundamentally an abstract composition. For the rhetoric of pure line and form it substitutes the orchestration of photographic images treated as graphic elements within a complex montage design. And like the response to abstract art expressed by Weston in his remarks, our reaction to Castro Street involves a level of questioning. For the potency of its address inspires us to fathom the means by which its plastic abstractions communicate a sense of their significance.
On the surface, Castro Street presents an audiovisual tapestry in which footage of a railroad yard and oil refinery are subtly interwoven. Strands of imagery (of trains, smokestacks, industrial landscapes) appear on the screen to the accompaniment of a score of muted mechanical sounds. Discrete shots, however, seem devoid of autonomous, representational status. Rather each becomes a pictorial thread intertwined with others in the fabric of an overall pattern.
In this manner Castro Street creates for the spectator an experience which transcends the nature of its literal subject. As we watch graceful figures of train cars float by, and listen to the dampened sounds of engine-whistle screams, what we apprehend is not a picture of the industrial décor. Rather what we experience is something more vague and ethereal; it is a sense of profound and dynamic resolution.
What we perceive in our viewing of Castro Street finds reverberations in certain experiences Baillie seems to have had at the time of the film's creation.
We know that it was made during a severe period in the artist's life, one in which he felt as if he "were being born"; hence his cryptic epithet for the film—"the coming of consciousness."
Although the exact nature of that experience is known to Baillie alone, two enigmatic notes he made at the time offer us entree to his private sensibility as well as an approach to the aesthetics of the film. One appears in the form of a hand-written entry on a printed program for a screening of Castro Street and reads:
the confrontation of opposites (Carl Jung)
"the strength or conflict of becoming"
Clearly the quote implies a relationship in Baillie's mind between the process of becoming ("the coming of consciousness") and the psychic confrontation of opposites. Its use on a program note suggests a further link between this conception and the formal structure of the film. This is substantiated by a reading of Baillie's catalogue description of Castro Street . For its language makes clear the sense of dialectical interactions imposed upon the configuration of the work:
Castro Street running by the Standard Oil Refinery in Richmond, California . . . switch engines on one side and refinery tanks, stacks, and buildings on the other—the street and the film ending at a red lumber company. All visual and sound elements from the street, progressing from the beginning to the end of the street, one side is black-and-white (secondary) and one side is color—like male and female elements.
But Baillie's perceptions of the period were of a more complex and resonant character. For in addition to a sense of the confrontation of opposites, Baillie postulated their ultimate dissolution. Thus while the world presents apparent polarities, true consciousness affords the perspective from which to apprehend their resolution. This notion seems best articulated in a second note by the artist, one which constitutes an entry in his Castro Street journals:
now in my work, beyond sequence
beyond distinctions. . . .
way of conceiving reality
real consciousness (ego loss)
= agitation-less (loss)
Clearly it is this sense of oppositions confronted and synthesized which one perceives as dynamic resolution in one's viewing experience of Castro Street . To inscribe this "way of conceiving reality" within the design of the film, Baillie has abstracted his photographic imagery to such a degree that it no longer presents an external depiction of reality. Rather it seems to have penetrated the surface of worldly appearance in order to render a vision of its deeper structures.
In grappling with the issue of our response to abstract art Weston had relegated its power to the realm of mysticism, thus avoiding a fruitful answer to the question. He had, however, concluded with a critical challenge, by asking "how else " we might explain art's cogent effect. In many ways an examination of Castro Street provides an occasion to engage that challenge. For rather than some "inexplicable link . . . between the known and the unknown," we find, upon analysis of the cinematic text, concrete relationships between Baillie's "metaphysical" postulations and his methods of plastic organization. Thus the dynamic of oppositions confronted and resolved which Baillie enunciated in his writings is manifested in the film on the level of formal interactions between color, movement, and sound.
While for Baillie the "coming of consciousness" arose in the domain of spiritual revelation, for the viewer of Castro Street it transpires in the realm of critical insight. For not only does the film afford us access to Baillie's particular sensibility; it occasions a consciousness of the means by which a sensibility can be articulated in a rigorous artistic form.
On all its complex tectonic levels the central mechanism of Castro Street involves the construction of formal oppositions in order ultimately to deconstruct them and dissolve the very notion of opposition itself. In this regard Baillie departs from the Eisensteinian conception of montage as collision. For while the Eisensteinian aesthetic calls for the intensification of oppositions, Baillie's editing style works toward the nullification of oppositions. If for Eisenstein "art is always conflict according to its methodology," for Baillie Castro Street encompasses a gesture in the direction "beyond sequence, beyond distinctions. . . ."
But, of course, to "go beyond" implies at first being "there"; and it is by examining the modes of articulating formal polarities within Castro Street that we arrive at a vision of how they are ultimately transcended into unity.
Castro Street is, above all else, a film of hyperbolic superimposition; from beginning to end it creates a uniform texture of densely enmeshed imagery. It would seem that implicit in the very mechanics of superimposition would be the kind of dialectical conflict that formed the basis of Eisenstein's theory of montage. After all, in superimposition it is as though the myriad oppositions that Eisenstein had posited as arising between the shots are encompassed literally within the frame itself.
If one examines the course of Baillie's career, however, one seems to witness a growing dissatisfaction with the dialectical quality of superimposition, and an evolution in the contrary direction. He speaks, for example, in disparaging terms of his use of "gross" superimpositions in Quixote and refers to his technical endeavor as "crudely trying to combine images on the screen at the same moment."
Despite its perceived failures, however, Quixote did mark for Baillie the initiation of an attempt to neutralize the oppositions inherent in superimposition. It signaled a move in Baillie's work toward allowing diverse imagery to "share the frame." This stylistic trend would ultimately culminate in the creation of Quick Billy in 1970, but Castro Street stands as a major aesthetic plateau along the way. The making of Castro Street in fact seems to have embodied Baillie's shift in formal direction:
I used two projectors when I edited. . . . When I first projected it, the two things together, it was a beautiful film just as it was. I projected on the same spot on the screen not side by side as it would be when I finally had done it.
In Castro Street , therefore, Baillie veers from a heavily layered style of superimposition to a style of superimposed contiguity. Through this technique images are planted in neighboring segments of the frame—either by direct superimposition or by the more elusive strategy of matting.
Castro Street begins in darkness with Baillie's name handwritten across the screen. The center of the frame then opens up in muted color to reveal what appears to be a camera lens. The frame contracts once more and closes. A slit of light becomes visible in the lower portion of the frame. Gradually, the light pattern shifts and we realize that what we have seen has been light reflected off a glass surface, through which we now vaguely perceive the outline of smoke. The glass is then pulled away and bares the image of industrial smokestacks. Two matted areas (in upper and lower right-hand corners of the frame) fade in. Each one records a slightly different view of a commercial landscape as seen from the window of a moving vehicle. Next a faint diagonal wipe takes away the large-scale image of the smokestacks; the twin mattes remain. Another portion of the frame then unfolds to display a more defined image of industrial chimneys. This matted area travels upward in the frame while simultaneously the two earlier corner mattes fade out. Eventually a diagonally composed negative image of a high-tension wire (as seen from a moving car) fades in and inhabits the frame with a circular matte containing the image of a smokestack.
What becomes apparent from this description is the seamlessness of Baillie's design (a seamlessness which makes the attempt at verbal translation an act of critical hubris). Rather than creating a sense of superimposed images in dialectical
conflict, Baillie works against this to create a sense of coherent union. He embeds one image within another and fuses them so that they "come out as though they were married."
Perhaps the most mystifying example of this technique occurs towards the end of the film. The sequence begins with a low-angle shot of a man standing on an industrial machine against the background of a blue sky. At a certain point the center of the frame gapes open (like a wound) and shows us a yellow-tinted image of a metal pipe. Magically the image of the man (which has become the matting environment of the second shot) transforms to a monotone blue, then to a solid black, and finally returns to the image of the man. The central yellow area then closes up and disappears.
It is this organic sense of the connection of shots that is so crucial to the power of Castro Street —the sense of a shot opening up and closing to reveal a second shot, much as the iris of the eye expands and contracts to delineate the boundaries of the pupil.
Thus we find that the heightening of shot distinctions that traditionally occurs in layered superimposition becomes an annihilation of distinctions in the kinetics of matting. Matting is, after all, the quintessential Hollywood illusionist technique; it allows the fluid combination of images without the telltale traces of superimposition. It accomplishes the merging of images while blurring our consciousness of the act of fusion.
The intention to combine shots was at points inscribed within the very process of shooting the film itself. For in recording images Baillie used his black-gloved hand to reserve spaces which would later be occupied by other shots.
Concomitant with the elimination of shot differentiation in Castro Street is the weakening of temporal distinctions. Often the images so joinlessly share the frame that it is difficult to establish whether they were photographed simultaneously as one shot or represent two separate temporal moments joined only in the editing process. As Baillie has phrased it in relation to Quick Billy , his matting strategy is one of overlaying imagery so that it "looks like it was all invented or occurring at the same moment."
But it is not purely the technique of matting that creates the sense of image resolution; it is also Baillie's means of rhythmically choreographing the images in succession. What one notices in analyzing Castro Street are the "transactions" that take place between shots. As one matte fades out, another, perhaps, fades in. Thus one set of imagery is continually exchanged for another in intricate patterns of balanced and symmetrical progression. At one point in the film, for example, we have a shot involving two layers of superimposition. The first presents a negative image of the ground, and the second a negative representation of trains in motion. As the latter image remains on the screen the former fades out; but as it does so it is replaced by a shot of flowers in close-up. Through this technique of
the interchange of imagery, shots are joined not only by their compression within the boundaries of the frame but by the kinetics of the editing process itself. Baillie seems to be alluding to this sense of montage when he formulates his notion of the cut as the moment "when one thing becomes another in succession."
This sense of one thing becoming another is further accentuated by the fact that the pace of movement from shot to shot in Castro Street is one of lulling uniformity. Thus the rhythm of a tracking shot on one image level of the frame will be synchronous with a panning action on another. The similarity of tempo works to nullify the disjunction in form and subject.
Not only does the matting process minimize the boundaries between discrete shots, it works as well to soften the rigid quadrilateral borders of the frame. Thus Baillie utilizes the biomorphically shaped matte provided by his hand to "get away from geometry" and create a "moving amorphous form."
Another formal opposition that Baillie simultaneously activates and neutralizes is that of black-and-white versus color. His engagement of the tonal conflict is even apparent in his description of the film: ". . . picture and sound taken on one street—the color side female, the black-and-white side male, in opposition (creation)."
But it is characteristically ambiguous that Baillie has chosen a sexual analogy to illustrate this formal polarity. For implicit in the invocation of discrete sexual elements is the possibility of their fusion in sexual union.
Most often in Castro Street tonalities are opposed through the technique of superimposition; thereby, one of the layers of imagery will be recorded in color
while the other will be shot in black-and-white. Frequently this disparity is heightened by the fact that the black-and-white layer has been realized in high-contrast negative. One example of this pattern occurs midway through the film in a multi-tiered composite image of objects in movement. On one layer a yellow train car moves left to right across the screen while on another a black-and-white train wheel floats by in the same direction.
Given this virtually textbook case of montage "collision," what accounts for the fact that our experience of the tonal dialectics of Castro Street is one of essential tranquillity? It would seem that several formal strategies are at work to dampen the potential sense of chromatic tension.
First of all, Baillie begins the film in highly muted color, the kind that barely reaches consciousness as such. It is a ghostly color that forms a vaporous immaterial hue, like that of a rainbow. On this level Baillie's subdued chromatics tend to accentuate the ethereality of his images, as well as to blur the perceptual distinction between color and black-and-white.
Having established this diluted tonality, Baillie then begins quite carefully to introduce "true" colors, almost as "characters" into the abstract narrative. Red is the "star" of the film; it comes as the first rich color on the caboose of a train and it reappears in the middle of the film, at first anamorphically, and then as a red steering wheel. Characteristically it closes the film with the climactic image of the dome-roofed lumber barn at the end of the street.
Significantly, blue and yellow play supporting roles as the other major colors in which Castro Street is painted. Blue appears as the hazy background in which so many images are planted and also as the sky. Yellow hues occur on industrial pipes, in an anamorphic vision of rocks, and, most strikingly, in a field which neighbors Castro Street.
Blue, yellow, and red are, of course, the primary colors. Thus Castro Street is tinted in archetypal tones: black (the absence of color), white (the presence of all colors), and the primary colors (those which are parents to all the rest).
Certain theoretical speculations arise from this formal choice. First of all, it seems telling that in utilizing black-and-white Baillie saw fit to invert their values through negative printing. In so doing, the comfortable opposition of the absence or presence of color is turned on its head and disarmed. Moreover, at times during the film Baillie chooses to dissect white light through prismatic lenses, thereby revealing the presence of variegated spectral hues in its apparently monochrome band. Finally, the selection of primary colors adds further complexities to the tonal structure. For although primary colors in "montage collision" create all other chromatic hues, theirs is essentially a seamless union. As R. L. Gregory explains it in Eye and Brain: ". . . two colours give a third colour in which the constituents cannot be defined. Constituent sounds are heard as a chord and can be separately identified . . . but no training allows us
to do the same for light." Thus primary colors work in montage in a manner similar to that of Baillie's imagery: distinctions are apparently there and not there at the same time.
Another formal conflict which is engaged and then released within the dynamics of Castro Street is the directional opposition of movement. Once more its primary means of formulation is the technique of superimposition. Throughout the film when images share the frame we often find that they embody movement in opposing screen directions. Typical of this pattern is a shot involving directly superimposed images of trains in motion: one image layer moves horizontally left to right, while the other moves diagonally into the depth of the frame. Perhaps the most hyperbolic instance of editing for antagonistic movement comes rather early in the film. A variety of moving-train images in high contrast negative are edited in split-screen format so that they seem to crash together in the central axis of the frame.
This moment, however, in its climacticism, is essentially uncharacteristic of the mode in which Baillie handles movement in the rest of the film. For in general in Castro Street Baillie works to resolve rather than heighten the sense of polarity of movement; and he does so by employing a variety of techniques. To begin with, when editing images of opposing motion Baillie most often juxtaposes movements executed in quasi-identical rhythms. Thereby the synchronicity of the pace of movements seems to blur our recognition of their antipathetic directions. Rather than collide, the images tend to cancel each other out and leave us with a sense of quiescent stasis. One is reminded of an exchange between Baillie and an interviewer that appeared in Film Comment:
BB: I have to say finally what I am interested in, like Socrates: peace . . . rest . . . nothing.
FC: No movement at all?
BB: Nothing. Okay, that's enough.
Exceptions do occur when Baillie utilizes a sense of syncopation in the rhythm of objects in motion. Ironically, however, the example that comes to mind is one in which the objects depicted are moving in the same direction. Toward the end of the film we have an image of a right-to-left tracking shot over signs plastered on a wall. Next the image of a train moving in the same direction fades in, superimposed. The pace of the train, however, is slower than that of the track and at points its movement seems to be reversed.
Thus when directionally contrary movements are involved Baillie works to buffer their sense of opposition; where similarity exists, distinctions are maintained. "Different" is the "same" and the "same" is "different" until the very poles of the semantic equation become meaningless.
But movement in Castro Street involves a greater subtlety as well; for central to our experience of its ambiguity is Baillie's blurring of the distinctions between the camera and its object as a source of movement. This is possible because of the phenomenon of relativity of movement in film. As Rudolf Arnheim explains it in Film As Art:
Since there are no bodily sensations to indicate whether the camera was at rest or in motion, and if in motion at what speed or in what direction, the camera's position is, for want of other evidence, presumed to be fixed. Hence if something moves in the picture this motion is at first seen as a movement of the thing itself and not as the result of a movement of the camera gliding past a stationary object. In the extreme case this leads to the direction of motion being reversed.
Thus throughout Castro Street even the secure notion of directionality is confounded. We may see objects move by from screen right to left but more often than not, examination reveals them to be stationary objects photographed by a camera moving from left to right.
Inherent in this paradox are certain theoretical overtones. For by employing this perceptual ambiguity Baillie generates confusions between the traditional antipathies of stasis and motion, and left and right. And the reason that these polarities can be questioned is that he has dissolved a third and more profound distinction: that between the perceiver and the perceived. Thus because of the ambiguity concerning whether it is the perceiver (i.e., the camera eye) or the object perceived (or both) that is in motion, it is possible that what is moving within the frame may, in fact, be static; and what "moves" left may have been photographed by a camera moving right.
A unifying sensibility is also apparent in two final parameters of the film's construction. Castro Street embraces a variety of modes of vision yet works to resolve any tension engendered by their disparity. Where "clear" images prevail, Baillie works against their sense of realism and definition by using matting, damped coloration, negative printing, or the slurring effect of an improperly threaded camera. Where anamorphic photography occurs, Baillie often subverts its sense of abstraction by removing the distorting, mediating gel and revealing the subject in sharp focus. Obviously, the mutually exclusive perceptual modes implied by the polarities of color versus black-and-white, negative versus positive registration, are contained as well within the incorporative vision of the film.
In many ways the confounding of styles of vision mirrors the conflation of perceptual modes that we find in Baillie's diaries and notebooks. Just as clear and anamorphic sections intermix within the film, so fragments from waking and dreaming states flow together in the journals.
Baillie also works in Castro Street to nullify any sense of disjunction between the sound and image tracks. He does so, however, without resorting to the facile technique of illusionistic sync sound. Rather Castro Street creates a highly abstract sound track that, while never illustratively coinciding with the images, provides an almost synaesthetic aural equivalent for them. The texture of the sound track parallels that of the image and follows a similar "narrative" line. In sections where the editing of the shots creates a regular lulling rhythm (e.g., the opening of the film), the sound track heightens this mode of temporality by intoning monotonous chugging train sounds. At moments of visual climax (e.g., when a mass of superimposed images "crashes" in the center of the screen) the sounds take the form of louder, harsher, shrill whistle screams.
This formal unity of sound and image is characteristic of other films by Baillie. The highly montagist section of Mass which presents an assertive visual collage translates this strategy to the aural parameter as well. Thus Baillie accompanies images from old movies and television with fragments of dialogue from commercials, newscasts, and television dramas. The total fusion of sound and image in All My Life (which consists of a single tracking shot of a fence accompanied by Ella Fitzgerald's rendition of the title song) is apparent in Baillie's characterization of the film as "a singing fence."
Just as sound-to-image dichotomies are blurred in Castro Street , so sound-to-sound distinctions are elided. Disparate mechanical sounds blend together and those ostensibly from the train yard merge indistinguishably with those from the oil refinery, forming a unified aural composition.
Ultimately even the subject matter of Castro Street reveals its own impulse toward bracketing contradictions. Like the industrial landscape of Red Desert the mise-en-scène of Castro Street stands as a hybrid cross of barren technological sordidness and stark arresting beauty. As P. Adams Sitney noted: "When we look at the whole of [Baillie's] work we see in alternation two incompatible themes; the sheer beauty of the phenomenal world and the utter despair of forgotten men."
Yet central to the magic of Castro Street would seem to be its power to make the incompatible compatible—to contain contradictions both on a formal and thematic level. It is, perhaps, even more profoundly the point of Castro Street to refuse us the comfort of such categorical polarities at all. One is curiously reminded of Eisenstein's discussion of Japanese culture and of his analysis of their traditional synthesis of the oppositions of auditory and visual material:
audio visual relationships . . . derive from the principles of Yang and Yin, upon which is based the entire system of Chinese world outlook and philosophy . . . Yang and Yin . . . depicted as a circle, locked together within it Yang and Yin—Yang , light; Yin , dark—each carrying within itself the essence of the other, each shaped to the other—Yang and Yin, forever opposed, forever united .
It is precisely this sense of unity revealed in disunity, of resolution in opposition that reigns supreme on all levels of Castro Street —on the level of shot-to-shot superimposition, directionality of movement, tonal composition, sound-image relation, and spiritual sensibility.
As Baillie has told us, Castro Street is a film "in the form of a street." Implicit in this notion seems the concept of the film as path, or even journey. We know from Baillie's autobiographical notes that the film was for him a "coming of consciousness—a recognition of the confrontation of opposites as part of the 'conflict of becoming.'" But throughout the film itself, embedded within the opaque imagery, have been signs which seem to bear hidden messages relevant to Baillie's concerns. Thus the graphic "X" of the railroad crossing sign seems a symbolic diagram of the structure of the film (which is, after all, an intersection point of formal and thematic oppositions). And the appearance of the railroad name of "Union Pacific" emblazoned on a passing car seems tinged by a vague, metaphysical resonance.
But it is the final emblem of the film that warrants our most attentive reading, and it appears in the form of a sign for Castro Street that floats by on the
screen. For contained within the graphics and articulation of that closing image is inscrolled the very dynamics that have informed the style and meaning of the film. It is an image that speaks a language of resolved oppositions: It is one of the final images of the work yet presents to us for the first time the title of the film. It is recorded in black-and-white negative yet is superimposed over a positively registered red-colored barn dome image. It moves across the screen, yet was, of course, in reality, static . It drifts past us right to left but depicts an arrow which points left to right.
Thus the sign which bears the name of Castro Street is clearly more than a street sign. Its pregnant mode of presentation proposes it as truly exemplary of the formal and thematic energies of the film.