leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
Jonathan Berman's evenhanded documentary chronicles the history of the Black Bear Ranch commune, which was founded in 1968 and lasted long after most idealistic experiments in communal living crashed and burned. Black Bear occupies 80 acres of isolated wilderness in Siskiyou, California. A small group of free-thinking malcontents bought it for $22,000, which they raised by hitting up actors and musicians — including Frank Zappa and James Coburn — who they felt had enriched themselves by exploiting counter-culture attitudes and styles and were due to give something back. Berman interviews a colorful cross section of Black Bear alumni and matches vintage and newly shot footage of places, structures and, most importantly, people; the older material was shot by avant-garde filmmaker Robert Kramer and documentarian Loren Sears. The original residents of Black Bear were fleeing the draft, disillusionment with consumerism, government surveillance occasioned by their political activism, or the vague but persistent feeling that the lives they were living weren't the lives for which they were intended. The commune's mantra was "free land for free people," coined by founding member Elsa Marley, a painter. All comers were welcome, as long as they were willing to participate in the group's ever-evolving experiment in living off the grid. Berman's interviews yield a complex picture of the experience; many Black Bear veterans retain the core beliefs that made them reject mainstream life, but they don't idealize Black Bear. They talk frankly about the personality clashes, conflicting notions of what exactly communal living was and the sheer day-to-day difficulty of back-to-the-land living, particularly after they began having children. Berman also tracked down some of the Black Bear kids, who have wildly different memories of what their unconventional childhoods were. Though the film bears a resemblance to Robb Moss' THE SAME RIVER TWICE (2003) — which also examines an experiment in alternative living through the juxtaposition of old footage and new interviews — Berman's scope is broader. If not a social history of the '60s, it's a close examination of a quintessential '60s phenomenon that speaks volumes about the attitudes and experiences that shaped the decade. The only famous person in the film, actor Peter Coyote, is an eloquent spokesman, but he was only a visitor to Black Bear; the stars are the full-timers, and their willingness to share their rich and sometimes painful memories is captivating.