Often mocked and rarely understood, the movement in communal living that blossomed with Flower Power in the ’60s gets its most honest appraisal yet on film with Jonathan Berman’s “Commune.” Rather than taking on the phenomenon, Berman delves into the genesis and day-to-day reality of the Black Bear Ranch commune, one of the most radical and durable of such communities spread around the U.S. A keen vet docu-maker’s eye and a chronicler’s compassion lends pic real resonance, and should attract distrib and tube love worldwide after a blissful fest life.
“Commune” serves as an important polar opposite to the fine “The Same River Twice”; taken together, the two pics provide an emotional and reflective assessment of ’60s-style counterculture. But unlike the friends and lovers in “Same River,” who had a brief but memorable Colorado River trek and come together for a reunion, the folks in “Commune” threw themselves body and soul into a longterm commitment to shared group living in one of California’s most remote forests.
Berman’s subjects generally don’t look back upon their life choices as those of a long-distant youth — as the people in “Same River” often do — but as the first phase of an alternative life than continues to this day.
In 1968, Black Bear co-founder Elsa Marley, now a college art professor and painter, hatched the slogan “free land for a free people,” and ignited interest among hippies, intellectuals and young people who wanted to connect with the land and reinvent a small agrarian society. “We tried,” says original Black Bear-ite and thesp Peter Coyote, “to create an alternative culture.”
Like tales of how movies are made, pic’s early discussions revolve around how cash was raised to pay for and organize the commune, which included pitching sympathetic stars like James Coburn (a pitch which incongruously featured a flag burning).
Judging by the wide-ranging, eclectic and generously provided comments by the many residents who speak to Berman’s camera, the practical needs of providing for a community starting from scratch trumped theoretical niceties of pure communalism. Yet pic leaves no doubt Black Bear was a largely successful experiment in Marx’s credo of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Hardships of weather and scarcity forged intense bonds that gave the commune its staying power when many others in the country faded away.
Fortunately, Berman isn’t tempted to play up too many of the personal dramas, though he’s interested in how the community was sometimes torn between those who wanted more individualism and those who wanted the group above all, as well as the ever-present gender divide.
“Commune” takes on further poignancy when the Black Bear kids emerge with their own memories and stories, including a hair-raising adventure experienced by Creek Hanauer’s daughter, Tesilya. Some of these kids still live and work on the commune, continuing their aging parents’ legacy; others, such as Aaron, son of Elsa and Richard Marley, want nothing more to do with it.
Pic forms a fluid intertwining of present-day interviews and docu footage and past archival work (including homevid lensed on the ranch in the late ’60s) which reinforces the sense that the old commune and the new one are one and the same. Elliott Sharp crafts a lovely slide-guitar score.