A case study in documentary dialectics: In opposition to the death cult of Stanley Nelson’s sensational Jonestown, we have the positive vibes of Jonathan Berman’s mellow account of Black Bear Ranch, Commune.
A more homogeneous California utopia, founded during the apocalyptic summer of 1968 by a gang of Bay Area bohos and funded (at least initially) by a gaggle of Hollywood celebrities, Black Bear Ranch— still functioning in the shadow of Mount Shasta—is the most resilient of counterculture settlements. Its success was a function of its isolation on a forested 80-acre tract at the end of a nine-mile dirt road. On one hand, the initial settlers were forced to become self-sufficient; on the other, they had few problems with freaked-out neighbors—FBI surveillance and a bust that confiscated their tomato plants notwithstanding. Most significantly, Black Bear seems to have developed a form of functional anarchism.
Jonathan Berman interviews a host of past and present communards. Their cheerful recollections of the first horrible winter, the modification of macho Wild West attitudes, the ongoing discussion of How to Live, are annotated with primitive Portapak videotapes of youthful earth mothers dancing naked. (Commune is, however, less steamy than Berman’s earlier documentary The Shvitz. As one grizzled founder notes, it wasn’t “the sex so much as the openheartedness.”) The trippiest adventure is the late-’70s appearance of a child-worshipping cult known as Shiva Lila; ultimately kicked out of the ranch, they took several of the commune kids with them on a magical mystery tour that seems worth a movie in itself.
Celebrating the desire to immerse oneself in a collective, world-changing enterprise, Commune is unavoidably nostalgic. (It would make an apt introduction to Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, which illuminates the poignant yearning for that yearning.) Not for nothing was the adjective together a hippie accolade. The Black Bear ranchers were counterculture aristocracy and Berman’s portrait is necessarily idealized. The dozen pages Peter Coyote devotes to Black Bear in his multi-commune memoir Sleeping Where I Fall suggests something a bit wiggier: Acid, of course, was crucial; sociologists came to observe the ranch and went native, and as one founder fondly recalls, “We ate a lot of placenta.”