By Chuck Stephens
Shreveport, Louisiana-born experimental filmmaker Will Hindle (1929–1987) did two tours in the Army during the ’50s, and worked as a cartoonist and editor for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes during both stints. In between those two tours, he worked briefly for Walt Disney Studios, the youngest animator they had on staff. After the war—with his future as a visionary graphic master of the American experimental cinema just beginning to unfold—Hindle shot (sometimes with the help of his friend and filmmaking co-conspirator Bruce Baillie) more than 100 news-featurette segments for a Westinghouse-produced late-night TV show called PM East/PM West, which was programmed in select major markets opposite NBC’s The Tonight Show (then still hosted by Jack Paar). A high level of professional showmanship, technical elegance, and dynamic graphic ingenuity—the necessary hallmarks for success in those early, straight-world endeavours—never left Hindle’s work, even as his personal films grew ever weirder and trippier, slowly filling with radiant earth mothers and wandering, brooding hippies, here the flash of a penis, there the slash of a knife; a drumbeat, a heartbeat, the panting of a nearby locomotive, a fire that turns into a sky.
The friendship and filmmaking kinship that developed between Hindle and Canyon Cinema co-founder Baillie probably cannot be overstated: their films often seem to reflect and refract one another. Take, for example, Hindle’s 1968 Billabong, a main prizewinner at Oberhausen that premiered at the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. A remarkably intimate and at times palpably erotic study of boys in a Job Corps camp on the Oregon coast, Billabong is a sensuously humanist encounter with alienated youth, told in the filmmaker’s trademark undulating lap dissolves and scintillatingly grainy high contrasts. Loneliness and longing-for-elsewhere alternate with horseplay and horniness, and hijinks around urinals and pool tables culminate in an ecstatic moment of onanistic release. The still that accompanies this article suggests both the physical proximities of the boys’ bodies that interested Hindle as a documentary photographer, and Hindle’s exacting attention to his image’s graphic potentialities during the editing of his work, here activated as a diagonal wipe from low to high contrast that matches the momentum and trajectory of the boy in the white T-shirt. In Expanded Cinema, Gene Youngblood wrote, “Hindle’s works are especially notable for their ability to generate overwhelming emotional impact almost exclusively from cinematic technique, not thematic content.” I’m not sure about that general statement (there’s plenty of “thematic content” throughout Hindle’s work), but I do wonder if that’s what it is that makes the lifelong Baillie-devotee in me immediately associate Billabong with Here I Am (1962), Baillie’s doleful portrait of a centre for developmentally challenged kids in the East Bay. There’s a mutual interest shared by these films and filmmakers in a kind of impressionistic reportage—a fusion of the visual and the “thematic” in which verbal language is just one chaotic, shard-like element among many, its way of “telling” often less privileged than the intimacy between a child’s face and a camera lens, or the way the sun glints on sea foam.
So too do the prismatic dissolves and sonic fudge of chugging trains in Baillie’s landmark Castro Street (1966) seem everywhere apparent among the myriad other extraordinary qualities of Billabong, just as they do in Hindle’s FFFTCM (1967), whose soundtrack interlaces an insistent heartbeat with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, choral clusters, heroic tympani, and lysergic whispering. As the ’60s ended, Hindle moved from the Bay Area to rural Alabama, where he completed Later That Same Night in 1971. It’s an extraordinary film, part Ralph Eugene Meatyard rural surrealism, part geodesic hippie docu-whatsit, flush with wide-angle echoes and murky sound-mix shadows and the darkly warbled wail of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” And like every Hindle film I’ve ever seen, it’s as haunting as it is elusive, and just sitting here thinking about it makes me want to watch it again. And again.