Judge Brendan Babish has lived in several communes—both as a leader and a follower. You make more money as a leader.
Peace and love are only half the story.
Commune is a portrait of the Black Bear communal farm in northern California, especially the early years of its operation. Black Bear was founded in the late 1960s and was initially subsidized by local rock stars who were accused of co-opting the hippie image for financial gain. The overriding impetus for Black Bear seems to be the common belief of many that the country was going to hell and it was time to head for the hills. While Black Bear certainly wasn't a utopia, their most divisive issues—Should women be workers or nurturers? Should an unruly cow be eaten?—show that life was comfortable enough to allow for petty squabbling.
But then, in the early 1970s the Shiva Lila cult—a group of drug-addled hippies with fidelity to one leader—joined the Black Bear community. Though fissures in the commune were already beginning to show before their arrival, Shiva Lila presented a strong challenge to the principals the commune was founded on.
Director Jonathan Berman tells the story of Black Bear (which is still extant) through a blend of contemporary interviews with Black Bear's founders and previous inhabitants (including the actor Peter Coyote) and grainy footage of the commune during its founding and over the following years. One of the highlights of the film is hearing interviewees—most of whom seem to have settled into conventional lifestyles—discussing the unexpected difficulties of living out their hippie ideology over shots of naked, seemingly blissful young people doing their laundry in a stream.
As far as free love goes, there was some of that, including a rule that you couldn't sleep with the same person for two nights in a row. However, lasting relationships still formed. One man even talks movingly about falling in love and having to secretly meet with his girlfriend, lest the rest of the commune discover their monogamous commitment. There are also several passages where former residents discuss the muddled ideas of parenting that took place on the farm. Like Hillary Clinton, members of Black Bear decided that it took a village to raise a child; for the most part they allowed theirs to run free wherever they like. Not surprisingly, this causes trouble, evidenced both by former child inhabitants of the commune (a few of whom are interviewed) and a striking event where a young girl was allowed to wander off with the Shiva Lila.
Ultimately, what Commune does best is demonstrate the unfettered good will, optimism, and naïveté that was perfectly synthesized in the young people of the 1960s and early 1970s. As a member of a subsequent generation (I was born in the late 1970s), I am familiar with the popular media's representation of hippies and flower power, but what I see here is far more nuanced and enlightening. While there certainly is lots of peace, love, and understanding, Commune allows us to learn about the nuts and bolts of communal living, the sublime and the, well, the filthy (a large pile of used diapers is one particularly disillusioning image that comes to mind).
First Run Features is a company that consistently produces quality documentary DVDs, and Commune is no exception. Commune also has one of the most impressive collections of extras on any First Run release I've seen. In particular, the extended Peter Coyote interview is most interesting, as he is both witty and articulate, and also because he seems to have gone the most "straight" of almost any former Black Bear inhabitant. This gives his recollections and opinions a certain distance and reflection that other members do not always exhibit.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Black Bear Family Album & History
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