3½ stars (out of four)
It's impossible not to have wildly mixed feelings about this fine ode to a '60s-inspired American experiment in ultra-freedom. Jonathan Berman's loose, mellow and finally very bittersweet documentary revisits the most famous and lasting of California's utopian communities. In 1968, Elsa and Richard Marley came upon 300 charmed acres near Mt. Shashta, in Siskiyou County, Calif. With financial backing from, among others, the Monkees and Michaelangelo Antonioni, Black Bear Ranch was born. "Free land for free people" was its humanistic battle cry.
Soon the local papers were full of scare reports regarding this "hippie colony." Many, including those in free-floating (and in some cases free-loading) residence at Black Bear, didn't believe they'd survive the first, snowbound winter in the remote Northern California spot. But they did, and the place is held now in a land trust. The commune itself may be gone, but the land's protected.
Berman clearly is besotted by his subject, and he goes pretty easy on certain aspects of the life up there (the drugs, for one thing). But "Commune" gets at the central, seductive paradoxes inherent in so much counterculture belief and practice. Grown children of the Black Bear scene talk about the wonder and the confusion of being raised as "lab rats," by birth parents and a passel of surrogates. Expertly, Berman and editors Marisa Simpson and Michael Taylor mix black-and-white home movie footage of the halcyon and clothing-optional days, with often-lovely recollections from the Black Bear alums, many of them gray-haired and white-bearded now. As actor and early resident Peter Coyote puts it, all that free love led to a lot of jealous glances and petty arguments over the morning-after orange juice.
Yet the way Berman captures them, the faces of the veterans, now pursuing careers in the Bay Area and beyond, have an undeniable ruddy glow about them. They're the faces of people who can look back and laugh at their former, sometimes recklessly idealistic selves, without selling their ideals short.
Running time: 1:18. Runs through Thu. at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773-281-4114 or facets.org/cinematheque. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for nudity and language).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun