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Friday, May 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Commune": A '60s utopia stands the test of time

Special to The Seattle Times

"Free land for free people" was the clarion call for would-be revolutionaries in 1968, when the Black Bear Ranch was established in the remote forest of Siskiyou County, Calif.

Artist Elsa Marley and her husband, Richard, created Black Bear as a 300-acre experiment in communal self-sufficiency. It was funded by rock stars including the Doors, the Monkees and Frank Zappa. Driven by revolutionary ideals during the Vietnam era, Black Bear was "alternative" in lifestyle, medicine, gender roles, child-rearing and just about any other aspect of daily existence.

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Commune," a documentary directed by Jonathan Berman. 78 minutes. Not rated; contains nudity, mild language, mature content. Northwest Film Forum.

Jonathan Berman's "Commune" serves a dual purpose that seems contradictory but ultimately isn't: Interviews with Black Bear's founders and current residents reveal all that's considered quaintly outmoded about the Woodstock generation, with the hippie notions associated with the psychedelic '60s. We also see that Black Bear has prevailed, despite setbacks, as long-standing proof that its ideals can thrive under sensible stewardship.

In its own quiet, revealing fashion, Berman's film explores the folly and faith that characterized much of Black Bear's early existence. Without sugar-coating its history (which includes harsh winters, FBI investigations into "suspected insurrection" and the invasion of a child-worshipping cult called the Shiva Lila), Berman's efficient editing of home movies, vintage video and present-day footage adds up to a comprehensive study of a small-scale revolution that succeeded almost in spite of itself.

Liberal activist/actor Peter Coyote is the best-known Black Bear veteran, and his level-headed reflections (along with those of now-adult Black Bear children, raised communally with generally positive results) build a philosophical bridge from then to now.

As "New Bears" gather at the ranch, the original promise of Black Bear appears to be self-fulfilling. Only now, its idealism is tempered by the lessons of experience.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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