The Black Bear communal ranch in northern California was partially funded by rock stars who were guilted into ponying up the dough by a handful of enterprising hippies who accused them of "trading off our lifestyle." That kind of defiant idealism was a lofty place for the Black Bears to start, and Jonathan Berman's documentary Commune covers the founders' inevitable descent into compromise, and finally toward a more sustainable hope. The documentary mainly deals with the early years, when the commune promised "free land for free people" and braced for the kind of unexpected pilgrims that the slogan encouraged. There were early arguments about what kind of role the women should play—workers or nurturers?—and whether people who wanted to spend their days working on art should be booted out for not contributing more. And in the early '70s, the Black Bears struggled with the arrival of the Shiva Lila cult, a group of child-worshipping acid-eaters who fed off the commune's desire to shed society's conventions, and almost led it to a dark place from which it might not have returned.
But even before the Shiva Lila affair, the Black Bears were rethinking what they were all about. The best parts of Commune show them debunking a lot of hippie myths. They tried free love, but found that it devolved into spiteful emotional warfare, so they eventually paired up. They tried alternative methods of parenting, but discovered that someone still needed to deal with dirty diapers. In Commune's most moving passage, one of the Black Bear daughters talks about how her parents, meaning well, let her run off with the exiled Shiva Lilas, then invited her back with a big party that signaled a new embrace of traditional values, like celebrating birthdays and holidays, and letting their kids integrate into the larger community.
But as good as Commune is when it rehashes the Black Bears' old ideological debates, the movie is missing a sense of continuity from then to now. The Black Bear ranch is still around, and many of its founders are still around too, though not all of them live on the ranch. (Actor Peter Coyote, for example, now travels in entirely different circles.) Many of them got jobs, settled in the suburbs, and tried to carry a spirit of peace and brotherhood into everyday life. So, given that, how did the ranch survive the '80s and '90s? It's fascinating to see how the Black Bears got onto their current path, but we don't see enough of the journey.