In 1965, a southern Colorado community known as Drop City was born when a collective of artists from Boulder and Lawrence, Kansas, settled on a seven-acre plot just outside of Trinidad. With a desire to establish a non-ideological creative community whose physical structures -- modeled on Buckminster Fuller's geodesic-dome style -- were made of scrap metal and other junkyard finds, Gene and Joann Bernofsky, Richard Kallweit and Clark Richert took on the material-less life. But the commune wasn't idyllic forever.
In Drop City, the Thursday DocNight feature screening February 28 at the Sie FilmCenter, co-directors Joan Grossman and Tom McCourt weave the tale of the art-focused commune through interviews with the people who lived there. In advance of the showing -- which will also feature a Q&A with Grossman -- the director spoke with Westword about the counterculture stereotyping of the '60s, and why Drop City's story is important to a sustainable future.
Westword: What brought you to telling the story of Drop City?
Joan Grossman: It started because my co-producer on the project, Tom McCourt, had met the Bernofskys -- Gene and JoAnn -- who were key in the founding of Drop City. He became very interested in the story and started working on a book about it. But at the time, there was still a lot of animosity because of the way Drop City ended, which wasn't so great. People weren't that keen on talking; they just didn't want to deal with it.
One of the issues with Drop City, which we brought up in the movie, was that a lot of people involved thought that the media was a factor in destroying Drop City. So [they] were skeptical of any kind of project about Drop City -- if there was going to be any sort of exploitation of it.
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Tom ended up putting that project down. But several years ago, Gene Bernofsky started sending him photographs he had found. Tom, who's not a filmmaker, thought it could be a really interesting film -- and he approached me. I was really blown away by the way these domes looked; I was interested immediately. But what I said to him was, "It looks great, but I'd really like to meet some of the people. You know, I'm a little concerned -- what if they're a bunch of burnt-out hippies?"
So I did. I met a bunch of the people involved, and I thought they were wonderful. I was hooked. That's really how it started.
It's a story that really resonated with me on a lot of levels. I've always been fascinated with the 1960s. I always felt that the counterculture was misrepresented in a reductive way, as being just "sex and drugs and rock and roll." I love the way the story points to some of the really deep thinking and innovation that I think was also a key piece of what the counterculture of the era was.
I was fascinated by the fact that I had never heard of Drop City -- not just because it happened in Colorado, but especially now that the "sustainable community" idea is on the forefront today.
Absolutely. I think the relevance is really surging again. There's just a new interest in asking, how are we living? How are we consuming? How can we do things in a meaningful way and in a way that's ecological and serving our need to be creative people?
I think because the '60s kind of crashed and burned and became so enmeshed in this idea of free love and drugs -- I mean, that was all a part of it; I'm not negating that -- but some of the roots of the counterculture have just been overlooked. One of the legacies that certainly survives from the '60s is the music being so important and having a wider cultural relevance.
But I think this whole notion of the commune really got somewhat subsumed by the fact that a lot of the communes that came about after Drop City were based around charismatic leaders. They had a little bit of a culty [feeling]. That wasn't the case for all of them, but it became a certain narrative for what communes were. If fact, they were strictly non-ideological -- they really didn't want to have any kind of leader or ideological premise for what they were doing. They were very much against that. I was most surprised by the "traditional" gender roles in Drop City, but it's sort of a silly assumption to think that just because it was an art community that meant it would be a gender-neutral situation.
The feminism of our era really started in the 1970s. So as Carol DeJulio explains [in the film], they were all born in the 1940s; they were really coming from a more conventional sense of gender roles. But at the same time, what's interesting -- you know, you can't put everything into a movie unless we were going to make a six-hour epic -- is that one of the people we did have in the film, Linda Fleming, was one of the founders of Libre. She said one of the things she loved about Drop City was that because it was about art, it wasn't about this Mother Nature, back to the land.
She said that with some of the communes she visited, it was really oppressive because women were only in this role of "earth mother" and growing food. Not that there's anything wrong with growing food, but Drop City had this intellectual culture to it. She felt, as a female artist, that it was extremely exciting and that it did break roles.
The "earth mother" idea was another assumption I made about commune living -- that it's about farming. But Drop City really wasn't at all.
I don't think they would have minded growing food. But they were also very naive and very young -- the land was cheap and they liked the way it looked. They liked being in southern Colorado, and I don't think it ever occurred to them until later that, oh, it's shale. You can't grow anything here.
But it wasn't the drive; they had other ambitions with it, which was much more around having a place where they could just enjoy life. They were all artists -- though some of them don't even like the term "artist" because it's too highfalutin' and suggests the art market.
But as Gene Bernofsky says, they like to make things. Just being in an environment where they could just be creative was really the goal -- to be outside of the materialistic culture and outside of all of this war mentality that was brewing around the Vietnam War.
One of the things about Drop City that is also interesting is their exploration of geometric form, and the geodesic dome was really embracing technology. They weren't rejecting technology; they weren't going back to the land in that off-the-grid way. They were looking at how technology could make life more interesting. One of the ideas of the counterculture was developing alternative modes of networking and using technology and resources efficiently.
Do you keep in touch with any of the people involved with Drop City?
That's another thing that was so great about the project: I really became friends with a number of the people who were in the movie. They are such wonderful, interesting people who have stayed interesting. It wasn't like Drop City was something and they became investment bankers. [Laughs.] I mean, virtually all of them have maintained the values that they were exploring in Drop City, and they're doing so many interesting things. They are really inspiring and wonderful people to know. That's been a real gift of doing the project.
What I also appreciate is, they didn't take a nostalgic view; I mean, in some ways, yes. But there's a sense of really learning and growing from it -- moving on and gleaning from that experience and going on with life. There wasn't this sentimentality, and I appreciated that, because I think a lot of the stories about the 1960s have that nostalgic quality that makes it a generalized thing.
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In a way, Drop City was a specific place and a specific set of circumstances. There's an originality you can see.