Daily Hampshire Gazette, Northampton, MA 5/3/06

‘Free Spirits’, Documentary recaptures life in Franklin County’s renowned hippie commune

THE title of the film is ‘Free Spirits: The Birth, Life & Loss of a New-Age Dream’ - and when it is shown this weekend at the Academy of Music in Northampton, the man who wrote and directed it expects some nerve-racking moments.

You never know how a film will be received by a wide audience, says Bruce Geisler, a lecturer in communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The movie is the story of the Brotherhood of the Spirit, a commune founded in Franklin County in 1968 by the charismatic Michael Metelica, a leader revered by some, reviled and feared by others. In 1974, it was renamed the Renaissance Community and Metelica changed his name to Michael Rapunzel, a decision made, he said, to shield his parents from public attention.

Geisler tells the commune’s story using film footage taken at the time, plus interviews he did years later with Metelica and with nearly 100 people who had lived there.

There were ‘a thousand different versions’ of what it had all meant, says Geisler, 57, who lives in Westhampton. Though he does not speak in the film, the movie also reflects his own story. As a young man in 1970, he visited the commune and ended up spending parts of the next four years there.

The National Spotlight

In an era when hippie communities tended to come and go, the Renaissance Community stood out.

In its heyday, it was one of the largest in the country, drawing more than 300 young people who were angry about the war in Vietnam, disillusioned with what they saw as the rampant materialism of American society, and intent on creating a more spiritual world. It lasted until 1988.

Pooling their resources - members were expected to turn their money over to Metelica - the commune eventually owned land and homes, a large dormitory, farmhouses, and downtown properties in five western Massachusetts communities: Warwick, Northfield, West Northfield, Turners Falls and Gill.

Members started a host of small businesses in the area, including building and excavating companies and a greeting card company, which are still operating.

The community also had its own rock band, Spirit in Flesh, that played locally, and even once at Carnegie Hall in New York. Metelica was the lead singer.

The commune’s size and ambitions attracted lots of media attention. It was profiled by Mike Wallace on CBS’ ‘60 Minutes,’ photographed for Look magazine, and written about in national newspapers. Area media chronicled the nitty-gritty struggles over sanitation and housing code violations that erupted between the local communities and the commune.

‘My hope is that telling the history of the commune will provide people with a balanced perspective,’ says Geisler.

But he acknowledges that on this subject, balance is hard to come by. Depending on your point of view, the commune was either ‘incredibly attractive or incredibly repulsive,’ Geisler says - and always intense.

A ?Mini-Woodstock’

Geisler sensed that intensity the first time he set foot on the commune’s property in Warwick in 1970.

Until then, he’d been a student at Pomona College in California. That summer, he was working in a bank when a friend who’d dropped out of Amherst College told him he’d found a community that was devoted to building an alternative lifestyle. Members were working the land, raising much of their own food, and exploring shared interests in meditation, Buddhism, reincarnation and other spiritual matters. Intrigued, Geisler quit his job and hitchhiked east.

The scene, he says, was like a ‘mini-Woodstock,’ with about 70 members living together in a small building, while visitors camped in the woods, partying and playing music.

As chaotic as the place seemed, Geisler was still able to feel what he calls ‘the incredible energy and bond’ among the people there.

The Leader

At the center of it all was Michael Metelica, who had grown up in Leyden and dropped out of high school at 16.

‘He had an incredible, restless energy,’ Geisler says. ‘He actually reminded me of a young Mick Jagger or Elvis Presley. Very charismatic, but, in those early years, very focused on his vision of brotherhood and harmony and spirituality.’

A history of the commune written by former member Daniel Brown of Leyden recounts Metelica’s beginnings.

Fascinated by the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, he had taken to the road in 1967, at age 17, and headed south to Florida. But a closer look at the biker culture left him turned off at its penchant for violence, and he’d moved on to California. There, the mellow flower-child scene of the hippies was more to his liking, Brown writes.

After returning to Leyden, Metelica got permission to build a tree house on a local farmer’s land. He set up camp there, working occasionally for area farmers, and passing many hours in solitary meditation. Before long, friends, and friends of friends, began to seek him out.

By 1970, according to Brown, Metelica had attracted about 50 followers who shared his interest in exploring the life of the spirit. Metelica - at the time - eschewed drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, and disapproved of promiscuity. Late that year, the group purchased a 25-acre property in Warwick and began acquiring and building structures to house the growing number of followers.

Living conditions were Spartan, and in retrospect bizarre in some ways. There was little privacy, says Geisler, who at one point staked claim to a 3-by-8-foot closet as his space. Meals were communal, and brown rice was the diet staple. Breakfast was rice and molasses cereal, and rice and vegetables formed the basis of every other meal.

In a community that prized openness and a lack of inhibition, even bathroom use was a shared experience, with, as shown in the film, multiple toilets arranged in a semi-circle with no enclosures.

In late 1972, Brown writes, Metelica, alarmed at the commune’s shaky finances, ordered everyone to get a job or leave. Commune members fanned out throughout the area, working at restaurants, in construction, at Belchertown State School and Northampton State Hospital, and other places.

Almost everyone, that is, except Metelica. ‘Never in my memory’ did he hold a job, says Geisler.

On payday, everyone reported to a central location at the commune to turn in their earnings. Metelica and a couple of others handled the money, and made the decisions about how it was spent, says Geisler.

The sudden influx of thousands of dollars a week was a key point in the commune’s downward spiral, according to Geisler.

‘Once Michael got a taste of that,’ he says, ‘it was never the same.’ Cash went for the purchase of an airplane, cars, movie and video cameras, and other luxuries.

By 1973, Brown writes, the commune had started to resemble a cult.

Metelica had become increasingly erratic, verbally abusive and autocratic, calling long late-night meetings during which he would rant and castigate anyone who disagreed with him. It was around that time, according to Brown, that Metelica began to use cocaine heavily, and began sliding into alcoholism. When he decided he wanted to have children, he had six, by six women.

The last straw for Geisler came in 1973, when Metelica called on his followers to stage marches in Greenfield and Turners Falls. Upset by ongoing hostility from local townspeople, and the ensuing negative media coverage, Geisler says, Metelica wanted to show the depth of support he had.

‘It was the most idiotic idea I’d ever heard,’ says Geisler.

‘I stood up in that meeting and expressed my displeasure with the idea of a mindless march. Michael turned on me, called me a traitor, a Judas. I was shocked, but even more shocked when nobody else showed the courage to back me up.

‘I was out of there a little while later.’

Moving On

Geisler in time found his way back to college. At UMass, he teaches film, screenwriting and TV production. While ‘Free Spirits’ is his first feature-length film, he has written and directed several shorter documentaries and narrative shorts.

‘I’m hardly a hippie now,’ he says, ‘but [my life] is still infused by the values I had as a 20-year -old.’

Moreover, curiosity about what had happened to other communards led him to apply for a research grant from the American Association of University Professors to get the story on film.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Geisler tracked down and interviewed as many commune members as he could find. In 1998 he interviewed Metelica who was by then, he says, a shadow of his former self, puffy and slurring his words.

‘I was floored by the changes,’ Geisler says. ‘You could see the toll of years of drug and alcohol abuse in his face, though he was only in his 40s.

‘Then, when the cameras started rolling, I’d frequently see flashes of the old Michael shining through, a gathering of his energy and intelligence.’

After being forced off the commune in 1988 by the remaining members, Metelica had settled in upstate New York, where he ran a bar, became an EMT and sought help to overcome his addictions.

In 2002, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He died in February 2003, at age 53.

Looking For an Audience

In making his film, Geisler says, he wanted to create a work that was neither ‘a whitewash or a smear.’

‘I felt it had to be told in the voices of those who lived there,’ he says. During the editing process, Geisler was assisted by Adrian d’Errico, one of his former students.

At 35, d’Errico says he considers himself a child of the generation depicted in the movie - and hopes others of his generation will see it.

The movie is ‘a perfect lens’ through which to think about the tension between individual autonomy and group action, he says, and to learn about a generation whose influence is still felt today.

‘I jumped at the chance to get involved,’ he says. Geisler’s hours of interviews were like ‘a jigsaw puzzle splayed across the table’ that had to be shaped into a story. The original rough cut - three hours long - had to be whittled down to about one hour and 40 minutes.

With the hard work of the filmmaking behind them, Geisler, D’Errico and producer Don Fizzinoglia are now involved in the equally daunting task of finding a distributor and applying to film festivals around the country and abroad, hoping to find audiences. They also plan to pursue showings in small theaters and on cable stations.

‘It’s kind of like sending your child off into the world for the first time,’ Geisler says.

Suzanne Wilson can be reached at swilson@gazettenet.com.

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