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by Chris Dashiell

When the phrase "independent film" is bandied about nowadays it could mean any number of things - up to and including a bit of heartwarming treacle from Miramax that you could safely show to your granny. I find it therapeutic to remind myself from time to time that there really is such a place as "the margins," which is why I recently found myself in a downtown art space with a room full of film geeks, watching one of Craig Baldwin's paranoid epics being projected against a wall. If nothing else, it recaptured the experience of cinema as a communal event, something like it might have been in the early days when they would hang a sheet up somewhere to show the flicks, and everyone would pay a nickel and make a party out of it.

I say "if nothing else," but actually there's a lot else - Baldwin is an interesting figure, a San Francisco filmmaker specializing in collages of found and "appropriated" imagery that present a critique of mainstream culture and society. His 1991 film Tribulation 99, an attack on the U.S. national security establishment in the form of an outer space alien conspiracy parody, has already become something of a cult classic.

Before getting to his new film, Spectres of the Spectrum, Baldwin spent an hour treating the audience to excerpts from about a dozen "culture jamming" short films made by various artists. Most of them used appropriated footage - from commercials, news programs, industrial films, etc. - while adding different words and sounds, and manipulating the images to produce messages and effects very different from the original intent. A common theme was our moronic commercial culture, and its pervasive influence on every aspect of life.

Some of the highlights included Matt McCormick's The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, in which a PBS-type female narrator analyzes the artistic patterns on city walls where graffiti has been painted over. There was a clip from Negativland featuring some wild animation, including a fairy princess speaking lines apparently recorded from an actual, irate (and profane) telephone call by somebody adamantly protecting his copyright. Bryan Boyce's Special Report shows various network anchors (all the big ones, including Rather, Brokaw and Jennings) with the superimposed mouths of actors reciting lines from trashy horror films like Orgy of the Dead. It's absolutely hilarious, creating true subversive pleasure in its depiction of the news media as a malevolent force. In a similar vein is Boyce's Election Collectibles, in which the video of a Bush/Gore debate is combined with the audio of two idiots hawking merchandise on the Shopping Channel. The audience was almost rolling in the aisles during that one.

I wish I had written down the names of all the clips and artists. The entire segment was a hoot, and it was topped off by a strange tour de force from the Bay Area Situationists about their corporation, RTmark (pronounced "artmark"). It's cast in the form of one of those awful corporate films used to promote a company, and uses all the sophisticated graphics and mind-numbing editing techniques that you would normally see in such a film. Except that this corporation is dedicated to the funding and implementation of cultural sabotage - one successful example cited was switching the voice boxes of talking Barbies and talking G..I. Joe dolls. The parody is so deadpan that it's hard to tell the hoax aspects from the facts, which made this film something of a guerrilla masterpiece. One thing is true - RTmart is a corporation, and you can judge from yourself what they're about from their website.

It so happened that the art space was right next to the train tracks. During the break, they projected films against the boxcars of a passing train. It was that kind of an evening.

Spectres of the Spectrum is a crash course in the history of electronic media, disguised as a futurist science fiction spoof. The year is 2007, and the world has been taken over by a conspiratorial group known as the Electromagnetic Order. Only a few pockets of resistance are holding out. One of them is a paunchy, aging ex-spy named Yogi (Sean Kilkoyne, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the guy who plays Frohike on The X-Files), in telepathic communication with his rebel commando daughter Boo-Boo (Caroline Koebel).

The plot, which involves an Airstream trailer flying into the sun in order to reverse the timeline, provides the pretext for Baldwin to assemble an astonishing array of clips from TV kinescopes, stock footage, educational films, cartoons, B-movies, corporate films, trailers, Japanese monster movies, you name it. The themes are the harnessing of electricity, its various clandestine uses by the Pentagon and industry, the creation of mass media and the connection of its pioneers with utopian and spiritualist beliefs, and finally the wresting of media power from the hands of these eccentrics (and thereby from the people) by the international corporations.

The film's information is presented in a barrage of imagery both astounding and exhausting. Without a background in electromagnetics it is difficult to understand some of the jargon. The Cold War clips - most prominently from the old TV show Science in Action - can be both amusing and chilling. Baldwin traces the defeats and humiliations of geniuses Nikolas Tesla (inventor of the AC current) and Philo Farnsworth (inventor of television) through the machinations of Thomas Edison and David Sarnoff, and he then links the opportunistic Sarnoff (mogul of RCA and NBC) with Bill Gates (MSNBC, anyone?) in a dynasty set on crushing the human imagination.

With its headlong, breakneck rhythm and sensory overload, Spectres of the Spectrum has the quality of a relentless paranoid rant, albeit seasoned with innumerable touches of goofiness, including the recurring theme of an obscure 1950s TV star and turbaned Hammond organ player, the benign and mysterious Korla Pandit. The fictional framing device with Yogi and Boo-Boo unfortunately becomes a drag on the movie, too poorly written and acted to measure up to the film's didactic fury. The director would have been better off sticking to a nonfiction narrative structure, since that's the picture's main interest and point.

Ultimately Baldwin has crammed so much stuff into his film that it becomes difficult for the mind to absorb. The movie ends up overstaying its welcome by about twenty minutes, like a 1950s robot blowing its circuits, steam coming out of its head. Still, I found the release of energy, the sense of anarchic political onslaught, to be refreshing and liberating.

Spectres is an educational film - a subversive one, which is to say a real one - one that finally puts to rest all those classroom films we used to yawn through. Making an end run around the commercial theaters in order to bring a different kind of film to people, Baldwin is taking his film on the road to various informal spaces all over the country. And that, folks, is where good things can often be found - on the margins.

©2001 Chris Dashiell

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