by Chris Dashiell
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
to learn more about Craig Baldwin.