Archive for category Film History
Since the very earliest days in America, film has been subject to censorship groups. From the Board of Censorship, to the Motion Picture Association of America, America has always utilized self-censorship. There are many who oppose the MPAA in today’s climate, to name one is Roger Ebert who is an outspoken critic of the board. Making such critiques that the board weavers on what is acceptable and what is not. Even though I agree with his critique, I do not feel this warrants the abolishing of our self-censorship. In fact, I believe this would indeed open another can of worms. The consequence of which we are robbing Peter to pay Paul. What exactly do I mean by this? America, even in it’s earliest days has subjected itself to self-censorship. In a way this is very unique as a system of censorship. Whereas much of the world over has subjected itself to a form of government censorship. Even Canada, seen as a free society, has subjected itself to government censorship by the Ontario Film Review Board. Such films which have been censored are The Tin Drum, which was deemed pornographic. David Cronenberg would admit of Canada’s censorship board in the special features of Videodrome that his films would be cut apart, not by him, but of the board, if they deemed something inappropriate. Much of what I’m alluding to is that by robbing ourselves of Peter, self-censorship, we would inevitably be paying Paul, government censorship, which is the last thing we would want to wish upon ourselves in a free society. If we shoot ourselves in the foot, we may end up living, but if we aim for the head, we will surely die.
Here is a blog devoted to Craig Baldwin. Post any and all book recommendations here, as well as online links regarding this person, and other vital essays. Any topics on the man should rightfully be placed here.
Feel free to contribute your own thoughts or essays in this thread regarding Craig Baldwin, as all opinions and thoughts are very much welcomed.
Craig Baldwin considers his work “underground” rather than “experimental” or “avant-garde”. Whereas the avant-garde is primarily concerned with formal exercise, and “experimental” implies some experiment (i.e. that something new is being tried for the purpose of determining whether of not it can expand the limits of cinematic language), “underground” would encompass not only formal plasticity but a political dimension; that of an oppositional subculture.
As such, Craig Baldwin’s films have formal concerns as well as some kind of political commentary, usually concerning the exploitation of countries and people under imperialism, capitalist or otherwise. Even when he is inventing the oppression (as in the alien presence of Tribulation 99 ) it is either a metaphor for a real-world situation or it is combined with verifiable history. The aliens of Tribulation 99 may come from the destroyed planet Quetzalcoatl, for example, but they are apparently working with Kissinger to subject local populations in Central America. The science fiction and the fact are intertwined.
Baldwin’s work is most easily characterised by his use of recontextualised film elements, primarily drawn from his vast library of what Rick Prelinger, his fellow archivist and collector, calls “ephemeral films” – educational and industrial films chiefly made in the period between 1945 and 1975. These, along with a healthy dose of science fiction and period dramas, make the pool from which Baldwin draws. As libraries and schools began to renovate their A/V departments in the 1980s and 1990s, an avalanche of outdated materials became available, and the creative possibilities seemed obvious to the young director.
Craig Baldwin was born in Oakland, California, in 1952. He began making Super-8 movies when he was a teenager – the kind of skit-oriented parody films involving friends and neighbours. He was drawn into the practice of collage rather naively; he was interested in cheap and readily available Super-8 dubs of Hollywood B-movies that were for sale in the ’60s and ’70s. From these he would assemble compilations, mixing and matching scenes from various productions to create new stories. He made them for his own enjoyment, but it became the basis for his process in subsequent years.
Later, Baldwin attended several universities, dabbling in various disciplines (notably theatre), but always somehow gravitating towards film. These schools included U.C. Davis, U.C. Santa Barbara, and finally San Francisco State. At SFSU Baldwin was fortunate enough to take studio classes with film collage master Bruce Conner, who was teaching there at the time.
The following are Baldwin’s released film works, in chronological order.
Stolen Movie (1976)
To make this film, the 24 year-old Baldwin would run into movie theatres with his super-8 camera and shoot what he could off the screen, pre-dating the current practice of bootlegging feature films with camcorders. This was as much performance art/action as it was any kind of film document, and the piece, though perhaps extant, isn’t in circulation like the rest of Baldwin’s work. The director himself describes it as a kind of prank (1) – interesting for the implications and the direction of his development more so than as a film in and of itself.
The academic, political underpinnings of his later work are mostly absent here, possibly because his political consciousness was still developing, but his physical process – recombining already finished films, relying on material readily available either at a low cost or for free – is evident.
This film is an early exercise, and its inclusion here is in the interests of establishing the director’s development.
Wild Gunman (1978)
This film is a meditation on the Marlboro Man, a compilation of images and associations designed to deconstruct this image of masculinity and consumer addiction. Not only the Man himself, but the entire myth of the cowboy and the West are its targets.
The film veers from heavily-manipulated optical printer work to straight advertising footage from commercials and B-movies. Though there is no “history” (which is the basis for his subsequent films) the style that characterises all his work is firmly in place. The combination of social satire/deconstruction and recovered film images is used as a detournement – a Situationist attack against the oppression of corporate advertising.
Wild Gunman is available as a film print from Canyon Cinema, (2) where it is a popular rental. It may be possible to find it on VHS. (3)
RocketKitKongoKit (1986) (4)
This is the first of Baldwin’s imagined histories, or, as he puts it, “prank documentaries.” On the surface RocketKitKongoKit is the true story of a German rocket firm leasing land in the Congo (then called “Saire” under Mobutu’s reign), for testing rockets. The larger implications, that of Europe’s colonial attitude towards Africa in the 1960s and the exploitation of its people for a program the Europeans didn’t want in their own backyard, is not an entirely inaccurate one. History is, of course, highly malleable, and interpretations of any event can continue for decades – especially with relatively recent and well-documented events. The direct links between the ESA’s rocket program and deteriorating conditions in Africa are made more forcefully than would a more conservative historian, and the information is presented with the authority and integrity the documentary form affords.
Of course the film is also quite funny, pairing up news items from the 1960s with schlock science fiction rocket ships blasting to Mars. The result is a kind of pseudo-documentary, in which all of the re-enactments are unconnected to the material presented.
Baldwin is reminded of the spurious documentaries he saw in general cinema release when he was younger. Harald Reini’s 1970 film Chariots of the Gods? was one such work, in which the lines between the historical artifacts – undeniably extant and available for study – and the fanciful interpretation – enforced by questionable “experts” and wild half-baked theories that connect vague notions – create what appears to be a cogent and irrefutable hypothesis. Reini’s and Baldwin’s film are each about how human beings process information and the authority of presentations.
Once again, from the director: “…my project is to liquidate distinctions between official and unofficial history.” (5) This includes folk history, perceived history, personal history and the extrapolated history of cinema objects retrieved from the archive. The goal is not an authoritative verisimilitude, but rather multiple points of view.
One is reminded of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, David Wilson’s Los Angeles-based museum about museums, the exhibits of which constantly call into question the authority of museum exhibits. (6) Though Baldwin discovered Wilson’s work fairly recently, they share the fascination with the presentation of history or “truth”. Curiously, the authority of Baldwin’s history of the Congo is somehow strengthened by the presentation – even though that presentation includes spacemen conquering galaxies.
Tribulation 99 (1991)
The film’s full title, Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America – the Shocking Truth About the Coming Apocalypse, pretty much tells it all. Whereas the situation in the Congo appealed to Baldwin politically and socially, the events in Tribulation are manufactured almost entirely from the source material.
In fact, the filmmaker likens the process of creating a film like Tribulation to an excavation. It is the retrieval of film-objects from the archives he maintains that lead to the film’s creation, not any script-writing or brainstorming process. It can take years to sort out the footage until a Tribulation seems to form itself out of the connections. (7)
Baldwin’s archive is not extensive. He claims it has only about 2500 film units. This may seem like quite a few, but compared to the stock footage company run by his friend Rick Prelinger, (8) Baldwin’s collection seems small.
Naturally, the development of a film like Tribulation starts with Baldwin’s taste in film, which leans towards B-movies, science fiction and ethnographic films. But the associative connections he draws in the trance-like state of poring through old footage is what gives Tribulation its form as well as its highly allegorical content. Every cut in a Craig Baldwin film is based on some kind of association or metaphor, and it is only when dozens, maybe hundreds of these metaphors come together that the shape of the film becomes apparent.
Consider the following frames, and how they work together:
This cut is merely associative, that of a star in one instance and another star in the following shot. The inverted nature of the first star is innocuous, but the Satanic implication of the second is clear. Because the film is constantly attempting to link geopolitical events to some kind of mystic, biblical or evil force, these constant associations engage a slow paranoia that creeps throughout the film. Though shots are often organised according to these simple associations, the chaining of dozens of little metaphors and associations, especially at Baldwin’s breakneck speed of editing, begins to take on a manic energy of its own.
Baldwin is thoroughly versed in the work of the Soviet Montage filmmakers from the 1920s, as one would suspect, and his editing style is largely based on the kinds of effects two juxtaposed shots will create. In the sorting process Baldwin develops strategies as well as connections between images.
At first glance the above seem to be examples from the trim bin marked “skeletons”. But more than that, Baldwin uses groupings of images that contribute to emotional responses in the viewer. A surplus of skeletons, as well as other threatening or fearful images dominate Tribulation 99. In addition to the occult, biblical, mystical, and pseudoscientific material this film aims to create a permeating haze of paranoia.
More effective is when the images onscreen are not linked to any particular context in the narration. For example:
This is how Fidel Castro appears in one scene of the film. An angry bearded man, this is a good enough sign for Castro, and since he is allegedly in league with voodoo priests, his unusual appearance is both amusing and somewhat plausible within the world of the film. In contrast, the images below do not necessarily correspond to any event in the narration:
These serve only to contribute to the creepy atmosphere. It is an emotional response to the image, not necessarily a studied, intellectual one that operates here.
Organised into 99 chapters, each with a terrifying title screaming out in full screen capital letters, (9) the structure of the film invokes both conspiracy theories and biblical texts. And yet a great deal of the narration in Tribulation describes a readily verifiable history of American intervention in Central America from the 1960s through the 1980s. It is mixed in with vampires, voodoo and killer robots, but it is there.
This is Baldwin’s first film with his frequent collaborator, Bill Daniel, who is credited with photography. Baldwin himself has claimed Daniel’s role is much more of an equal, as he is often involved in the editing stages of a project as well.
¡O No Coronado! (1992)
In this, another prank documentary, the disastrous conquest of the southwestern United States by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasques de Coronado is paired with efforts to dispose of nuclear waste material in the same area. The innovation here is that Baldwin has added his own footage to that which he found in his archive. This involved a brief “guerilla” shoot with a small crew out in the desert – a camera, a van and little more than a general idea what was needed.
Up until Coronado Baldwin was able to find all the ”cinematic gestures” (10) he wanted in found footage. With this project, he realised he was going to have to create some. The plan was rather simple: structuring the film would require certain gestures, and there was no way to determine them before the film was edited. So a variety of gestures would be captured, and they could be used when necessary.
1. Coronado unsheathes his sword. 2. Coronado looks off to the left
3. And to the right 4. A monk strikes the ground with his wooden cross (note modern city in background)
3. And to the right 4. A monk strikes the ground with his wooden cross (note modern city in background)
5. Coronado has a fever dream
5. Coronado has a fever dream
Baldwin seems to have opened his process to creating the gestures he could not find in the found footage. (11) As it turns out, these are the most surreal and striking images in the film. Baldwin’s sources for Coronado include a few stiff costume dramas and several animated maps showing the conquistador’s progress through the southwest. The nuclear waste dumping site footage is similarly dry.
The footage from those few days in the desert has the most emotional weight, as evidenced by these images:
1. Coronado is about to be hit by cornmeal 2.Coronado fondles a severed hand in his fever dream
3. Coronado is about to be hit by cornmeal 4.Creepy bruja 5.Coronado fondles a severed hand in his fever dream
Coronado was made to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Spanish Conquest of the New World, and it is with his usual puckishness that Baldwin has chosen one of the least successful and perhaps most bumbling conquistadors of the period as the subject for his film. His treatment of the subject, in a year when many filmmakers were turning to the subject either reverently (12) or as revisionists (13) is both comic and self-referential. By film’s end, both Coronado and his native guide/friend/standard-bearer are making jokes for the camera, and we can see that the monk has suddenly acquired a video camera and has begun to help out on the shoot.
Sonic Outlaws (1995)
Sonic Outlaws is markedly different in that Baldwin goes from making a prank documentary to making a documentary about pranks. It begins with Negativland, an audio collage collective whose practices (cutting together media from TV, radio, films, records, home tapes, found tapes, and from their own music and voices) mirror his own. Negativland were sued in 1991 by U2 and Island Records for a song-parody collage they had made. It included a sample of the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and outtakes of DJ Casey Kasem (14) swearing and ranting in the studio about U2. (15)
The lawsuit would likely have resulted in triumph for Negativland – several high-profile cases (16) recently had gone as far as the American Supreme Court in defense of the rights of artists concerning “Fair Use”, a clause in the US Copyright Law. (17) Sadly, Negativland had neither the expensive legal advice to determine their rights nor the money to defend themselves in court, and the result was a crippling settlement that nearly destroyed the group.
As Baldwin had found the ire necessary to create anti-corporate agit-prop in RocketKitCongoKit and anti-government nuclear warnings in Coronado, he found another cause in Negativland’s plight. Sonic Outlaws contains more than just Negativland – several other groups on the forefront of copyright reform and anti-corporate reuse of culture are included, from the Barbie Liberation Organisation (an art-terrorist cell that switched the voiceboxes in talking Barbies and talking G.I. Joe dolls, then re-inserted them onto store shelves) to Alan Korn, a lawyer working for copyright reform within the system.
Throughout the course of Sonic Outlaws a variety of creative strategies are displayed, all of which constitute a kind of resistance movement in which artists attempt to turn the one-way authoritative communication of corporate culture into some kind of dialogue. Most of the Outlaws are involved in practices by which they receive the corporate signal (sampling, recording), manipulate it by some Dada or Situationist strategy (the detournement again) and then put it back out in the public domain for consumption (either by live show or through CDs, downloads, etc.).
Though the best known of Baldwin’s films, Sonic Outlaws is perhaps the film that least resembles his oeuvre. The amount of archival footage is at a minimum, and real people take centre stage. There are enough real stories here, and enough real monsters acting against the development of art and culture in the US that the science fiction monster-metaphors make a smaller showing.
In fact, the documentary realism inherent in the piece threatens to overshadow the formal aspects at play. Baldwin uses a variety of image-making tools – 16mm film, Super-8, tube video, Pixelvision, (18) optical printing, and others – but the results are not nearly as startling as the participants’ behaviour. In particular, consider the billboard defacements, or the sequence in which David “the Weatherman” Wills “illegally” listens in on a gay lovers’ cellphone quarrel with his radio scanner – these are far more engaging than the manner in which the events are presented.
Spectres of the Spectrum (1999)
For his last completed work (19) Baldwin returned to the world of the prank documentary, but this time it is combined with strong narrative elements. Spectres resembles Coronado much more than Sonic Outlaws in part because Baldwin brings back the manic fusion of alternative history and paranoid imagery; what he calls “the funkiness and honesty of the materials.” (20)
Spectres is not only a history of broadcasting and the use of the electromagnetic spectrum, but an alternate history of the twentieth century. This includes the development of modern weaponry as well as an inclusion of the fringe elements: Jack Parsons, Aleister Crowley, L. Ron Hubbard, the U2 incident, UFOs, Mind Control, Weather Control, Wilhelm Reich, Korla Pandit, and Baldwin’s many other obsessions. (21)
This pastiche of history and imagery is driven by the story of “Yogi” and his daughter “Boo Boo”, who live in the year 2007 when all media and broadcasting are controlled by one corporation. In the process of trying to discover what secret message Boo Boo’s grandmother left for her, encoded in the airwaves of Television and Time, Boo Boo reviews the archaeology of media from Samuel Morse’s telegram to the present day.
Gathering the materials for Spectres seems to have been governed by the same processes as for Baldwin’s previous films. The actors are staged in situations that provide the appropriate “gestures” and in many cases asked to improvise their own lines. (22) Sets were constructed literally from detritus. The art directors carted whatever junk and old equipment could be found into abandoned storefronts which served as the sets. Yet for all the freedom that may have governed the principal photography, and this film is unique in Baldwin’s work for having so much principal photography, the final result is a tightly scripted tour-de-force featuring rapid-fire information streaming from several channels. As in Tribulation, Baldwin uses text on screen and voiceover simultaneously, to present three streams of information (picture, sound, text) at once, increasing the level of stimulation to the point of overload.
All this was cut on film rewinds with splicing tape – there were no computers used to create the visuals, no non-linear editing systems employed. Though Baldwin sometimes uses a few optical printer tricks (rephotographing in negative, colour timing, increasing grain, etc.) most processes are very simple, and have a handmade feel to them.
He uses a rear screen process, for example, in the scenes of Yogi ranting from his pirate TV bunker.
Shots of the airstream trailer hurtling through space-time are accomplished by hanging a small model in front of a projection.
And kinescopes of Philo T. Farnsworth (23) are shot with a number of processes and intercut to give the film more texture.
All of this is aimed at what Baldwin calls “opening a space”. The filmmaker wishes his work to create conditions for the audience that are conducive to thought, consideration, discussion, philosophical debate and even the generation of new ideas, rather than just dictating information. Active participation in the film is his goal, not the passive transference of data or story characteristic of most film experiences. His films are designed to call fact and documentary truth into question and to provide an atmosphere of skepticism.
Mock Up on Mu (in Progress)
Baldwin’s current project includes New Age cults, science fiction, and the military-industrial complex. Bill Daniel is, once again, contributing as a cinematographer/editor.
It may seem somewhat perverse to give such a formal and structural analysis of Baldwin’s films given that his work seems so oriented toward his content. Not only does Baldwin make films that have, at their core, a socio-political agenda, but he is very involved with the exhibition of his films, and others that share similar content. Not only does he curate programs regularly at San Francisco’s ATA Gallery, (24) but he has travelled throughout Europe with a show of films and videos, operating as a kind of one-man microcinema. His role as filmmaker is equalled by his role as a presenter of alternative film production distributed outside established systems.
Clearly he has amongst his aims a desire to bring social critique and analysis, through the medium of film, to small audiences with whom he might create a kind of dialogue. It may sound outdated to speak of “consciousness-raising”, but the effect is something similar – presenting questions and complicated situations in the hope that the audience begins thinking about them, and carries that awareness into their everyday lives. (25)
These aspects of Baldwin’s work can be attributed, in some ways, to his locale. Though the American underground has its roots in New York City, (26) San Francisco has hosted a thriving oppositional film culture for over 40 years. Amongst the ATA Gallery, the Pacific Film Archive, and now the San Francisco Cinémathèque (which boasts Rick Prelinger on its board of directors), the environment is a good one for Baldwin’s films and his presentation.
It is, however, the aim of this piece to establish the aesthetic value of Baldwin’s work, above and beyond the socio-political material he employs. Baldwin’s critique of power and its abuses is certainly a remarkable aspect of his films. Yet equally remarkable is the fact that he chooses to present those ideas through the textures of film. He could write essays (27) or run for public office if he were purely motivated by political change. Instead, he chooses film, in all its scratched and dirty glory, and he does so in an age when most of his contemporaries are embracing digital technology. It is not the conservative drive of a purist (28) that draws him to celluloid, but rather a love for the medium that first inspired him, imperfections and all.
This article has been refereed.
Audiotape interview with the author, 24 April, 2006
Canyon Cinema is a filmmakers’ distribution co-op begun by Bruce Baillie in 1961. Baldwin’s inclusion in the Canyon catalog is a clear indication of the place his films occupy in the family tree of American experimental filmmaking. Canyon has been the primary distribution outlet for the works of artists such as Bruce Conner, Lenny Lipton, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Les Blank, Kenneth Anger, and perhaps hundreds of others.
Baldwin also runs his own distribution company, Other Cinema, which is slowly releasing his own films on DVD as well as work by many other filmmakers. Perhaps it will find release there soon enough.
This film, like Wild Gunman, is available through Canyon Cinema. It is hoped that it will eventually find release through Other Cinema.
Scott McDonald, “Craig Baldwin: Sonic Outlaws (1995), August 9, 1995” in A Critical Cinema 3, University of California Press, London, 1998. This quote is a touch out of context here, as Baldwin is really trying to get at an explanation of why pop culture refuse is in some ways more authentic than an established historical archive of materials. But nowhere else does the director so clearly state one of his underlying intentions.
The Museum is located at 9341 Venice Boulevard, Culver City, California 90232. Their web address is http://www.mjt.org/, although no website can approximate a proper visit to the place.
Ibid. Audio interview with the director, 24 April 2006.
Rick Prelinger is also known for the popular Internet Archive at http://www.archive.org. The Moving Images section is growing every day, and contains high quality digital transfers of “ephemeral” films with the hope that more artists will use them.
Among these titles: “Awful Sores Afflict the Flesh of Men”, “Rivers Turn to Blood and Run Upstream”, “The Unkillable Beast”, “Limbo of the Lost”, “The Slain Scattered from One End of the Earth Even Unto the Other”.
The director defines “gesture” as being a “a physical movement disembodied from a language act.” Ibid. Interview of 24 April 2006. He goes on to describe the gesture as a sign, in the classic semiotic sense. It is interesting to note that whereas Baldwin is well-read and quite conversant in the basics of current film theory (much of which must come as a result of his position as an educator), his films are not really overly theoretical, relying instead on emotional states and gut reactions from an audience in order to function. This could be attributed to his interest in and devotion to the Soviet Montage filmmakers, as mentioned.
From the same audio interview with the director: “At the level I’m working, which is this mixture of found footage and live action, the performance of the actors tends to be more gestural; that is to say a sign that will mesh with the other signs.” The Soviet influence and the attempt to organise human features into a sign of the emotions the filmmaker wishes to convey are the goals here.
Ridley Scott’s 1492: The Conquest of Paradise (1992) comes to mind.
At least in the United States, where it appears lots of people are still feeling guilty for this sort of thing. PBS, for example, developed a ten-part series called The Other Americas dedicated to correcting some of the most popular historical myths.
The genial host of the American radio program “American Top 40”. He is also the voice of numerous American cartoon characters, notably “Shaggy” in the popular Scooby Doo series.
“Who cares? This is bullshit. These guys are from England so who gives a shit?” and “I want somebody who uses his fucking brain to not come out of a goddamn record… that’s up-tempo and I’ve got to talk about a fucking dog dying!” typify Mr. Kasem’s hilarious and unguarded outbursts.
Notably the 2-Live Crew v. Acuff-Rose case, which resulted in the Supreme Court’s eloquent upholding of an artist’s rights to use copyrighted materials to create a parody or social commentary that may be unflattering or unwanted by the copyright holder.
For students of American Copyright Law, it is Title 17, Chap. 1, § 107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair Use.
The “tube” part of “tube camera” refers to the old analogue technology behind television. Baldwin used the outdated technology because tube cameras have a specific look to them, different than today’s digital gear. Pixelvision is a toy camera, manufactured by Fisher-Price, which recorded on a quarter-inch audio cassette tape. The low resolution and high contrast of Pixelvision made it cheap for the kids, but also suitable for artists.
As of this writing, mid 2006.
This and many other quotes to follow come from Mr. Baldwin’s commentary track, available on the Spectres… DVD. So much information on Baldwin’s processes and methodology is in evidence on this commentary that it would be redundant to refer to it that much. The interested party is directed to it for further study.
A quick review for those who might want to know, and to save some time researching it on your own:
Jack Parsons was the Satanist rocket scientist who co-founded Cal Tech. He was a devotee of…
Aleister Crowley, the self-proclaimed “Great Beast 666.”
L. Ron Hubbard is the founder of the goofy Scientology cult.
The U2 spy plane, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, was shot down by the Soviets in 1960. It was an embarrassing incident for the United States.
Wilhelm Reich was a fascinating and possibly deluded sex researcher.
Korla Pandit was the star of the first music-only TV program in the 1950s. In it he would stare dreamily at the audience while playing “exotic” music on his Hammond organ.
point of all this being that Baldwin’s knowledge of these nooks and crannies of history, both occult and popular, is encyclopaedic. His ability to connect all these seemingly disparate things into a master conspiracy theory is entertaining in and of itself, the way that complex puzzles can be entertaining. The same impulse can be felt in the films of Peter Greenaway, whose work is always about categorisation and bizarre taxonomies at some point.
From the same DVD audio commentary, Baldwin discusses his lead actor, Sean Kilcoyne (also the narrator’s voice in Tribulation 99) and how he was given some minimal guidelines, but was asked to rant away. The resultant footage was edited and placed in the proper context by Baldwin and Daniel.
Much-maligned American television pioneer.
Each Saturday night at 8:30pm, at the ATA Gallery, 992 Valencia, San Francisco, CA 94110.
This aim can be identified as more Situationist than “hippy”.
By no means is this an attempt to declare the supremacy of San Francisco in the world of the American underground. In fact, the filmmaker’s co-operative that Jonas Mekas formed in 1962 is still alive and well at The Film-Makers’ Cooperative. But there does seem to be something in the air in Northern California.
Which approach has worked fabulously well for the Situationists that Baldwin has clearly read.
It is worth noting at this late juncture that Baldwin does not describe himself as a film purist. He has begun using digital tools very slowly, although the day he picks up a DV camera may be further in the future than many of his contemporaries.
[This article originally appeared in 21C Magazine (Issue No. 25, 1997).]
Deep within the South American jungles Che Guevara’s toxic DNA has been captured by aliens sponsored by US covert operations. Their plan: wholesale destruction of the cow orate media structures. Their director-in-charge of operations: Craig Baldwin.
Filmmaker, teacher, showman, anti-copyright activist, Craig Baldwin is a hunter-gatherer of Images, sounds and ideas. Embracing and celebrating satire and camp, his collage-essay films convey the sheer joy involved in their construction: the exhumation of post-war educational and training films from their once rock-solid cultural contexts into feature-length satirical ammunition. In the cult classic Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1992), Baldwin treats decades of CIA involvement in Central America as mock sci-fi, while Sonic Outlaws (1995) exposes the stand-over tactics of major recording publishers in policing their ever-tenuous grasp on media copyright.
A champion of film and video activism, Baldwin has helped transform San Francisco’s Mission District into a dynamic cultural hub for the genre. “Collage is the contemporary art,” states Baldwin. “It is the most definitive. Yet it runs absolutely against copyright laws. There are certain assumptions about the usage of other people’s material in order to make money from it. Collage artists take a tiny little bit of something from your piece and put it together with a lot of other pieces too and make a distinct whole. We’re not trying to steal your audience. The copyright laws need to be updated in order to deal with this art form. People of my generation know what is going on with collage in the different mediums: film, music, CD-ROMs.” (1)
But if collage is a contemporary art, it has been around since the modernist era of Kurt Schwitters and Pablo Picasso. What makes it current is perhaps best explained by Greil Marcus: “When it works, all collage is a shock.” (2)
A lifelong denizen of the Bay Area sub-cultural underground, Baldwin, 45, once lived in a projectionist booth above a porn cinema. It was in these unlikely surrounds that he experienced a cultural epiphany. From the scraps of film left lying around, Baldwin made Flick Skin (1977), a Super-8 film. The formal qualities of the film surface, with its patched-together, hand processed X-rated film material were made obvious to the viewer. So began a career concerned with the politics of the Image, one in which humor and wit guided the choice of Imagery into a carefully reworked mosaic. In Baldwin’s hands, the Image is no longer what it initially represented; and somehow, through its radical re-contextualisation, its true identity is revealed. Found footage is unmasked as an impostor, and made to perform roles for which it was never intended. As Guy Debord declared, any image can be made to invoke another meaning from the one it was intended to, even the opposite.
In keeping with his “grab the footage and run” philosophy, Baldwin’s Stolen Movie was constructed by literally charging in to mainstream cinemas and stealing images off the screen by filming them on a super-8 camera, then rapidly exiting through the rear door with the booty. Part guerrilla theatre, part performance art, this brand of media pranksterism was an act of deliberate provocation and the result of a politics of the everyday.
Baldwin also acknowledges a debt to the Beatnik poets, some of whom with their post-war utopianism helped identify the “peace and love counterculture” as fundamentally positioned “outside” the mainstream. Embracing nomadism for a while, Baldwin hitchhiked and “hopped freights,” in his own words, “as a cultural response to the middle-class lifestyle.” (3)
One of the biggest supporters of Baldwin’s work is the famous ‘psychotronic’ Z-grade film magazine Film Threat, which caters to splatter and exploitation film aficionados. The Z-graders tend to be like-minded, entrepreneurial hobbyists who are similarly forced into filmic resourcefulness. (4) There is an easy exchange of ideas between them and the more politically motivated junk-film cutup films of a method of working Baldwin calls “cinema povera” (the cinema of poverty). “Cinema povera” started with Bruce Connor in the late ’50s. Other people involved in the same type of filmmaking include: Bill Daniel, Greta Snider, Eric Saks, and Lori Surfer. They follow the practice of ‘using what you have’ – not relying on crews, big budgets, and adapting what is lying around to make a “Cinema of Poverty”.
By dredging the depths of America’s media past, Baldwin develops an archeology of American ideology. The best place to exhume the corpses, it turns out, is the world of ephemeral films. These are the forgotten trailers, commercials, sponsored films and educational films that still transmit forgotten signals from the Cold War and the Space Race. Now cast adrift from their former contexts, these filmstrips still manage to reveal the disarming forcefulness of America’s once official culture, with its ubiquitously familiar, authoritarian and paternalistic voice-overs.
In an era of ubiquitous digitization and image manipulation, the arcane use of the relatively obsolete film object as a field for artistic endeavor is rare. Cut, manipulated, edited, blown up, shrunk down, stretch printed, scratched and drawn on, the very physicality of film is at the very core of found footage’s aesthetic appeal, the key to what makes the key to what makes appropriating it so much, well, fun.
Despite a desperate artistic attempt to avoid the uniformity that shapes capitalist culture in America, the culture-jammer look has been appropriated by slacker punk bands like Nirvana, who used found footage in their film clips (e.g. the sperm close-ups in “Come as You Are”) and by such mainstream directors as Oliver Stone. The quick montages in Stone’s JFK (1991) could well have been inspired by a Baldwin movie – the use of rapidly intercut Super-8 with 16mm, and intimately intermixing real with reconstructed footage. Nevertheless, while it is the aesthetics of appropriation that Hollywood adopts rather than any political form of media activism, Baldwin admits that he “got lucky” with Tribulation’s timing: “Oliver Stone released JFK a few months after mine. In a lot of ways, my film was helped by Oliver Stone, because there was a lot of interest in JFK – which is actually a very small part in my picture. But it is the same kind of conspiratorial thinking, which quite obviously won’t go away. It is here to stay.” (5)
Even the themes of Baldwin’s Tribulation 99 – paranoia, conspiracy and government cover-up – are increasingly the subject of sanitized mainstream media forms, which use such themes and settings for otherwise conventional storytelling. Witness the X-Files and Dark Skies or Independence Day.
Baldwin, in his own words, is trying to “negotiate an alternative pathway toward some kind of understanding of American culture and cinema.” “Cinema povera” also attempts a deliberate and consistent turning away from the offerings of the mainstream, looking instead toward the scraps of the past, or the work of filmmakers themselves trying to negotiate a way out.
With its dryly narrated, whispering soundtrack told through 90 per cent “found” footage, Baldwin’s Tribulation 99 lets the audience in on a National Enquirer-type conspiracy, in which invading aliens called Quetzals have come to take over the minds of US decision makers in a battle for control of both Central America and the Earth’s core. Watching the film, you will recognize bits of Earth vs tire Flying Saucers, Dr No, various Mexican B-grade movies, Tire Creature From tire Black Lagoon and War of the Worlds. There are strange out-takes from 1960s documentaries on plutonium waste-disposal and magnetism. There are video clips from news coverage of the invasion of Grenada. Viewing this wealth of material, one imagines the feelings that went into its creation – ecstatic delirium mixed with moral panic and political outrage.
“It was curious the way that certain ideas were between the official, political history and the very unofficial paranoiac version of things. There were often these weird alignments. Sometimes it was easier to believe the UFO stuff than it was to believe the CIA story that was used to justify our intervention in some country. So I lined them up, superimposed them in a way. I tore out bits of paper and taped them together. The material organized itself. I took real, political material and retrofitted it with the fantastic, wacko literature.” “I was continuing my projects against US intervention in Latin America,” says Baldwin.
“My other films have been a criticism of US foreign policy. What came to a head here was the whole Iran-Contra Affair, Oliver North’s trial, it was the whole milieu – the center of the times. I wanted to make a statement that was critical of the CIA and our meddling in foreign countries, and it seemed to be a new use of this creative material, these paranoiac rants. “I saw the CIA as being truly a conspiracy. I wanted to make a black comedy instead of a Noam Chomsky kind of thing which is fine and great, but I didn’t want to duplicate. Instead of making that kind of attack, I wanted to make one that was satirical – one that would lacerate, tear apart, shred the CIA by burlesquing them, by using these great materials.” (6)
In 1995, Baldwin rallied to the defense of fellow cultural samplers, the satirical sound-collage band Negativland, who had fallen foul of the copyright laws for appropriating a U2 song. The case was perhaps inevitable. For the best part of a decade, bands had been lifting riffs from popular songs, and the record companies set out to make an example of them.
Sonic Outlaws is Baldwin’s political statement on the collaging and sampling of culture. More formal in structure than the typical Baldwin film, Sonic Outlaws is essentially a documentary constructed from interviews with numerous proponents of culture jamming – media pranksters, artists and political groups who take what’s out there on the shelves of mainstream USA for artistic and political ends. Negativland are interviewed at length about the battle between their “anti-corporate” record company, SST, and Island, U2’s label. Island sued Negativland for appropriating 20 seconds of the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and using the letter “U” and the numeral “2” (next to each other, just like the Lockheed spy plane’s ID number upon which the Irish band’s name is based) on the cover of the record release.
The venom with which Island’s lawyers attacked Negativland over the album, and the about-face SST demonstrated to Negativland, outraged many across the country.
“That happened to be a journalistic incident. It didn’t have to be, but it became closer to home because I could identify with it. At the same time, 2 Live Crew was busted for their parody. They won their case because it had to do more with parody, it wasn’t so much a collage, it was a reuse of the same melody. It was under protection from this clause in the copyright law called Fair Use.” (7)
For Baldwin, Negativland encapsulated the sheer scale of the problem – the economically led protectionism of the global media industry does not acknowledge the validity of borrowing or adapting sounds for use in collage satire and parody. In the eyes of the mainstream, there is no such thing as a “non-commercial” use. The accountants don’t want to fathom collage. Copying can only mean bootlegging. Ironically, U2’s album Pop (1997) appropriates music from underground culture, indicating both the mainstreaming of the sampling genre, the dilution of the political gesture, and the legal muscle available to such super-pop groups.
Nevertheless, the SST/Island/Negativland incident served to galvanize the resolve of Negativland, Baldwin and the whole culture-jammer community. Nothing is quite as affirming as corporate pressure applied to an activist.
Craig Baldwin’s found footage work is thus an extension of a whole culture: a culture of community and collaboration; of people gathering in scenes, unified, like the Beatniks and Yippies of the past; a cinema of deliberate self exile from the mainstream, and active opposition to it. This is the avant-garde everyone thought had bitten the dust with modernism. Instead, it lies dormant in the heart of political unrest.
“Oh, that’s strong!” Baldwin yells, as a certain image flickers on the screen at Artist’s Television Access gallery’s basement. Notes are quickly taken in a pad, with a dimming flask light for illumination. The shot might find its way into his next work, Spy vs Spy vs Spy. Baldwin interprets everything. His cultural archeology combs the contemporary urban landscape as carefully as it does the detritus of the industrial era – the training film, the advertisement. Watching films with Baldwin is a unique experience. The most boring, turgid, insipid or blatantly tragic films become a source of immense fun and wonder in his hands. The sheer vibrancy of images from forgotten times which show flying saucers, monsters, and sheer strangeness is itself a fascinating entertainment.
Baldwin now has a modest studio. It amounts to a dark basement with shelving filled with film cans, reel-to-reel winders, thousands of press clippings and photos, stickers, flyers, and a tiny radio. The Baldwin workspace is seldom idle. From the earliest hours to the latest, Baldwin does the rounds, methodically organizing notes, text, and correspondence with other film programmers and filmmakers. This flurry of relentless activity makes the process of making found- footage films a natural extension of a lived, everyday aesthetic of foraging, collating, sifting, researching and playing with images, text, sound and selection. This is a culture of ancient movie projectors and bits of editing equipment which are lovingly maintained, of dark and damp basements with dim lights and leaking earthquake-damaged roofing. It is a culture of canned foods and cheap takeaway food. It is a world of moving images nil sounds which are invoked, like ghosts from the grave of cultural history. This is nothing they teach you in film school. This is alchemy.
In an increasingly electronically mediated urban world, media archeology is the most appropriate kind of search for truth among the ruins. Rick Prelinger on the East Coast, whose ephemeral films have been released on CD-ROM (Ephemeral Films and “Our Secret Century” both published by
Voyager interactive) finds himself an invaluable source of material for an ever-widening group who are starting to realize the importance of media archives. Prelinger and Baldwin are colleagues and Baldwin’s last film Specters of the Spectrum (1999) examined the battle for control of the electromagnetic spectrum over the decades. By using the device of a Time Machine ‘scope’ the film literally framed early ephemeral films in the context of a story about the history of media itself.
Like Prelinger’s archive, Baldwin’s collection is valuable not only as a repository of films whose subject matter has been filtered into his own work, but as a kind of snapshot of the filmic variation on the great American collage tradition which includes Joseph Comeli, William Burroughs, Robert Nelson, Jasper Johns end Robert Rauschenberg.
A cultural and economic climate of uncertainty and doubt during the 1990s infused the US media with an urgency and a liveliness borne directly from familiarity with decades of non-stop piped images and sounds. Culture-jamming is thus a form of popular revolt – artists manipulating images as emblems of America’s official culture. It is the equivalent in many ways of burning an effigy of US cultural hegemony both at home and globally.
Telephone interview with Craig Baldwin by David Cox.
Videotaped interview with Griel Marcus by David Cox, 1994.
Telephone interview with Craig Baldwin by Ashley Crawford.
‘Psychotronic’ is a subcategory of Z-grade exploitation cinema. For more details, see http://www.filmthreat.com
Telephone interview with Craig Baldwin, David Cox.
Telephone Interview with Craig Baldwin by Ashley Crawford.
Telephone interview with Craig Baldwin by Ashley Crawford.
The legendary West Coast filmmaker Craig Baldwin is a whirlwind force of infectious creative energy. His extreme take on the found footage film genre confounds narrative, documentary, and avant-garde boundaries, proposing entirely new formulae for the intersections of form and content, audience reception and media critique. His long running curatorial project–Other Cinema, running weekly in San Francisco, thirty-six weeks a year–draws on a similar collage aesthetic. For over twenty years, Other Cinema programs have delivered to Bay Area audiences insane amalgams of underground cinema, genre film, media and community activism, performance and sound art, and unique and astounding lost-and-found orphan works from Baldwin’s infamous film/video archive as well as hosting a dizzying array of artists, curators, community activists, conspiracy freaks, and other indescribable and wonderful wackos.
Arguably as significant a cultural contribution as his film work, the history of Other Cinema has been largely undocumented. The interview appearing here is excerpted from an unpublished oral history that traces the origins of Baldwin’s curatorial work and the relationship between his film work and this area of activity. It is part of San Francisco Cinematheque’s ongoing project to collect and preserve first-person accounts of Bay Area media arts history, spearheaded by Steve Polta. A student of Baldwin’s in 1995, Polta has been a participant in the Other Cinema project continuously since January 1996 and has contributed to the production of Baldwin’s Spectres of the Spectrum (1999) and Mock Up on Mu (2008).
The original interview was conducted on September 30, 2007 at Artists’ Television Access (ATA) in San Francisco.
SP: Let’s talk about your time in Davis, California. What were you doing there? Were you in school?
CB: Around 1970-72, I had somehow been turned on to collecting, which eventually led to the “Industrial Amok” series. I left Davis in ’72 or ’73–
SP: Did you graduate from UC Davis?
CB: I didn’t. I graduated from San Francisco State University. I left school more than once, to travel around the world. I actually went to South America at that time. The point is, before I left Davis, I had already kind of moved into film. They didn’t have a film department per se, but they had a film class, taught by Mike Henderson.
At the time, I was making Super 8 films. But I was also interested in the idea of working with found stuff. Back then, if you bought films X, Y, and Z from Blackhawk, they would throw in a sampler of their other stuff just to get you interested in buying more. This was before video. I bought the sampler, nice clips from this and that, and I didn’t have to watch the whole films. Just great clips from comedies, documentaries, early cinema. I folded all of that in and made a movie out of it. In fact I did a performance with it.
SP: What was it?
CB: I can’t remember the name of the performance. But I was running around, casting my shadows and there was film projected on me and I did some action.
SP: And this was at Davis?
CB: Yeah. It sure was. I was also in the theatre department. At the time some of the film classes were in the theatre department, and some were in the English department. It didn’t make any difference to me but I was mostly in the theatre department, because I was in plays and studying about theatre, which I always had an interest in. I wasn’t really interested in film until I got a Super 8 camera. This isn’t related to programming, but my production overlapped with my programming once I got into archival stuff.
SP: You talk about the drive to collect. Where did that interest come from?
CB: I don’t know how I got turned on to it. I saw a catalog somewhere. The films are rare now but they weren’t then. I used to have boxes and boxes and boxes of them. Now I probably have one box of them. But I used to just pour through that stuff. I literally just poured through it.
SP: You said you were making Super 8 films around that time. What sort of films were you making?
CB: Well, there was one film where I folded in the Blackhawk sampler. Early on it occurred to me that that was something I could do.
SP: Had you seen films that did that?
CB: I can’t say I remember seeing a found footage film at that time. When I was in high school I used to go to midnight movies where I saw some early underground films. That made a tremendous impression on me.
SP: Where was this?
CB: It was called the Towne Theatre. It was right next to American River College.
SP: This was in Sacramento?
CB: Yes. Carmichael, my suburb. The theatre was probably for the benefit of the junior college students, not that it was a real active student ghetto or anything like that. But it was way in the suburbs and not downtown.
SP: What sort of programs were you seeing?
CB: Insanely brilliant straight up American underground of the ’60s. George Kuchar, Robert Nelson, Christopher MacLaine–
SP: So that made a big impression on you.
CB: Oh, it totally blew my mind. Just absolutely changed my life. That was my idea of fun. Most people in high school didn’t go to midnight movies; it was too beatnik. It wasn’t exactly a football game. It was like poetry, people wearing turtlenecks and all that kind of stuff. I was totally into that.
SP: You were totally into what?
CB: Beatnik-ism! You know, I was like Maynard Krebs. [Maynard G. Krebs was a “beatnik” character, played by Bob Denver, on the television program The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which aired 1959–1963.] I was totally into the whole image of a Beatnik. I dug it. Anyway, I can’t say for sure if I saw a found footage film at that time. I might have. You could see them anywhere. You could watch TV commercials by the ’60s.
SP: I’m still curious where it came together for you.
CB: I can’t say; it wasn’t like a thunder strike moment. A lot of conditions lined up. An explosion of underground film in the ’60s–that was coming of age here. There was also a downtown cinema in Sacramento called the Marvel Arts Cinema. Keep in mind, I was middle class. I had a Super 8 camera. I ended up going to the University of California.
SP: That was at Davis?
CB: Yeah. Davis and Santa Barbara, too.
SP: So you went to Davis and then you went to Santa Barbara.
CB: Yeah. When I went to Santa Barbara, same thing, the first fuckin’ fall. I lived in the dorms. Well, what do you do at night? You get out of your dorm room. You certainly don’t waste any time doing homework. I’d go to the movies on campus. Half the time it would be free for the students.
SP: And what did you see then?
CB: I will never forget the first movie. It was by Peter Watkins, the one where the Nuclear war is about to happen. I just sat through the whole thing without moving. I went to the early show, then I just sat and waited for the next show to start and saw it again. I was so bowled over. The War Game!  by Peter Watkins. It was probably his most famous film. The other one was about the student strike at San Francisco State. It’s also a very famous film. It’s always talked about with the early ’60s radical newsreel stuff. Those are just two titles off the top of my head. In other words, it wasn’t the Bergmans and the Pasolinis. For me it was just going down to some hall. It was, like, below theatrical level, you know, just a 16mm projector.
SP: What else were you involved with back then? You weren’t just passively watching movies and geeking out on them.
CB: No. I was into political activism. I was always politically active. Now I’ve become more interested in point-of-view, personal idiosyncrasies, obsessions, auteur style.
SP: So you think you’re more interested in that now than you were back then?
CB: Oh yeah, sure. It was all about content then. Not that I have a simple definition that would define, distinguish, and divide content from the other issues. What I’m saying is, we were interested in looking at any film on South Africa. Now it’s more about nuance, depth, and subtleties among shorter films.
SP: Is that how you think about your programming now?
CB: One of the ways I think about it.
SP: Tell me more about the difference between then and now.
CB: The idea then was that everyone was pissed off about South Africa. So we created events where we could focus and maybe learn something. Everybody would eat it up, you know, like a forty or fifty minute film, with big color images. That would be the show. It was about finding a way forward and raising consciousness, getting excited and satisfying our curiosity.
Now it has to do more with teasing people through and opening up spaces. More finesse, more nuance and breaking it down, not a huge chunky thing. I wouldn’t be drawn towards something like that anymore. I would just leave that to television now.
SP: So has the landscape changed? Did you feel then that nobody else was showing films like that?
CB: There was a place called Le Peña in the East Bay; they would show films like that. They were a big influence on me. I only went there a couple times, but I thought their programming was great. But that’s all they really do: political. I wanted to do peoples’ culture: joyous Yippie stuff, revolutionary but with a sense of humor.
Karl Cohen was another huge influence on me. I still rent from him all the time. Karl had a great series at the Intersection [Intersection for the Arts]. He would show a mix of cartoons–he was always into cartoons and Academy Award winners. That wasn’t my thing, but he’d have an art film in there, like Simon of the Desert [Luis Buñuel, 1965]. I just loved that! He might show Simon of the Desert with a half hour of musical trailers–Nicholas Brothers doing tap dances and weird trailers and cigarette commercials, and a short here and there, and cult animations: more variety and circus-like. The way Karl was programming really made a deep impression on me.
I got a lot of my films from Karl: short things and little novelty items. He had an Alice Cooper film, which, you know, I’d go nuts for. Or he’d have a film of a magician performing or something. He has a catalog, which is not bad at all. He had [Jean] Genet’s The Balcony [directed by Joseph Strick, 1963]—which is a great film. I used to love that film and no ever talks about it.
The [San Francisco] Cinematheque never seemed to work with Karl that much, probably because his prints were pretty fucked up. But like the Em Gee films, I couldn’t get enough of them. I just thought, this is totally cool! This is made for microcinemas, because they’re kind of a micro-distributor.
A lot of the political films I probably got from Newsreel [Newsreel is a film distributor]. They had a South African section, and there was an El Salvador film and video place, believe it or not, right next door. Right here [i.e. on Valencia Street in San Francisco, near the interview location].
SP: What did they do?
CB: There was an arm for the El Salvador solidarity movement in Northern California. There was probably one in every big city, L.A. too. There’d be a propaganda arm–education and outreach–to organize and send money down there. There are millions of Salvadorans in the Bay Area. I don’t know where the prints were made but they distributed them. And I actually worked with them a little bit, helped them clean up their splices and stuff. We did a big show once at the Victoria Theater, a benefit for people of El Salvador, revolutionaries–
SP: And what was your role in that show?
CB: I programmed it. It was a big show, with people sitting in fuckin’ straight up theater seats, big screen, 16mm projection. There were probably two or three movies on that program, maybe four, with leader between them. I had to get the prints and put ’em on the reel and blah blah blah.
SP: Were you living and working here at Artists’ Television Access around this time?
CB: I probably was, because I moved here in ’86.
Here’s an example of the kind of thing Jeffrey Skoller and I would do around that time. We’d show Johnny Guitar [Nicholas Ray, 1954] and another Western on 16mm. Three shows in one night. It was part of the ARE [ARE was another San Francisco-based exhibition venue] thing: “Psycho Western.”
SP: What year was this? You showed it three times?
CB: Insane. It was almost more of a rep house kind of thing. It wasn’t this fine art film shorts thing we’re doing now.
SP: This seems more like an auteur program.
CB: Yeah, we did auteur. Jeffrey definitely has that auteur thing.
SP: What was your relationship with him then?
CB: Oh, just spiritual comrades. He was a good friend, roommate, and pal. A very dedicated maker and student of cinema.
SP: When you put these ARE programs together with Jeffrey, did you have the idea that you’d be doing this for a certain length of time?
CB: Well, no one could see beyond that. It’s a big hassle, once there are other things going on. Who wants to waste a lot of time doing this, writing this out, spending their own money–
SP: But you’ve been doing it for ages.
CB: That’s ok: I have the masochism of the margins.
SP: What do you mean?
CB: Masochism of the margins means, you gotta take a lot of pain. If you were just [pause] totally averse to pain you wouldn’t be in this part of the art world. But there’s a frisson with the tension and the deprivation–there’s a certain kind of excitement that comes out of it, living marginally, and if you totally went straight and just rented some hall and something from a distributor and put it all together–what’s the point? It might be a good show but it wouldn’t be exciting. You wouldn’t be taking any risk, or doing anything [pause] new. To do something that’s never been done–Other!–something new or alternative, then it becomes dangerous! And you have to suffer because of it. That’s the masochism of the margins.
The term was first introduced to me by Steve Fagin. It’s not a new idea, but he nailed it right there; I recognized it immediately. It’s not the same as being poor and marginalized. It’s a choice. I’m totally middle class; my brothers are quite well off. I can’t say that I’ve always been [pause] victimized.
SP: Where did that attitude come from? When you were a beatnik in high school?
CB: I don’t know what it was. I was the youngest child–maybe that had something to do with it.
SP: I thought the oldest child was usually the weird one.
CB: No, the oldest takes after the father. The youngest one gets the crap beat of out of him. But maybe the Viet Nam war made a bigger difference on me.
SP: Why? Tell me about that.
CB: It totally changed my life! A lot of the arty films that were really meaningful to me were anti-war films. But I always merged it together. I never separated pop and subculture from political activism. They were always married in my mind.
Why do I do this? That’s a bottomless question. I could list ninety-nine reasons: Because I enjoy it personally, it’s a great social thing, I get aesthetic satisfaction out of it. It’s meaningful, it’s political engaging, it’s a community thing. All these things sound cliché but there’s no secret. It’s about taking a more active role. I don’s think this will be any surprise to [future generations]. It’s about engaging with the present moment.
One of the best shows I put on in my entire life was at a place on 24th Street, near Ocho Loco [a performance venue located on 24th Street in San Francisco, at Potrero]. It was like a cabaret. People didn’t sit in a long rectangular room; they sat the other way–i.e. the short throw–and there was a band right there: Five Year Plan. They were really good. They put the drummer up front. I remember some old wave kind of guy, going “no no–shut the drummer down, put him in the back,” but no no no, the idea was that it was a new wave kind of thing. It was more percussive, like The Slits. It’s more like [chanting] “Hiya pika puko yayo!” you know, more rambunctious and jazzy and filled with energy, so everyone was together when they watched it. It wasn’t separated–we were watching the films and then we had the music.
SP: What year was this?
CB: That’s gotta be between ’80 and ’84 if you can dig it. ’80, probably. Reagan. That show was, for me personally, an answer to your question about satisfaction or return or reward. That’s where I would have wanted to be at the time, even if I wasn’t programming it because it was absolutely at the front edge. It was absolutely what was happening, taking the people, the community–not just escapism, but having a good time–listening, dancing, drinking, picking up chicks and all that kind of stuff. But everybody was also so conscious. It was all about this engagement and smashing this asshole [Reagan], and it was good. It was, like, a little bit of rage in there, a little bit of anger and justice, you know, vengeance. A little bit of doing the right thing. Anyone can go see some stupid art film–that’s great and I don’t put that down at all–but, to me, when there was a little more of a political sensibility, it seemed to have more juice to it, more bite, more danger, more excitement, and that was way cooler.
SP: You mean more of a community thing?
CB: Yeah, sure. Like the La Peña kind of thing or the People’s Cultural Center, or even the Valencia Tool and Die which I used to go to even before I started showing films. They would sometimes have films at these punk shows–it was all kind of pre-video. People would be marching around, there’d be films, and it was like, building an alternative.
SP: Tell me about the style and layout of your calendars.
CB: It’s whatever you want to call it: overdone, cramped, cluttered, whatever. A lot of small little gestures, typed, clip art. It’s not quite as messy as it used to be.
I never finished the whole story about Karl [Cohen]. He had this film called The Yippie Film, which is basically a collage of the Chicago National Convention [the 1968 Democratic National Convention], Abbie Hoffman and all those guys in there, and they nominated a pig for president.
SP: Like an actual barnyard pig?
CB: Yeah. They would always carry him around. It was very cute, and it was a brilliant stunt. The Yippie Film was a collage: it wasn’t only stuff from the political realm, from the streets, documentary material, newsreel verité footage, etc. It also mixed in all these old pie throwing things. It was just kind of the thing I used to like, because it had humor and was playful and was cut up and had good energy. Very early on, that kind of thing exerted a certain influence on me: the idea that you could make a political film and it could be a funny ironic surreal collage.
Around that time I was working at the Viz club, later called The Independent, and also called the Dog Saloon.
SP: Kennel Club. It was called the Justice League when I used to work there. What were you doing at the Viz?
CB: I ran visuals there, films. Light shows. One or two projectors. Nothing like the Trocodero.
SP: Where did you find the stuff that you showed?
CB: Early on I would collect material from lists. Not only the rental lists, but also the “to buy” lists. You could buy a Super 8 film, like a Blackhawk, and own it, and I still do [own the films], or you could buy these things which were second hands, or dupes, from other collectors: a clip from a part of a movie, for example. Every case is different.
SP: And you were pretty obsessed with this kind of collecting?
CB: I liked that part of it, yeah.
SP: What was your relationship with Steve Anker [Artistic Director of the San Francisco Cinematheque] then?
CB: He liked my fliers. Occasionally he paid me to do one.
SP: How much did he pay you?
CB: I don’t know. $20. Big deal. It was just more that he liked my style, that’s all.
SP: So where would a flier like this be? Were they on telephone poles around?
CB: Yeah. But I don’t put anything on telephone poles anymore. They’re torn down in such a short period of time.
Do you remember the 20th anniversary of the Cinematheque? For some reason I was called–maybe it was five or six years ago–asking, “Do you have any anecdotes?”
SP: Who called you? Anker? Kathy [Geritz, film programmer at Pacific Film Archive]?
CB: No, no. Somebody writing for the press, like Dennis Harvey or Johnny Ray Huston: “We’re just trying to write this story. Do you have any anecdotes about Cinematheque? Because we know you’re this film guy in town.”
SP: And what was the story?
CB: Basically, it about was the Material Action Films [Materialaktionsfilme, Otto Muehl, 1970] screening. I was the projectionist that night, working above the door. That’s where the projector was. A lot of these little storefronts in the Mission have a door that recedes and above it there’s a platform or a mezzanine: it’s like a shelf. There are no rooms. It’s open: it’s where grocers store their shit.
SP: So were you working for Cinematheque? Was that a regular thing for you?
CB: I might have been on their late night show. Anyway, the upshot is–have you ever seen Muehl’s Material Action Films? The last one, or the second to last, has a woman getting penetrated by a duck–or is it a goose? Well, it’s hard to say what happened, but shortly after that scene, all the power went out. And that was the end of the show, cuz no one knew where the fuse box was. I’ve always thought that someone saw that scene and–I think the goose’s, or the swan’s head gets cut off, and that that the person was probably upset.
SP: That’s the end of the story?
CB: I have nothing to add. It’s a good anecdote, though. Everyone was plunged into total darkness. It was packed! Packed! Take my word for it. It was really hot in there.
SP: Like how many people? 100?
CB: Yeah! Well, 100 would be a little high to fit in a storefront. It was comparable to the size of the ATA theatre space. I’d say about 80.
SP: Do you think 100 people would come to see Otto Muehl now?
CB: Good question. I wouldn’t show Otto Muehl now. Not because I don’t like him. It just seems like he’s already been covered. If people want to find out about Muehl they can probably find his work on video somewhere. But Otto Muehl is still good. It wasn’t just a flavor of the month thing. It seems to me that was more of a culture of underground cinema kind of thing.
SP: You mean back then?
CB: Yeah. More about something rare and obscure: “Oh yeah—the material actions films! I’ve heard so much about that…” There was a mystique to it. All this stuff! People don’t seem to care anymore. There’s so much access, so much information already out, so many things to do with our time, and so much competition. How can you get excited? Like I say–I had to go see these movies. When I was at Davis I saw five movies in one day. I would just have to go.
SP: Let’s get back to what was happening then.
CB: It’s slightly over my head to draw any super big generalizations. I’m just talking about my impressions. And my impression is that there was more of an attraction back then. I always end up watching films anyway. But the need to have to see something–I never even go to a theatre now. It just seems like a preposterous old-fashioned idea to me.
SP: But you’ve got people coming out to see your shows every week.
CB: Don’t you see? That has so much more juice to it. There’s much more excitement and energy involved: seeing somebody doing live performance or a lot of short things, having an idea around it rather than just kicking back and watching a movie. It has to do with being in the contemporary moment. Otto Muehl is great, but his work is from a certain period. It seems more historical.
SP: But back then, it didn’t seem that way?
CB: Yeah–maybe not. It seemed more contemporary.
SP: Like it had more relevance?
CB: Yeah yeah yeah.
SP: How do you know what’s relevant now? Where do you get your ideas from? For instance, how do you know when it’s time to show something retro now?
CB: If I gave you an answer it would sound like I have a system but that’s really not the case. There are fourteen programs on each calendar, and there are conditions that are in motion. There are things happening in the world, that appear in the newspaper, and there are things that happen locally. For example, [monthly cyclist activist event] Critical Mass is a big thing now; everybody knows that there’s energy around bikes, and other green issues. Then there are things that are happening in the art world, and there are things that happen in the world of ideas, like books being published. That has always been a big influence on me: new sorts of arguments that come out of books. A lot of times I get show ideas from books—I can’t read the books but I’d like to see a film show around the issues they raise.
SP: What’s an example?
CB: [Pauses.] Well, in a way I’m making a film [Mock Up on Mu] that kinda came out of a book, Sex and Rockets [Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons by John Carter]. That’s not exactly programming but when I finish the film it’ll get programmed. Or, Noam Chomsky could come out with a new book, and maybe there’s a new documentary about him. I don’t have time to read the Chomsky book, but he’s at the front lines. All eyes are on him: he’s still got something to say. Or it may be a theory, whatever. Anything. Sexuality. Systems science. Graffiti. Anything that has a certain place in the world of ideas. If you look at the last two or three seasons of Other Cinema you’ll see there’s always a book launch on the calendar. I like very much what Modern Times [a bookstore on Valencia Street in San Francisco] does.
In other words, do like the writer. But if you go to a book talk, you end up listening to someone read. How boring! But to do something like a book talk, where you don’t read–maybe a couple pages, sure–but the point is to include a motion picture component. It can be in slide show form, PowerPoint, spoken word, reading, and/or performance even. Together these things add up to a whole evening, in which an idea can be considered several different ways.
A perfect example would be the Sam Green show [December 8, 2007]. That’s going to be a very exciting show. Take my word for it. But if you look at it on the calendar, you’ll say, “I don’t even know what’s going on down there.” They’re just going to talk through ideas. But I guarantee that show will sell out, because Sam’s an interesting maker. Or maybe he isn’t, but people want to find out.
That’s where I want to take it now: towards ideas. It’s more about creating a platform for ideas, which can be worked through in many different ways. If you go to some cushy theatre and just sit there for two hours, that’s fine. But it doesn’t have the same currency, the same dialog.
Another example is what Greta [Snider] did [November 11, 2006], with the 3-D. That was a pretty sophisticated idea of programming. It’s a long ways from throwing an hour long documentary on the screen, like news footage, a bunch of people raising their fists. That’s great, but to actually present something with subjectivity, like with slides–it’s not even movies now, just slides–while someone talks over them. Don’t you see how discursive that is? It’s more of a dialog; it involves answering questions, and more direct responsibility, accountability, and presence. It has more of a “being there” quality.
It’s also a total microcinema idea. As opposed to a huge theatre, like The Castro [Theatre, in San Francisco]–you can put 500 people in there–where everybody’s watching Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, a great film, no argument, but I’m not interested in that. It’s worthless as an experience. But to bring people together, to create a platform for the sharing of ideas, that, to me, goes beyond cinema. That’s breaking though, you know? That’s bringing it back to books. Except a book is not a public thing, unfortunately. You can’t have a guy out there reading his book–it’s preposterous. But you can have a guy or girl up there, and they can read a little bit and then talk and show. Slide shows are my favorite.
SP: Why? What’s so great about slide shows?
CB: Because of the language. Again, this is more my style and preference. The combination of language and images–that’s what I like. There’s a million galleries around town that have beautiful images and pictures in them, but it’s not my thing. My interests in so-called “art,” are really not about decoration, or visual beauty, whatever that is. I’m very skeptical about those terms.
But these activities, these environments we’ve created, get exciting when there can be a challenging exchange of ideas. There may be contestation, criticism, dialectical give and take. That, to me, is cutting edge. The most exciting thing is developing and challenging ideas about new art. Film is so much more capable of that than painting, if you ask me. But now you can create a show that’s as creatively challenging as making a movie, because you’re still putting components together.
Take the show last night [September 29, 2007]–it was awesome, even though there wasn’t a lot of language involved. I didn’t put that show together but it’s typical of a show I could totally, unequivocally, get behind: different people working together, some of the same genres, different instrumentation, everybody had their own style, different films but they were also by [animator Ray] Harryhausen. There was a million different ways you could look at it and everything was a new experience yet it totally held together.
For me it was great because there was this wildness yet there was also a circling back to film history–Harryhausen, early children’s animation–and these stories, with all their cultural richness. There was just layer after layer and depth depth depth depth depth. You saw so much just in the films themselves, and with the music on top, you say, “Yeah! Now we’re really kickin’ it!” It’s not just retrieval of old funky movies for archeological purposes–that wouldn’t have held either. The movies are unwatchable on their own. They’re preposterously mediocre. But the new stuff, with the music, that became something exciting.
Ultimately, that’s what I’m going for: not just creating a comfortable thing where people can kick back with a tall cup of coffee and savor the moment. That’s not my idea. It’s really about setting up a dynamic relationship between audience and musician, artist/presenter, talker, explainer, interpreter, benshee, etc. The benshee is a brilliant idea; give Konrad credit for that. I share in that idea: old films and new music. Old films are great, but it can’t be pure retrieval from the archive: it’s about putting something new with it.
ATA is also the home venue of Baldwin’s Other Cinema. For more on Other Cinema, an “ongoing series of unusual and experimental film,” http://www.othercinema.com/
“Industrials Amok” is a recurring program of industrial and educational films presented at Other Cinema.
Em Gee films is an independent distributor of short subject films, located in Reseda, CA.
Artists’ Television Access was originally located at 222 Eighth Street in San Francisco. Its destruction by fire circa 1982 led to its relocation to 992 Valencia Street and precipitated Baldwin’s involvement.
The interviewer worked at this venue projecting film video for a few months in 1998.
Baldwin and the interviewer worked together doing film projection light shows at The Trocadero nightclub for ten months circa 1997.
This program presented short personal documentary and essayistic works by combining spoken first person narration with projected 3-D slide imagery.
This program, guest curated by Christine Metropoulos, paired live music created by local experimental music creators with animated children’s fairytale films.
Several years prior to this interview, San Francisco-based curator Konrad Steiner began organizing occasional “Neo-Benshee” events, in which writers and poets would compose text to be read over pre-existing films. This is modeled on the Japanese tradition of supplementing silent-era films with live spoken narration. The speaker in this tradition is known as a benshee. Baldwin’s Other Cinema has hosted Steiner’s events on several occasions.
From the YouTube Realm:
My Reviews of His Films:
Director: Craig Baldwin, (1978)
To approach Wild Gunman one must state the methodology in which the film is conceived in order to fully grasp the nature of its potency. I have provided links and video materials that do provide insight into the nature of the beast; but the facts should remain clear that utilizing vast audio/visual materials from borrowed sources, (such as Rick Prelinger’s library), Baldwin has capitalized on this acquired footage and seemingly uses the most mundane sources as a means of visual-political spitfire. Wild Gunman is most definitely that heated spitfire at its most charged; a collective introspection on culture, consumption, violence, all fueled by what is almost what one might consider the “Unconscious Media”, the one we as a collective seem to all know by heart.
But what is this “Collective Introspection”? Baldwin in Wild Gunman seems to bring it to us as a grand master of dreams, or should I say, nightmares. If the “Unconscious Media” is the images of dreams, Baldwin fuses them together with a constant, and terrifying, montage of American consumption and violence, always the synthesis of violence. Montage is central to most, if not all, or Craig Baldwin’s films. Clearly influenced by the Formulist-Soviet workshop’s of the 1920’s. Baldwin realized, as did Eisenstein and all those before Baldwin, that the medium of Film can and should function as a political weapon, for better or worse, depending on your position. Baldwin uses this nightmarish nightmare to ask deeper questions about American ethics, morality, and policy. Much of which is achieved through simple dialectical juxtapositions, as I have aforementioned. However, the film does not end on a high note resolving these dialectical endeavors, instead, we end in chaos, through the chaos of it all, and everything is left therefore unresolved. As a statement that the nightmare, which is very much so a living reality, is therefore also unresolved. The world will burn, prepare for the Tribulation in RocketKitKongoKit, (1986) and experience the Tribulation in Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, (1992). Wild Gunman is another Baldwin success, a true master of the Formulist school of cinematic thought, and perhaps one of its most inventive.
Director: Craig Baldwin, (1986)
RocketKitKongoKit, much like its predecessor Wild Gunman, is a visual collage turned essay on the American neo-imperialist involvement in Africa. Baldwin once again utilizes montage at its finest to illustrate a bitter-sweet point of human absurdity of War in the Congo. To be specific, Zaire, where the indoctrination and overthrow of a democratic society becomes the ultimate catalyst of the end of human civilization through the mass launch of nuclear armaments. Of course, in reality this launch never occurs. Though nonetheless, Baldwin sets the stage for the tribulation which occurs in Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, (1992). At which the point becomes ever so clear that humanity is doomed through the failures of typical human quarrel. The result there is the extinction of the planet, the result here in RocketKitKongoKit is the extinction of our species. Setting stage in five parts, the lines between fiction, and non-fiction become blurred. Especially towards the films end. As the parts press onward toward their final conclusion, Baldwin utilizes more, and more, sporatic editing; picking up the pace of both image montage and auditory narrative, mixed with vague, if not entirely irrelevant, imagery to portray a sense of the chaotic as the film reaches its ultimate conclusion. Much of these style choices are seen throughout Baldwin’s work, and would be especially seen in Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, (1992), and beyond. Once again, Baldwin becomes the Grand Master of the subliminal through the usage of montage and stock footage. Once again, the Grand Master illustrates through the screen the power of the edit and its implications on what may be seen as “useless” mise-en-scene. Here in Baldwin, the ideals and triumphs of the Formulists live on.
Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America
Director: Craig Baldwin, (1992)
Though I have yet to indulge in Baldwin’s most recent work Mock Up On Mu, (2008), Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America resonates as his finest work with me. In Tribulation 99, it becomes clear that Baldwin has a firm grasp on his, as he puts it, “prank documentaries”. Here in Tribulation, the lines become even more blurred. In the commentary on the film, he likes to state that the film takes the position of, “fake right, go left”. What Baldwin means by this is simple, Baldwin himself throughout his life has been a political activist; and more or less in his own words he has stated that his films, which ferment with political drive, this same political agenda provides a layer to which the films could not exist without. Watching Tribulation 99 is like watching a 50 minute extension on final part of RocketKitKongoKit, (1986). Here the editing is extremely fast; the montage of images chosen more or less make sense on the whole to portray the immediate sense of the chaotic, while the auditory narration fluctuates in apocalyptic intensity. As Baldwin puts it, “The sum ultimately becomes much larger than the whole of the parts,” once again illustrating the power of cinematic montage. Unlike Eisenstein and much of Baldwin’s Soviet predecessors, Baldwin here in Tribulation seems to take the role of a paranoid schizophrenic. The ideals and events occurring in Tribulation 99 have more or less happened. But they all become fantastical conspiracy theories. Assassination attempts on Fidel Castro are thwarted because it becomes clear in the narrators mind that, “you cannot kill someone who is not alive”. Tribulation is all at once jarring and humorous, this is perhaps the most advantageous and rewarding aesthetic about the film. The film becomes a question of killing you through black humor, which ultimately coats the pill of this final “tribulation”. Baldwin’s work continues to amaze though shock and awe, perhaps through one of the most innovative means on the film medium as I presently know it.
Director: Craig Baldwin, (1995)
When approaching Sonic Outlaws, I find it very atypical from the rest of Baldwin’s oeuvre. Here in Sonic Outlaws, Baldwin doesn’t hide behind the cinematic collage he uses to create visual-political points. Instead he dissects the very nature of his chosen art style. This may sound as a masturbatory introspection into ones self. However, this is far from the point and illustrated fact. The film is about a “culture jamming” musical group, Negativland, who utilized material from the now famous group, U2, and was sued into oblivion in the process. The film uses their story beckon to illustrate other movements throughout history that share similar plight. Art movements that date back to the 19th Century, to the Dada and Surrealist movements in the early 20th Century, which have lead to the very style that Baldwin espouses which is cinematic Situationalism; using the most radical forms of reworked plagiarism to illustrate in return the most radical forms of political commentary. He investigates other Situationalist “culture jammers” which are more-or-less artistic, but perhaps through their own virtue are more politically motivated to use the mundane to make their statements. The people in question are those such as the Barbie Liberation Organization, which switches G.I. Joe and Barbie audio voice boxes to illustrate the enforcement of gender roles on society. Other “culture jammers” are more pictorial to portray their political messages on society. Such as an underground group which tampers, and reworks, to display blatant political-subliminal messages within billboard posters across city streets. To boil it all down into a cohesive whole, Baldwin is commentating on a few things; the style of his fellow artists who take up his flag, the political introspection and questioning of the capitalistic-copyright system, the history of art and how it pertains to this system and its artists, and of course, an introspection through introspection, a view into the very nature of his own art style. Sonic Outlaws also seems much different to me in tonality. Perhaps in Baldwins other films, he was being playful, and though he doesn’t like to be called “experimental”, his prior films were very much so in a sense more “experimental”. Here there seems to be no image wasted with the intent on creating a emotional reaction. Here, each shot pertains to the complete meaning of the thesis in question. It would seem the work has more so of a political drive than his other works, and this is probably due to the introspective nature of the work he himself is investigating. Whatever the case may be, Baldwin’s film is a powerhouse of socio-political thought, and at one glance deserves discussion in its own right.
Spectres of the Spectrum
Director: Craig Baldwin, (1999)
Viewing the majority of Baldwin’s oeuvre, there seems to be an outlying pattern that emerges; more-or-less in sequence to itself, however, I find that it still exists nonetheless. If RocketKitKongoKit was act one to the doomsday of its second act Tribulation 99, then act three would most certainly have to be its posthumous reflection on the post-apocalypse in Spectres of the Spectrum. In the world of Spectres, all forms of viable communications and energy have been privatized, and in the process, they have created a mutant world where few survive and those that do live off of “shopping malls and theme parks”. Much like other Baldwin works, his films drive at a political agenda through the use of humor. However, what seems different about this work, is that it is a cinematic fusion of documentary and narrative film making with its apex in Situationalism and Dada. As I mentioned before about Tribulation being the second act to this sort of series, Spectres rises right out of the year 1999. In it, Craig Baldwin reviews to a much greater degree on the events that had led up to the beginnings, middles, and the ends, of the end. If Tribulation was at all linear in its handling of the subject, Baldwin puts this film as a “time travel” film. With narrative elements coming and going from different epochs in time leading to the post-apocalypse. It is, as I mentioned, a reflection on the post-apocalypse. Here Baldwin tries to make sense, and perhaps, come to terms as an artist on what he perceives as the ends of his political and artistic beliefs. Baldwin holds public domain in high regard, his films in more than one way reflect this, and in due course, the privatization of his life and art style becomes a threat on holy ground. Baldwin describes that this is perhaps why his latest films have a sort of “kamikaze” feel to them, especially in their conclusions, and this film is no exception. In format, Spectres is perhaps one of the most ambitious projects for Baldwin, with the precursor to this style being ¡O No Coronado!, while I have yet to indulge in this film. It is clear that Baldwin is comfortable with this integration of styles and concepts mentioned. Staying true to what he knows, but getting outside his comfort zone enough to produce new and profound art, Baldwin edits seamlessly the elements of found footage and filmed footage to create a synthesis of socio-political fervor within the spectator of the film. Baldwin is a true originator of his form, and I very much look forward to seeing Mock Up On Mu and other future projects.
Mock Up on Mu
Director: Craig Baldwin, (2008)
After witnessing Baldwin’s latest project, I am convinced without any shadow of a doubt that he has transcended his very format. I believe that any true artist aspires to reach for higher stars, ascension from those that inspired, and yes, at last, ascension for your very self. Kubrick himself at once realized this once he filmed a homage to himself with the insertion of a 2001: A Space Odyssey LP in A Clockwork Orange. Baldwin doesn’t present this sort of homage, perhaps out of more humility; however, the sort of collage-based Situationalism and Dada art, combined with an almost lucid self-filmed narrative format which he had explored to degrees in Coronado and Spectres seems to have come to its most mature in Mock Up on Mu. I had posted a YouTube link above of Baldwin’s own “rantings” on the project. He had stated it was an almost puppetry, and indeed it is, on many levels. It is a form of puppetry in self-made history; it is a form of puppetry in narrative characters who profess themselves to be famous, (and infamous), people in our own history; and it is a form of puppetry via voice-over narration over said characters. Mock Up would at least seem to be Baldwin’s most accessible works, though it is jarring in how it presents itself to the audience, (by referencing key characters though different montage elements and almost vague mise-en-scene relationships), Baldwin manages to make these elements and relationships more palatable, rather than as chaotic as say his precursor works. What also seems to be at the heart of this film is a sense of optimism, which was lacking in his preexisting films. The film ends on the note that “love” could indeed triumph over the evils that man wrought upon itself. The film is also quite different and atypical of Baldwin in as much as the fact that this is a computer edited film, Final Cut to be precise, and it is quite apparent. But rather than having it be a drawback to the film itself, it provides the film charm, and respectability. It would seem at once that the film becomes more “Underground” as Baldwin likes to profess himself. The film is divided into thirteen segments, each segment proclaiming to the audience who the key players are of the section in question. A profound idea indeed, which keeps the audience at pace with Baldwin’s fanatic, and chaotic, sense of collage and filmed footage. Though I still attest that Tribulation is Baldwin’s finest work. It would now seem hard to categorize, as the film maker himself has matured to such a degree that any comparison between the young and the old is perhaps a fruitless endeavor in and of itself. I have enjoyed watching this man blossom into the film maker he has currently become, I shall hope that his future projects continue to shed a brighter and brighter light upon the cinematic society.
That’s all for now.
Thinking Back as I Meditate
For awhile now I’ve been doing some deep reflecting on the film making process. My thoughts began with D.W. Griffith, the father of cinematic grammar. Within his lifetime, we have a documented five hundred and thirty-five films which he directed. Also within his lifetime, we have a documented two hundred and twenty-nine films which he wrote. Additionally within his lifetime, we have a documented sixty-two films which he produced. Likewise within his lifetime, we have a documented forty-three films in which he participated as an actor. He also was a supervisor to other films; he composed music for his films; he was an editor for both The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance; and, for Intolerance, he worked as production, make-up, and costume designer.
As a mull over this information, I think to myself a few things…
D.W. Griffith, (if you take a look at his work), did not develop and create cinematic grammar over night. He had to create many films, four hundred and ninety-seven to be exact, to get to the point of The Birth of a Nation; and if you watch his early work, you’ll see him coming into his own with each film he made as he progressed further as a cinematic artist and storyteller. Griffith persisted with the film craft; creating dozens of films within a year, each year, for many years.
This is where I begin to formulate my own thoughts…
I after considering D.W. Griffith, I think of his opportunities. What did he have? What didn’t he have? Well D.W. Griffith came into the film craft when it was just beginning, and he was fortunate enough to work with the cameras they had then. I’m not going to look into how he got that opportunity, because I am unconcerned with it at the moment. What I am going to look at is the films of the times.
For many years, films consisted of shorts, with very few reels. Within this time, certainly before The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith along with other film makers of the day work within these confines. This isn’t a bad thing, in fact I think its a very good thing. It allowed for exponential growth on behalf of film makers like D.W. Griffith who experimented with the very film language itself, in turn, he helped create a certain cinematic grammar.
When The Birth of a Nation was released, audiences demanded longer films and Hollywood was more than happy to oblige. But, in a way, something was lost. The experimental nature that helped create much of the film grammar we know to day was lost. That’s not to say you cannot experiment with larger films, you certainly can, but it comes at a greater cost. If what you experiment with is not understood by the audience, on a large scale this can be detrimental… but on a smaller scale it is not so amplified. If what you experiment with works on a small scale, it can be amplified and taken advantage of with larger productions.
All this is within reason I think. Audiences love things that are refreshing with style, but there is a balance. Too much style can confuse the audience, and it takes away from the cinematic enjoyment of the picture. But if you create something refreshing and familiarize it with something common place, the audience will generally accept it and definitely enjoy it.
I think of the 1920’s and 1930’s avant-garde cinema, many of these films were not understood by the audiences and they were panned by those who didn’t understand them. Many of these films were short in length however, as they were experiments for their time. Going into a large-scale production of such films would be financial suicide. However, for any artist who wants to work within the cinematic medium, these films should be, (as they are for me), inspirational gold. It is not where you take things from, it is where you take them to. Balzac and Picasso admitted that it was okay to steal from other artists, it is all part of the process, even Coppola entertains this idea:
But I digress… Small films are very important to experimentation.
There wasn’t much room for experimentation within the confines of the studio system, but for film makers such as those in the French New Wave, experimentation was acceptable because film makers began funding their own cinematic projects and filmed whatever they liked. By the time the 1960’s and 1970’s rolled around, their experimental voice was heard throughout mainstream films and audiences, (as I stated before), came to love and except these innovations because these higher ideals were packaged to them in a familiar way.
Where does all this lead me? Well I think again to D.W. Griffith and I think to myself about what Griffith didn’t have. Griffith didn’t have the cameras we have today, Griffith didn’t get to utilize the experiments beyond the 1920’s, he was the father, yes, and his influence will always be seen; but now that the digital age has come anyone can become a film maker, with cameras that trump what Griffith was using. Now is the time for mass experimentation, if you love film, and I mean really love film, you should buy a low end digital camera and create your own experimental shorts; develop your own film grammar; and shoot whatever inspires you.
A high-end digital camera can be afforded on a high school graduates salary. I however think its important to film with any camera you can get your hands on, waste no time in experimenting. Small films are just as important as large films. As a film maker, I have come to the conclusion that, no matter what happens, I will always make films; daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. Persist, as Griffith did, in not letting go of your vision; it doesn’t have to be very costly. If you, as am I, are determined to make a movie, nothing should stop you. Film until you’ve developed your own language, your own signature, and work at the craft if you love it so. We are fortunate to be living within these times, don’t let your vision go to waste!