S.F. Film Collagist Craig Baldwin and His Secret Spectres
Electromagnetic pulses of awful power enshroud our globe with a pall of poisonous emissions that have burnt, blighted, and stupefied all of Earth's creatures. ... Deadly gamma, X-, and ultraviolet rays rush through gaping wounds in the ionosphere. ... Human survivors shamble through the electronic miasma, their memories obliterated. Brothers and sisters, this is a mayday call. Mayday! Electromagnetic alert! Alert! Alert!
-- Spectres of the Spectrum
This is Craig Baldwin's impassioned cry for help, delivered with the aid of a mad scientist named Yogi and his telepathic daughter BooBoo. Baldwin's crazed 1999 filmic montage Spectres of the Spectrum is more than just a post-apocalyptic eulogy for Earth, it's a secret history of megacorporate communications monopolies that threaten to form an absolute stranglehold over the very energies that emanate from the planet itself. It's a thread that runs through all of Baldwin's work, from 1992's Latin American CIA conspiracy mockumentary Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America to 1995's Sonic Outlaws, a documentary on the copyright-challenging work of musicians Negativland and the Emergency Broadcast Network.
The real genius of Baldwin, though, is his technique, in which he splices together reams of found footage from the most bizarre of sources, piecing them together with inventive voice-overs, filmed footage, and, often, abstract video-art segues.
"I'm actually using the materials, like pebbles or rocks or driftwood on the beach," says Baldwin, who has emerged as a spiritual leader of San Francisco's thriving underground film scene, "but I'm picking up things from the media, escaped artifacts, and then turning them, making a beautiful, awesome collage or sculpture out of it, projecting my own indigenous meaning onto it.
"When you see a Shell commercial, not only do you have the bright icon of the shell, but all of a sudden we're talking about the oil industry. So it's absolutely pregnant with meaning, overflowing with meaning. So all you've gotta do is puncture that, just put a little pin in there and all of a sudden all the meaning flows out."
Baldwin is bringing to the Blue Theater's Blue Screen series on April 22 a program called Alien Anomalies Outta Other Cinema, a compendium of experimental San Francisco shorts that previously screened at Baldwin's long-running weekly S.F. curio factory Other Cinema. An excerpt from Tribulation 99 kicks off the program, which shows the same wild junkyard aesthetic found in Baldwin's own work.
"This program is kind of typical of not only our own shows here at Other Cinema, but maybe a lot of the work of San Francisco anyway, which I would characterize as sort of like neo-dada, or funky, where there's a lot of hands-on stuff like direct animation or optical printing or found footage or scratching on film," says Baldwin. "Between one art piece and another there'll be a little industrial clip. That's what I call an anomaly. Some weird piece, some artifact from film history. Weird industrials that blow minds ... not that they were intended to, but they do now because of aging and camp value and all that.
"The whole show reflects on this, this kind of transcendence, this redemption of taking the most banal and lowly and type imagery and making it something absolutely beautiful."
After the shorts program, Spectres of the Spectrum gets a much-deserved turn on the big screen. A word of warning: SOS is high-density filmmaking at its most brainiac-hyper level. So much information leaks out and in such a mind-blowingly roundabout fashion, it can be completely overwhelming.
The same can be said of an encounter with Baldwin himself. Every tangent is a rapidly twisting adventure, and you're guaranteed to end up somewhere completely different from where you started. Baldwin's life is much the same, too. Between running Other Cinema, which triples as a weekly local program, traveling roadshow, and biannual webzine, and working furiously on his next film project, Baldwin finds time to teach a variety of film courses at San Francisco State, the San Francisco Art Institute, Cal Berkeley, and California College of Arts and Crafts, among others.
A typical Baldwin rant: "My life is too full. It's just like my movies, you know what I mean? Too much to read, too many things to put back into some niche that I don't have, creating some nook and cranny, and the whole thing's gonna fall over, and it does ... And then here's that other book on the scene that I have to read until four o'clock last night, about U.S. plutonium experiments on human subjects ... It's like 'Wow, OK, can we work with that?' So it's like this control, release, control, curiosity kind of dynamic that I'm caught up in ... it's fine as long as something comes out of it every couple of years."
Baldwin's current work-in-progress is a further mutation of the themes of homogenization and loss of freedom, using the history of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology as a framework for examining the case of "ideological control."
"We have this desire to be sort of controlled, some people do," says Baldwin. "This bureaucratic processing of their psychological lives where they surrender their own autonomy. That's always been my issue. In the United States we have this so-called freedom of choice. And what do people do? They decide to go to the mall."
Craig Baldwin presents Alien Anomalies Outta Other Cinema on Monday, April 22, at 8pm as part of the Blue Theater's Blue Screen film and video series. Baldwin's Spectres of the Spectrum follows at 10pm. The Blue Theater is located at 916 Springdale. Admission is $5/$4 students. For more on the Blue Screen series, see austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2002-02-08/screens_feature.html . Call 927-1118 or visit www.bluetheater.org for more information.