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Nashville Scene Shattered Mirrors

Flying saucers, TV tyrants, Disney spy satellites -- welcome to Craig Baldwin's America

By Jim Ridley

MARCH 20, 2000:  In 1963, a bullet smashed into President John F. Kennedy's skull in a Dallas motorcade. The number of shots fired, the angle of impact, the position of the gunman (men?)--these issues have been argued for the past 37 years. But each argument is invariably tested against a bedrock piece of evidence: a strip of grainy footage shot on the scene by one Abe Zapruder. The filmstrip serves as a photographic eyewitness; the home movie intersects with history. All on the premise that the camera doesn't lie.

That premise has been undermined, of course, by advances in digital technology, which make it very easy to doctor the appearance of reality on film. (Kennedy, the presidential Parker Posey, went from a starring role in the Zapruder film to a cameo in Forrest Gump.) But the movies of Craig Baldwin suggest that the notion of "cinema verité" has been a shell game all along.

Since the late 1970s, Baldwin has been assembling an alternate history of America, using the flotsam of discarded pop culture as his primary medium. A San Francisco "media archaeologist" who studied under pioneering experimental filmmaker Bruce Conner (whose "cinema concrete" appropriation of found footage is a marked influence), Baldwin makes riotous collages of educational films, corporate promos, creature features, and long-forgotten archival clips. At one level, his thesis is simple: Film is always an ideological tool--in movies, in ads, on the 6 o'clock news--and there's always a man behind the curtain.

"I'm very skeptical about the veracity of film, that you can know things for sure through cinematic representation," says Baldwin. "All films are constructions. I call what I make 'pseudo-pseudodocumentaries.' "

Baldwin's pseudo-pseudodocs carry the same relation to news reportage that a photocopied rant on a telephone pole bears to the Wall Street Journal. "My histories don't claim to be right," he says. "They're a shattered mirror." His best-known film, 1991's Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, creates a crackpot Western-civ course of 99 interlocked conspiracy theories. Some of these are blatantly ridiculous: The basic premise is that aliens from the dying planet Quetzlcoatl inhabited Earth in the year 1000, then remained undisturbed until the U.S. started nuclear testing. But as the movie hurtles through the 20th century, it blurs the line between what's crazy--psychic vampires, alien takeovers, cloned world leaders--and what's lamentably true, from the United Fruit Company's bellicose meddling in Latin America to Oliver North and Contragate.

To "prove" his connections, Baldwin marshals a strobe-light barrage of film clips relentless enough to induce a seizure. Flying-saucer shots, military training films, monster movies, cheesy reenactments--he uses the kind of stuff a serious documentarian would scrap for the nitrate. But he accords them the same weight Oliver Stone gave to the Zapruder film in his own conspiracy jamboree JFK, which came out the same year as Trib 99. Where historical epics use archival footage of ships at sea, cannons firing, etc., to capture an air of realism, Baldwin ridicules that idea by sifting through America's vaults of junk media and presenting the results as unassailable documents. Which they are--though not in the way intended.

Baldwin calls these films that fall between the cracks "the other cinema," the name of the long-running San Francisco screening series he curates. He's less interested in the Hollywood movies of the past than in these odd artifacts, which he says offer a truer glimpse of the shaping of American values.

"I'm less interested in what we were doing for leisure in 1959," Baldwin explains. "I'm more interested in the values of consumption, environment, technology. The educational films, the sponsored films, the industrials indicate how ideology is inculcated." To Baldwin, a loony propaganda piece like "Because We Care," an ode to the marvels of meat that was produced in the '50s by Oscar Meyer, gives more insight into social attitudes toward consumerism, commerce, and industry than the serious mainstream films of the era.

That's the principle behind his latest film, Spectres of the Spectrum, a found-footage sci-fi extravaganza that traces the seizure of electronic technology by what Baldwin calls "the military entertainment complex." In Spectres, the airwaves are ruled by indistinguishable forces of government and commerce: Even spy satellites are bankrolled by Disney. Against the threat of electronic calamity, the resistance leader Yogi (Sean Kilcoyne) broadcasts televised screeds from a desert outpost near Las Vegas. But his daughter Boo Boo (Caroline Koebel) travels back in time in an Airstream trailer to save the world--a plot that involves intercepting a stream of ancient TV signals.

The crazy-quilt structure gives Baldwin the pretext to hijack clips from Gremlins, an instructional film starring Adm. Chester A. Nimitz, old kinescopes of cornball TV science shows, and ludicrous corporate-sponsored "historical reenactments." (The one depicting Alexander Graham Bell inventing the phone looks like something cooked up by Webelos on acid.) As jokey (and exhausting) as this bombardment is, Baldwin uses it to illustrate a sobering point: History is written by the marketers and copyright holders, not the inventors and visionaries crushed along the way. These industrial films, however goofy, served as propaganda for the military/mercenary interests that commandeered the development of electronic media. And we swallowed it.

Baldwin calls this technique of image-stealing "jujitsu--using the enemy's weapons against himself." It's a technique he himself swiped from the Situationists, the prankster terrorists who sought to destroy the fabric of reality by recontextualizing familiar objects and texts in assaultive new ways. It also places him in a tradition of artistic provocateurs that includes the icon-scrambling Barbie Liberation Organization and the band Negativland, whose legendary copyright-infringement battle with U2 is addressed in Baldwin's 1995 documentary Sonic Outlaws. Like these intellectual-property squatters, Baldwin sees his found materials as no different from the driftwood or shells a sculptor finds on the beach. "I'm a media cannibal," Baldwin says. "The street has its uses for things, that's what the Situationists say."

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