Craig Baldwin Turns the Culture on Itself
By Jim Knipfel
San Francisco-based filmmaker, archivist, and artist Craig Baldwin is widely regarded as a kind of figurehead, a holdover crazy beatnik artist from SF's pre-tech boom days. He's also been hailed as one of the country's most respected culture jammers.
While most Hollywood films, he says, simply regurgitate the same tired old stories over and over, "old wine in new bottles," as he puts it, Baldwin is trying to put new wine in old bottles, telling new stories in a new way. Referring to himself as a media cannibal, he does this by plundering the culture itself, salvaging discarded, forgotten movies and media clips, industrial and educational films, archive footage, TV ads, soundtracks, infomercials, found images, anything he can get his hands on, repurposing, recombining and reorganizing them. He edits all this cultural detritus together to create video collage essays and narratives that put these old recognizable faces and scenes into a whole new context, turning this existing media back on itself, telling stories that interweave historical facts, conspiracy theory, science fiction, anti-corporate and imperial commentary and film history, all with a sly sense of grim humor.
"I call it puppetry or ventriloquism," Baldwin says. "The idea of using found footage to serve as voices for ideas. Which I guess may be literary, but not presented in a book. Through collage and montage and opening up spaces, through all the laws and possibilities of cinema I can create an environment, a semi-narrative where there can be kind of an essay, but the point of view is not in my mouth, I'm just a middle class white guy —but in the mouths of these characters."
In essence he's doing what the mainstream media has been doing forever, using carefully chosen video snippets to tell stories that blend facts, half-truths and outright fiction. But while major news outlets do this to maintain the dominant mythology, Baldwin is blurring the line between fact and fiction to critique and deconstruct the culture, baffle the status quo, and put the screws to the accepted history, albeit in a way that's as playful as it is devious. His films remain a perfect expression of what Werner Herzog has termed the Transcendental Truth as opposed to the more straightforward Accountant's Truth found in most other contemporary documentaries.
Although he'd been making experimental films since the late '70s, Baldwin first came to the attention of a much wider audience with his 1992 feature Tribulation 99. While on the surface it's a faux documentary about a race of insidious reptilian aliens living in the hollow earth who began manipulating the environment and American politics in the wake of WWII, all that remains little more than a deceptive mask for a thoroughly researched critique of US foreign policy in Latin America, from CIA involvement in Guatemala, Nicaragua, the Bay of Pigs, Chile and El Salvador through the Iran-Contra business and the impending apocalypse. Although the flood of names, dates, interwoven conspiracies and sci-fi scenarios can be bewildering at times, the stated players and historical facts remain deadly accurate.
His 1999 film Spectres of the Spectrum, likewise, is on the surface a low-budget sci-fi film about a revolutionary and his psychic daughter on the run from a military intent on destroying all human thought and imagination with an electromagnetic pulse. But woven throughout that framework is a complex conspiratorial history of the parallel developments of electromagnetic communication and military weaponry. Using a mix of educational and Hollywood films as well as old episodes of the TV show Science in Action, Baldwin traces out a history that touches on Ben Franklin, Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Edison, Tesla, the atomic bomb, Reagan's Star Wars Initiative, and the Internet, pausing along the way to point out the strange intersection of electromagnetic telecommunications and spiritualism. He would focus on the connection between technology and spiritualism again in 1999's Mock Up on Mu, another sci-fi story used as a means to explore the unexpected and uneasy relationship between Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, groundbreaking rocket scientist Jack Parsons, New Age visionary Marjorie Cameron, and Aliester Crowley, as well as the interconnected developments of the American space program and New Age philosophy in postwar California.
But those are just very simple-minded thumbnail sketches of what's going on in deeply complex films that work on several levels. For his next film, Invisible Insurrection, he plans to explore the history and ideas of several postwar subcultures through an imagined meeting between William Burroughs, Guy Debord (principal philosopher behind the Situationist International), and troubled novelist Alexander Trocchi, whose trajectory intersected the Beats, the Situationists, and the hippies alike. But that project's still a few years away.
Living as we are in an era when questioning accepted truths is considered a radical and dangerous act, and when it's almost unheard of to ask viewers to think for themselves about what is and isn't true, what Baldwin is doing and the way he's doing it has made him an outlaw. When the Internet age has raised so many legal issues about intellectual property, Baldwin's flagrant and self-conscious use of copyrighted materials to tell his stories has in itself become one of the central political themes of his work. The legal and philosophical issues surrounding the use of copyrighted material to create new artworks lay at the heart of his 1995 (fairly straight) documentary Sonic Outlaws, about the culture-jamming band Negativland, who found themselves in a world of trouble after sampling (and mocking) both a U2 song and Casey Kasem on an album they called, um, U2.
The last year has been an insane one for Baldwin, during which he produced the deconstructivist shorts "Communique for the Cube" and "Bullet," and took part in a number of live experimental film performances around the Bay Area, most of which involved multiple projectors running simultaneously (often on lazy susans), accentuated by an avant-garde soundtrack.
But in and among all that he was also embroiled in an epic and ugly legal battle over his longtime home and studio. Having accurately labeled what he does Cinema Povera ("cinema of poverty") Baldwin has lived and worked in a storefront in SF's Mission District for the last several decades, a space that houses his studio and massive film archive, and is also home to Other Cinema, a film collective and micro-theater that supports, screens, and distributes the work of other underground experimental documentary filmmakers. Last year the landlord announced an astronomical rent hike, informing Baldwin that if he and the collective couldn't pay it, they'd have to vacate the premises by October. Finding a new space in San Francisco's current real estate climate that was not only affordable but could also house his monumental archive was, in a word, daunting.
A highly-publicized legal battle ensued, which was covered by both the San Francisco Chronicle and a French film crew, whose documentary about Baldwin and the struggle is presently in post-production. In the end Baldwin and Other Cinema reached an agreement with the landlord that allows them to remain in the space for another five years, but with a 43 percent rent hike. "So we are still pretty freaked out… I mean, how are we gonna manage that?" he asks. But there is at least more hope now than there was a few months ago.
"I live just as marginally as anyone on Avenue D that's for sure, but that's not the end of the story," he says. "I have resources, I still have this archive, I can still make movies."
As for the oddly prescient tone of those movies (despite their historical focus), he says simply, "I was in the moment, that's all I can say. I've lived a life fully enough to understand what the stakes were. Other people could've known what the stakes were and then for career purposes made a romantic comedy. Not that those people are ignorant, but they can divorce themselves from the impending doom. In my case I rush toward it with no shame, just 'here's the ugly truth of it.'"
Published April 18th, 2016
Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, The Blow-Off, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and several other books.