Spectres of the Spectrum directed by Craig Baldwin Working out of his gadget-cluttered basement studio in San Francisco's Mission district, Craig Baldwin has handcrafted a unique body of subcultural cinema in the past decade. He's the unabashed Unabomber of underground film, assembling volatile collages of found footage into paranoid stream-of-consciousness narratives that touch on conspiracy theory themes and lunatic radicalism. Baldwin has covered sampling and copyright controversies in Negativland in Sonic Outlaws (1995), the colonization of the American southwest in ¡O No Coronado! (1992), and the CIA, flying saucers and mind control in Tribulation 99: Alien Anomolies Under America (1991).
In addition to his own films, Baldwin has curated the Other Cinema series for 14 years, screening a wide array of experimental and underground films. He's an entrenched San Francisco sublebrity who can still be seen on the streets, pasting up fliers for his latest shows.
His newest film, Spectres of the Spectrum, takes on the theme of electromagnetism in the history of speculative science, touching on a panoply of fringe figures like Edward Teller, Wilhelm Reich, Nicola Tesla and Korla Pandit in a futuristic fantasy narrative involving time travel, millennial apocalypse and psychic warfare. Baldwin discussed Spectres of the Spectrum with his characteristic nonstop verbal overload in this recent transmission from his subterranean lair.
You've got a lot of ideas bouncing around in Spectres. How'd all these overlapping these themes develop?
Well, there's certainly more than one source. One was the concept of HAARP, which is an acronym for High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program. For me this represented the perfect metaphor for some kind of military-industrial doomsday machine, but in fact it probably isn't. It's probably just some kind of everyday research, and it might even be defunded by the time the movie's done, but it had this metaphorical status because it did represent a completely unprecedented use of the ionosphere as a possible armature for military application. That rung very heavily, very profoundly with these kinda science-fiction-resonating ideas that I want to exploit, to bring to my essay to give it a kind of genre feel. When I started reading about HAARP I got the feeling that it was something within the landscape of electromagnetic research and development that I could build a story around. Now at the other end?what I call the material end?were these kinescopes from the Science in Action show. Here the impulse came from the material itself, which were these beautiful eerie haunted poetic black-and-white artifacts from an earlier day. They had an incredible kind of attractive quality, a weird quality, so I wanted to work with the grain of the artifact, the kind of metallic shimmering you get, the grain of the live video on film, the halos around people.
So the film kind of worked toward the middle from these two ends. All the other things started to coalesce like dust and gas around those poles, to use another cosmic model! Other things were drawn in like gravity, like the stories of the inventors' lives, and of course the narrative?ha!?about empire, democracy and media outlaws, which is an ongoing theme of mine. So all those Craig Baldwin themes started to get drawn in. There's also these little episodes or vignettes where we talk a little about history, or a little about psionics, or a little bit about the use of radiant energy weapons; we talk a little bit about Teller, we talk a little bit about Reich and so on. One idea will lead into another in a sort of free-association way, which is not necessarily good for me because it means more work cutting the thing together and definitely more work for the audience to keep track of it all. But it's supposed to be a natural expression of the artist vision, which is confused or whatever or schizophrenic.
I watched the rough cut on tape. What did I miss that will be in the finished film?
Well, the titles aren't there yet. There are a lot of intertitles. The idea is that the movie's structured as a pirate tv transmission, so periodically every eight or nine minutes or so a title card will come in on a B-roll and burn in and add this historical footnote...
Like a pirate feed overriding normal signals.
Yeah, yeah, that's always one of the levels that's operating.
So where'd you come across the kinescopes?
They were from the Exploratorium, a great resource here in San Francisco. They were cleaning house and getting rid of a lot of prints, and they came right into my hands. When I came into a whole bunch of them with titles like Miracle Materials, Digging Down Under, Science of Money, Medicine in Space, Radar Defense Technologies, X-Rays and so on?I saw that they represented a whole complete total range of mid-century science. I felt there was a kind of isomorphism between what was happening in the 50s and the 90s because it's both postwar, and post-Cold War. It's the same situation of being after a war and being flush with the arrogance of ruling the world. All the money has gone into the research and development of this kind of technology. It's one with the whole ideology, the culture of worship?especially here in Silicon Valley?of the newest kinda gadget that's probably useless for the most part and doesn't improve the quality of life. I mean, it's just making a smaller class of people richer and richer.
You can see all this happening right in these old films. Yeager was in there, the Right Stuff dude, Nimitz and bankers and the RCA vice president. There's a complete parade of every fucking fat capitalist?right in front of kids! In front of schoolkids! It looks ludicrous in the 50s, so I just used that as a mirror to critique the 90s. It's just unabashed, unashamed propaganda?all I need to do is turn it over and it'll just shoot itself in the foot. I call it a jujitsu move, to use the weight of this absurd, preposterous blind belief in technology being the big fix and you turn it around and critique without being so explicit about it, though I am at points.
You're looking back to the 50s in the film but also back to the 19th century a lot, with references to spiritualism and the mystical dimension to science. And even in the 50s stuff, you can see the religious reverence science is taught with, the complete belief that it can solve all answers to the meaning of life.
Well, it's not just a Luddite film, it's not anti-technology and it's not antiscience. The whole point is this ambivalence to science, the peril and the promise. Maybe I'm just new age or California or something, but there's also this sincere belief in the wonder of the universe, and I tried to write that in to the person of my main character, the woman who wants to get out of this anthropomorphic mortal coil and merge with the energy systems. But to get back to the 19th century and Tesla and all that... That's the thing, there is this marriage of science and poetry that we see in that period. I wanted to look at the other side of science, to turn away from the utilitarian use and the overriding the instrumentality of exploitative science. I wanted to turn from the ideas of "I can use it to make money" or "I can use this to destroy other populations of people," but rather, "This could free us! This could liberate us! My mind is expanding!"
To get back to the California thing, do you think there's something particularly San Francisco or West Coast or frontier about the way you structure your narratives?
Well, there truly is a subculture here, and I'm not saying there isn't one in New York, but people are interested in making movies for a lot of other reasons than money: personal expression, and putting forward an alternative vision as opposed to conforming with the mainstream vision or television or anything like that. So there is that iconoclastic or nonconformist kind of thing here. The film's set in the Southwest, and I've set my films there before. And from San Francisco there's definitely the collage idea. You've got Funk Art, which is a major tradition here preceding me, not just in cinema but in sculpture and visual arts. There's so many collage artists you could cite, it's not like I'm a direct inheritor of one artist like Jess Collins or filmmakers like Bruce Connor and Robert Nelson. It's more a kind of zeitgeist thing, a sense of?in the air?of humor, sexuality, playfulness. It's more playful out here, it's a very diverse scene. I mean New York's diverse, too, but here it's more mixed up, and with the artists here there's much less of a sense of professionalism and more about creating our own culture, not conforming to commerce. So out here it's not like you make a movie and get paid to do it. The money's not at the front end and not at the tail end. All the movies are made out of a pure love and poverty kind of thing. Another reason that the movies are made out of collage, not just this playfulness of form, but also it's a cinema of pragmatism. It's just the only way to do it when that's all you've got. It's more like a cargo cult kinda thing. I feel like one of those New Guinea aboriginal people who, you know, things fall down from the sky and you make a propeller into a religious shrine. So all these products fall from the sky from New York and L.A. and we make our little shrines and we dance in circles around them! (laughs)
We're trying to have it both ways, to make our little bricolage shrine out of shiny objects that we project meaning onto, and to make a movie the way we can with what we got around us. I don't know if that's true for other people from the West Coast, but I'm also about this refusal to work by the rules of, uh, orthodox reason (laughter) and rationality maybe.
Yeah, my next project?jumping off the bridge, dude! I'm in really bad shape now. I'm not braggin' about it, but I'm a mess. I should go to the hospital. I'm tellin' you, I'm raked over the coals. Physically, emotionally, psychologically and financially. Y'know, I made some movies in the past, I might make some in the future, but I just can't believe how these people all go, "Well, my next project is blah blah blah." What luxury, or I don't know what the word is...how preoccupied they could be. This is a total lifestyle for me, it's not easy to just clock it in and leave the studio at 6. This is working all night, every night. I mean at this point I'm just sick of it.
So all those people that think filmmaking is a lark or whatever, they're liars. It's hard work. I don't know how I possibly fell down the trap of trying to make something so long, but I must be full of myself or can't shut up or it has something to do with the language drive, but it's a pregnant subject area, that's for sure.
Spectres of the Spectrum screens Sunday, Oct. 10, 9 p.m., as part of the New York Film Festival's "Views from the Avant Garde" at the Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. (B'way), 875-5600.