Combustible Celluloid

Craig Baldwin

Film Coctail

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Craig Baldwin talks very fast, as if he's got ideas and notions and revelations coming at him from all different directions and he's swatting at them like mosquitoes. His words can be overwhelming, poetic, political, angry, logical at any given time or all at once. His movies are like that too. It's amazing that there are breaks between films for Baldwin. He seems to have an idea for a new one every minute.

Baldwin makes, for the most part, "found footage" films. These are films made of scraps of older films and TV shows, edited together to make a new idea, like a collage. Technically, it's illegal to use other people's footage, but Baldwin believes that once an image or a sound reaches the public, it's in the public domain. We're all made up of images and sounds we absorb. Baldwin doesn't worry about legal issues, though. There is already an audience for his films. Some call his films "documentaries", but they're not that. Baldwin tries to blur the line between documentary and narrative film. "That's the least I'm trying to do," he said.

Probably Baldwin's most famous works are Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, which presents 99 paranoid rants in 48 minutes about such varied topics as aliens, politics, Latin America, the CIA, nuclear testing, and Fidel Castro. His last film Sonic Outlaws, discussed the controversy over the Bay Area group Negativland, and their song called "U2" (which featured unlicensed use of a U2 song, and foul outtakes from Casey Kasem's top 40 radio show). They were sued, and eventually destroyed, by Island records, Irish band U2's home label.

His newest film, Spectres of the Spectrum is in production now and should be out in September. Baldwin took a break from editing to talk to me. "It's a warning to future man. It's not a pseudo-documentary, but a pseudo-narrative. It's sort of based on the historical and future issues, but framed within a cartoony science fiction, sort of over-the-top narrative, mythic, sort of a fairy tale that is sort of a critique of control over information systems, media control, and it sort of has an apocalyptic flavor to it."

"What I'm trying to do is come up a feeling of some kind of possibility of film language that exists both within the fiction and non-fiction world, whereas we can see that all real stories, I mean, real historical facts, sort of have a little narrative to them, and also that there's a little bit of truth in documentary truth in all fantasy. It's true that this is the most narrative of my films, but certainly I had exploited narrative categories, and conventions and cinematic tropes in the earlier films, just to sort of condense and dramatize."

After a few minutes, I realized how difficult it would be to put together a coherent article. So I decided to pay the ultimate tribute to Baldwin. I'm slamming snipets of his conversation together in the hopes that the cumulative effect will be felt.

ON MAVERICKS: "My approach is to leave them behind. That's what a true maverick does. Doesn't second guess yourself or have any regrets. It's not defensive, but on the offensive."

ON COPYRIGHTS: "If you're going to stop people from doing graffiti, if you're going to stop people from writing love letters, if you're going to stop people from singing in the shower, it's impossible. You can make a law against it, and that's fine, and you can go into court and battle it out, but I don't care to even carry my discussion into court or even talk about that. What I'm trying to do is to represent a sensibility of someone who was born in a media saturated environment and wants to work creatively with a 'detrias de trash' of that environment. So, again, I don't always want to be looking over my shoulder and say, 'well I can't be a millionaire like James Cameron, because copyright... I'm not interested in that world. I'll just go directly to the people who like it, I don't have to go to the middleman. Save all your energy for creativity rather than all this hand wringing. I don't worry about it because I don't have careerist goals or professional goals."

"[This film] is a true reflection of the contemporary state."

"I think my audience is outside the world of copyright control and the vultures who wanna lock everything down."

"My ideas are resonant. Not like the Olympics or the Super Bowl, but like ideas like electromagnetic paranoias. If I sense that it's not because I'm cracked, and I may or may not be, but because conditions are set up where actually, one can imagine the kind of possible world, and one can speculate and one can play with that idea, and write a sort of story about it. It doesn't have to be completely from scratch, it wouldn't be anyway. It would be made up of all these bits and pieces of "Twilight Zones" and war movies and stories I've heard all throughout my life. That particular pastiche, that collage would be something that I would create in my mind. So there is an idea. I generally like to get ideas from the front page of the newspaper. The front page of the newspaper is not just what temperature it is. You gotta read between the lines. You gotta see through the description. You know, "Giants win 9-4". It's not just facts, don't you see? It's like "What does this connote? What does this suggest? What does this indicate?" So there's a kind picking up, or using your imagination, of riffing with your imagination on real events, and just sort of extrapolating them a little bit, exaggerating them, expanding on them a little bit. So, a lot of the ideas are basically political ideas. All my films are political, very self-consciously. They're really mostly about autonomy and control and power and most cases about colonialism, but lately in the last 2 or 3 films have been really about electromagnetic autonomies. Like I say, people being able to control their own thoughts or their own imagination. So this is an ongoing theme in my whole work. It has to do with my whole personality, my whole life.

Find the beauty or poetry or pattern in an image and put it together with other images in an "ensemble."

"Unlock the little secret in those images, and just with a little music and a little language that you've written, you can just let this incredible poetry spill out."

"You've gotta make it fit. That's the art of it and the craft, by the way. It's very hard. That's the only thing that I can claim that I can do. Because I didn't make the original found footage, and the stories are cartoonish and hackneyed; they're not exactly what you'd call literature. But to bring these ideas which are resonant with these images which are so weighted, and to spin it the right way--it's like a cocktail. You shake it just enough, not stirred, but shake, and then throw that little cherry on top, and then you've got it, you've got a little magic. And it's a little capsule, a bubble that tells the whole story of the latter half of the twentieth century."

"When a movie works for me, the whole mind is just flooded. So many possible meanings are running through it. There's no edge to my body. I feel liberated, literally."

"What I want to do is kind of do justice to the potential of human imagination."

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