Talking with Craig Baldwin is a lot like watching his movies: The ideas come at you rapid-fire with very few pauses, often diverging into tangents that end up folding into the arguments.
It's entertaining, exhausting, exuberant and ultimately edifying. His films are cinematic collages that combine industrial films, science fiction movies, exploitation classics and whatever else he has in his archive with voiceover narration and sometimes new footage, creating conspiratorial-sounding stories that take a documentary-like look at history, while speculating how events will affect us in the future. Or in simpler terms, he says, "All my films are really informed by this critique of imperialism."
The 1978 film Wild Gunman
is the first one on his filmography, though he did tell me, "When you make a filmography it's really, totally arbitrary. Most artists actually make a lot of little short films before they actually officially list any of them." Wild Gunman
is based on an old carnival game where you strap on light-emitting six-guns and shoot at film loops of cowboy villains, and the movie incorporates its footage before it spins out to include the Marlboro Man and cowboy movies, and eventually critiques the export of tobacco and American culture. "It's kind of about Africa and Palestine," he adds.
The 1986 film RocketKitKongoKit
is about how Mobutu in Zaire leased out 1/10th of his country to a German rocket firm so they could test their rockets. Of course, Baldwin incorporates Tarzan and science fiction films to support his arguments. He says, "My films are not a transparent report on history, or journalism. I do certainly encourage people to go and get the story. Go to Peru, or go to Iraq, and get the story. I'm not that sort of filmmaker. What I'm doing is dealing with representations of Iraq, or representations of Peru, mediated through Hollywood. I deal with real historical situations, but try to establish a critique of it through, I guess you could say, a conjugation of images."
More than just a filmmaker, Baldwin is also the force behind Other Cinema
, which started in the late 70s and continues to screen underground work, and the new branch, Other Cinema Digital
, which distributes DVDs of artists who have screened at Other Cinema. And his own stuff, too, of course.
I spoke with him on the phone about his filmography - particularly the feature-length films Tribulation 99
(soon to be released on DVD), and Sonic Outlaws
and Spectres of the Spectrum
(both of which are now available on-demand
, for sale and for rent) - as well as his methods and theories of collage cinema.
What led you to start working with film?
I came to San Francisco when I was still an undergraduate in college. My roommate had an uncle who ran a porn theater and I needed a part-time job while I was going to school, and that was available to me. When I spent time in the booth there, I could see how the film just became completely trashed. It was 16mm, parts were cut out, there's projectionists up there making splices all the time, there were whole reels all over the floor, and it wasn't really what you would call a clean house. But as far as 16mm goes, when I saw how you could get your hands on the stuff, hold it to the light, and it was just a piece of celluloid you could flip over right to left or top to bottom or, you know, you could scratch on it, that to me was a breakthrough. That's really what drew me to film. The power I felt over it, and the ease with which I could work with it.
This was, of course, when they were still shooting porn on film.
Oh yes, totally. I'm not interested in porn on video at all. It bores me. There's no cutting, there's no míse-en-scénè, there's no staging. It's just documentation. It may as well be a surveillance camera kind of thing. That's not the kind of film that I'm into. I'm more into the - what do they call it? - the architecture, the Eisenstinian stuff, the editing, montage.
So the porn industry supplemented your film school.
Simultaneously I was taking film history and production, but for me it was really more of not seeing film as a precious thing, and that film is not necessarily theory-driven. I don't disavow theory, but it was really more about an experience of human subjectivity, of being in your body in a certain place.
Your first feature-length film was Tribulation 99. In it, there's a focus on Latin America, albeit through the use of clips of old science fiction films.
In the case of Tribulation
, like all my other films, they can all really be read as political satires. It was initially inspired by Reagan
and the Contras. Just like in RocketKitKongoKit
, it was this critical investigation of history, about US moves to try and manipulate and compromise the sovereignty of people of other countries, and to blow it up, you know what I mean? Exaggerate it. Blow it up to a parody or a grotesque. Just take that and actually treat it as if the fantasy were real. That's why I call it a pseudo-pseudo-documentary. The model is Chariots of the Gods
from Sun Classics and UFO movies from that period, the 70s or 80s.
Really, the CIA was way more imaginative than any Hollywood writer. What they were doing for political purposes, not just in Nicaragua but also Cuba, had much more of an imaginative punch than any tame little yuppie in Hollywood who is writing a romantic comedy. What they were doing was taking fantasy and fiction and turning that into political tactics. So, God, just turn it around! I was thinking, just turn it one more time.
You say you were inspired by UFO movies?
What is a UFO movie, like UFO: Exclusive
or Chariots of the Gods
? The whole thing is some kind of wild fantasy, but they use the language of documentary to convince people, and it seems credible because of the form of the documentary. I put the script together the same way I put my picture together. It's just a montage of wild urban myths. By running both these lies at each other - it's like fission, what you get is truth.
The lowbrow or the exploitation films, they've got so much over the other straight documentaries made by the National Council of Churches or the Democratic Party. [I like to] use the garish, the lurid, the sensationalistic, the fantastic, the spectacular - there's a good word - spectacular form of the pseudo-documentaries, but in fact make it real. Give it real information. So that's what I meant by turning it one more revolution in terms of the form. Actually, Tribulation 99
turns out to be real even though it looks like it's all fake. So that was the intention or the core of it, Reagan and the Contras.
It's almost like, by adapting footage from sci-fi, you're taking it from the establishment's point of view, and then exploding it further.
It wasn't establishment. Establishment didn't go for that stuff. It was more like fantasy. To use fantasy to talk about facts, it's just not done in the documentary world. Tribulation
never succeeded in any documentary festival. People reject it out of hand as an "experimental film" or a "cult film." It's totally a documentary. It's about the history of US intervention in Latin America.
Using clips from science fiction and monster movies.
When you take these things out of their narrative context, then you see the imagery, especially if it is foregrounded with other kinds of imagery. You say, "What is the nature of this image?" There's a kind of a self-reflexivity. It's not necessarily academic. Everyone clearly sees this as a compilation film, and then we say, "What is the relationship of this image to history?"
Instead of documenting instances and events, it's almost like you're making an essay or a speculation.
Why make a documentary just about the past? It's already sort of foreclosed. I'm much more interested in really doing something with the past rather than jerk off on it like the History Channel does. How many times can they say, "That was a sad day." Not to get on my high horse, but they're just selling the past back to you, and they're reinforcing so many fucking stereotypes.
My whole thing is, "So what if that happened? What are we going to do about it now?" Things are a lot worse now [laughs], you know what I mean? How dare you turn people's heads to the past when there's so many things that have to be addressed now? I think that you should know the past, but I think the idea is to use it to gain a better understanding of how we got to where we are now, not just geopolitically, but also in terms of film history. If you could do that, then that would be a real juggling act, and that's what I'm trying to do.
The whole thing is to get out of this nostalgia for the past: "That was a horrible thing." The Holocaust, that's a complete genre. I'm not putting down Holocaust movies, but they should update it to what's going on now. There's a holocaust going on right now.
I think what I was trying to say before about the found footage coming from the United States - it becomes a United States-centric view of the rest of the world. I'm thinking of the subtitle Alien Anomalies Under America, where instead of illegal aliens, as we might consider them, they are actual aliens.
Yeah, it's a joke. You're absolutely right. It's a self-reflexive poke in the eye at jingoism and nationalism, where the United States is the center of the world. Everything is a threat to "us." It's paranoia, that's what it is. It's a way of folding paranoia into the title of the movie, as if we're under threat every second. It's not, like, my big insight, but what I try to do is jack it up a little bit to the level where you can feel it, tactically. So that's why there's all the freaky music and why all the monsters are coming out from under the ground.
It's a hook. It makes it entertaining, and then draws you into the ideas that start to develop, where you start to realize that there are elements of history that are coming through in the film, even if it is couched in a conspiratorial narrator's tone.
You got it. You nailed it. That's exactly right. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't get into the history. My friend says, "I play this to all my students all of the time, and they love it, but they don't know anything about Nicaragua." You're in college and you don't know anything that went on in Chile and Nicaragua? You flunk. That's the way I feel about it. I'm a teacher myself. I think the whole lack of world historical education in the United States is appalling. It's abhorrent.
I like the fact that you do fold real facts and historical events into this documentary essay.
is an effort to make a historical film that is couched, as you say, in the language of science fiction. I'm drawn to that because we live in science fiction, by the way. Cinematically, it works. I'm not really into straight documentary journalism. My thing is to tell stories that happen to be true, but use the beautiful parts of cinema, which is building tension, revealing things, having suspense, scaring people, beautiful imagery and stuff like that. I'm a filmmaker. I identify myself as a filmmaker, and a visual artist.
I'm not trying to do what Noam Chomsky
is doing. I read Noam Chomsky, but Noam Chomsky is a writer. He's an analyst and a researcher, and people read him and they get, more or less, a textural truth. What I'm trying to do is not create clarity, but again, this idea of opacity, of confusing people and destabilizing the assumptions that they have, which are basically wrong.
You can never empty out all of Tribulation
. In other words, it's overdetermined. There's too much in it, that's for sure. That's a problem that I have, just like in this interview, by the way.