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Chomsky Does Not Make Movies: an Interview with Filmmaker Craig Baldwin

by Jim Knipfel
June 29th, 2017

One way to think about San Francisco-based filmmaker, archivist, and artist Craig Baldwin is as the dialectical result of a collision between the Dadaists, the Situationists, the Beats, and the punks. He exists today as a kind of figurehead, a holdover anarchist beatnik from the Bay Area’s pre-tech boom days.

“In the US, art is institutionalized and set apart from the daily life of the street,” Baldwin says. “It is mystified, like the church, and magically divorced from any embodied struggle to survive, any sense of personal risk, agency, bravery, and loss. Here it’s sentimental or romantic, in the case of the Hollywood narratives. In the art world, it’s formalistic or even worse, decorative. I want to step up to a material analysis of culture through cinematic means.”

Since the 1980s, Baldwin has been doing this through his essayistic collage (and more recently narrative) films that juxtapose discarded media flotsam and jetsam—old movie clips, industrial and educational films, early television shows, advertisements, infomercials, soundtracks, whatever he has at his disposal.

In Tribulation 99, Spectres of the Spectrum, and Mock Up on Mu Baldwin uses collage techniques to trace forgotten and often conspiratorial historical trajectories that involve everything from US foreign policy in Latin America to the unexpectedly interwoven evolutions of the space program and New Age philosophy in postwar California. Although Baldwin says he approaches each film with a solid idea—some historical vector full of possibilities as he scours his massive film archive for appropriate images—that original idea can head in unexpected directions.

“You’re looking at all this material and then suddenly an image will become a magnet. It’ll exert a field of force that pulls you in a different direction and opens things up,” he says.

For just a few brief seconds in Tribulation 99, for instance, we see an image that may seem incongruous at first—a man giving the thumbs-up sign while standing next to a (literal) magnet.

“With a magnet you have the north and south poles with different charges,” Baldwin explains. “You stand a magnet on its end and in science classes you’re taught to give a thumbs-up to indicate North. In an educational film that’s one thing, but you put it in a new context, and it changes the meaning. I put it in a discussion about Latin America and the man seems to be saying North America is superior. ”

After a few short collage essays like 1986’s RocketKitKongoKit, which explored the CIA’s role in establishing Mobutu Sese Seko’s brutal regime in Zaire as well as the German aerospace industry’s efforts to turn most of central Africa into a massive rocket facility, he pushed the style to new extremes with 1992’s Tribulation 99. Amid a whirlwind of images and sinister rapid-fire narration, Baldwin follows the course of US foreign policy in Latin America from the end of WWII through the Reagan era and beyond. The film could have been dry PBS fodder, but in Baldwin’s hands, this particular historical arrow was nudged into science fiction with the addition of devilish robots, a race of alien lizard people living in the Hollow Earth, and too many unlikely connections to count.

Tribulation just flew together,” he says. “I had the material. There was no mise-en-scene, I didn’t have to go out and shoot my own shots.”

Along with the straight, if blackly comic, presentation of historical facts, in Tribulation Baldwin also interweaves a slew of modern conspiracy theories: from the origin of the holes in the ozone layer to UFOs, without making any distinction between what is historically factual and what is merely crazy-assed.

“The sources of the conspiracies were super right wing, and the Hollow-Earthers are anti-scientific. It’s laughable, but their imaginations are vivid. I drew from that. I’m not caught up in any kind of apocalyptic thing. You couldn’t move forward if that was an end in itself. There are hopeful moments, but it’s a local thing. On the global scale no one can even comprehend it now. It’s too complex and overwhelming. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the kids today. They have no agency or autonomy, they’re overwhelmed by a system that’s just so large, and so filled with the wrong values. They’re impotent; they just have their phones.”

Following Tribulation 99, Baldwin began moving away from the pure collage essay, filming his own sequences with sets and actors. He calls the new style an “exploded narrative,” in which the new scenes are supplemented by the media collage. Spectres of the Spectrum (1999), for instance, is a low-budget dystopian sci-fi time travel story about a revolutionary on the run with his psychic daughter as the US military is planning to unleash an electromagnetic pulse that will wipe out all human thought. Woven throughout that story are the parallel developments of electromagnetic mass communication (from the telegraph and telephone to radio, TV and the Internet) and military weaponry (from the A-bomb to the Star Wars Initiative). In one of the film’s countless side notes and detours, he points out the strange relationship between advances in telecommunication technology and spiritualism.

“I wanted to put it in the framework of this other story, not just offer a rant,” Baldwin said when asked why he decided to move in a more narrative direction. “There needed to be something more than just another wall of images. With these educational films you basically get a single authority figure looking into the camera and giving a lecture. The audience needed something they could tap into, these characters. It’s a low-budget B movie, but everyone’s in on that. We all understand what it is. But then weaving through it is this history that’s all true. Most everything in Tribulation 99 is true, all those things the CIA was doing, all those things they tried on Castro. Even the most unbelievable things. All the connections are there if you look into them, but so are a million more. These films could be made a million different ways.”

One of the central characters in Spectres of the Spectrum only has two cryptic lines (dubbed in later), and is only on screen for a few seconds when she appears on an early 50s TV science program. Amy Hacker was a real person, a rare female scientist in the 1950s, working in research and development on new transistors for radar systems. In Baldwin’s story, she is also involved with rocket pioneer Jack Parsons, is the mother of the film’s revolutionary protagonist, and gives enigmatic dying words to her granddaughter that propel much of the narrative action. I asked Baldwin if he went into the project knowing he wanted to make something about her specifically, or if this was the result of one of those magnets he mentioned earlier.

“Well, you can’t go to the Library of Congress and say, ‘Okay, I’m looking for black and white footage of a female scientist wearing a lab coat in 1954.’”

Instead, when San Francisco’s Exploratorium decided to do a bit of housecleaning, he got his hands on several hundred discarded episodes of the 1950s educational TV series Science in Action.

Science in Action said so much about the era. They’re outdated now, but they were beautiful looking, this black and white kinescope image. I love the set design. Everything about it said so much about American culture in the 50s—the show is hosted by this brilliant scientist, and he has all these military figures on as guests. Admiral Nimitz was on, and Chuck Yeager. The reality of science being coopted by the military is right there. I pored through all this stuff looking for images I just couldn’t let go, something that’ll open up the space. And then there’s a shot of this woman in a lab coat turning and looking through a microscope, and it’s perfect. A woman scientist, period, was a very rare thing in those days, and she was working in research and development on transistors! And her name is Amy Hacker? You can’t go looking for something like that—it just has to fall on you.”

Speaking of the unexpected, Spectres of the Spectrum also contains a passing mention of L. Ron Hubbard, who embezzled Jack Parson’s life savings before sailing off to found the Church of Scientology. While touring Europe with the film, Baldwin says he began receiving some very strange emails.

“When I got home, there was this letter waiting from the Church of Scientology. It was on letterhead with this gold seal and these very Christian-looking symbols. I kept that one. And it was there that I had the idea for the next film. You wanna threaten me? Then I’ll come right after you.”

In 2008 Baldwin released Mock Up on Mu, another work done in the style of a low-budget science fiction film that explored the twisted and tangled relationship between Parsons, Hubbard, Aleister Crowley, and Marjorie Cameron, who would become the mother superior of the contemporary New Age movement.

“In a way it was a film about rocketry, about the cult of rocketry, and how science fiction moved into science and technology,” Baldwin says. “Parsons was such a remarkable story, but at the time nobody knew about it. Now Ridley fucking Scott is turning it into a TV series! Not that I can take credit for that—there are a few biographies out now, but there was something in the air. It was a story about meaningful figures in a particular history, which was postwar California history, which I am definitely a product of. I think it’s a rich area of subcultural history, so it was something I could speak of and not feel like I was a tourist.”

Needless to say, Baldwin’s flagrant and self-conscious use of copyrighted material in his work has led him to become a very active voice in the push to get some fundamental changes made in the prevailing copyright laws. Collage, he says, is the contemporary art form, but as the law stands it’s illegal. Although Baldwin’s films have never landed him in any legal trouble himself (apart from those pesky Scientologists), his fairly straight 1995 documentary Sonic Outlaws deals with the issue head on as he details what happened after the band Negativland was sued by U2’s record label for sampling (and mocking) one of their songs.

“The mistake they made was in the cover art,” he says now. “Which, yes, was deceptive. That was [Island Records’] real problem. I don’t think the music alone would have done it. But they were more visible. They were a band for one thing, while I was an experimental filmmaker. I was more underground and below the radar. They had better distribution. But even though it wrecked them for a long time—they had no money and no label, they couldn’t do anything, in the end it worked to their advantage. Now everyone hates fucking U2, they see through them… The copyright laws were written before collage art existed, and mostly involved books. If you’re gonna copy a book then yes, of course that’s bad. But if you find a gum wrapper in the street and decide to use it in something, you’re not stealing anyone’s audience. If I use a clip of Michael Jackson or whatever, it’s simply as a reflection of the world I’m living in.”

Along that same line of thought, Baldwin’s living situation is strangely appropriate. The space he occupies in San Francisco’s Mission District serves as a home, studio, and office as well as housing his vast archive and Other Cinema, the arts collective and micro theater that celebrates the work of underground and experimental documentary filmmakers.

“This is a storefront. Again, this is West Coast time. People live in warehouses and bare basements. It’s a collective of people, that’s what Other Cinema is, a collective of people who put on shows. I also have my archives here and I have a studio. We show work to our neighborhood. It’s a sign of success in some limited way, that there can be some autonomy. I live in a collage, it’s filled with everything, films, tapes, records, books, everywhere.”

Baldwin calls his school of outsider filmmaking Cinema Povera, the cinema of poverty, populated by driven, obsessive filmmakers with no money, who are forced to used the materials at hand, whatever they can get ahold of by whatever means, in order to get their vision up on the screen.

“It’s just part of being an impoverished independent artist at the contemporary moment. I didn’t make [Cinema Povera] up, it’s just where I come from. There’s plenty of people who do that of course, there was the whole cinema of transgression on the Lower East Side. My work’s here, theirs was there, but they reveled in it. We’ve shown Beth B.’s films. She came out of that scene. Now she’s made this thing about a burlesque gender showcase in Brooklyn. It doesn’t just end up being about fucked up lives like some of those Transgression guys were after. Not that that’s bad, it’s fine, but she worked through it. She made a brilliant documentary, a film that definitely made points, but still about the underground, and not just this gnarly super-8 stuff. I live just as marginally as anyone on Ave. D that’s for sure, but that’s not the end of the story. I have resources, I still have this archive, I can still make movies, but things aren’t as easy as they were back in the day. Not that they were ever easy. Making films is a lot of work.  These days guys are all digital and in love with the internet and YouTube. Not to put it down, but I call it masochism of the margins. It’s a painful thing. You don’t want to say, ‘Have a certain taste for pain and the ability to endure it,’ or you’d never complete a movie.”

The pain and poverty he refers to became even more pronounced in 2015, when Other Cinema’s landlord announced an astronomical rent hike on the space Baldwin had occupied for over twenty years. If he and the collective couldn’t pay it, they would have to vacate the premises by October of that year. 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. In the end, Baldwin and the collective reached a deal with the landlord that granted them a five-year lease extension, but with a forty-three percent rent hike. A year later, Baldwin admits things have been pretty rough.

“We’re barely making it,” he says. “But I have made it, I can make it, I’m a survivor. OC is a volunteer thing, so people only come around when they want, and things only get done when they’re present. There’s all this construction going on that recently drove one of the residents out. So now we have an empty room, and guess whose responsibility that is to cover that. The way things are in San Francisco right now with all the tech jobs, there aren’t many people who would want to jump into something that’s so fucking hard. ”

Because he’d been seeking a ten-year lease extension but only got five, the collective was eligible to apply for a building rehabilitation grant, which has only added to the stress levels.

“So now they’re remodeling the bathrooms to meet ADA standards, which is perfectly alright with me, but it’s been four months, and things are still not exactly operable. We’ve had a Porta Potty here that just left four days ago. Now the contractors are putting these conduits in for the fire alarms. Everyone’s freaked out after the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland last December. You can’t imagine the shock wave that went through the local DIY community. Plenty of my interns here are these groovy guys who live in those little houses in Oakland, and they’re all scared as shit. This is about as rough as it’s been for me in my life. I barely have a second to think straight. In the meantime I have the responsibility of carrying the flag forward. We need a place like this in the community where people can show their work other than the schools, and this is a first step up.”

And so the work goes on. Other Cinema continues to host regular screenings and put out their quarterly zine. Baldwin himself has made a couple experimental shorts. Much of his creative energy, however, has gone into staging film performances, involving several projectors on Lazy Susans running simultaneously, accompanied by an avant-garde soundtrack.

“I had a piece of film in my hands thirty seconds ago,” he told me when I phoned. “I’m in my studio and I’m cutting things now. What I’ve mostly been doing, and it’s been strong work, are these film performances. I’ve done at least six in the last three years and I’m doing two in the upcoming season. I’m putting a couple projectors together with some music, and in many cases there’s a live performance. I got a guy with a harp coming in working with this guy who has a quarter-inch reel-to-reel multitrack, and we’re showing these experimental documentaries. That’s our real focus.”

If you’re a fan of Baldwin’s work—the way he thinks, draws unexpected connections, and deconstructs history—then the obvious question is, “What will the next feature be?”

“I could become an academic and talk about the Civil War,” he says. “And it’s fascinating, let’s face it. ‘All my films are about history.’ Emile deAntonio said that, and it’s certainly true of me, I take it to heart. It’s on my wall. But I wanted to do something more related to my generation.” Naturally one of his most influential subcultures, the Beats, came to mind, but “how many movies have we seen about Burroughs? I hesitate to make another film about Burroughs. But how many films have you seen about the Situationists? None. Because number one that would be spectacle, which is everything they were against. And two because Guy Debord was antisocial, and there are only so many pictures of him. It’s true there are pictures about the Situationists, but they’re made by Debord. Again that’s great, but they’re very essayistic and formal, It doesn’t really open up the space. It remains in the world of literature. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not what I do. So I said, ‘Look, no one’s ever covered the Situationists.’ Not that I want to make a biopic of Guy Debord. Again as with all my films that would just be the table, just a bare bones platform from which you could mount all these ideas which again have to do with spectacle, which I can talk about, which I can hash around a little bit.”

For as much as he’s read, Baldwin says the two books that made the greatest impact on him were Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.

“Major, major works. Epochal works,” as he describes them. “They were both originally published in the Left Bank of Paris within three or four years of each other. It’s a weird kind of interface of the US post-war subculture and the European subculture. Did Burroughs and Debord ever meet? Probably not. But they were certainly aware of each other. I’m not just trying to appropriate someone’s career and life the way a biopic does. What I like to do is use this person as a vector against other vectors to create a kind of explosion.”

He’s been considering for some time now a virtual meeting between the two at the Beat Hotel in Paris. What intrigues him about the figures is less their books than the lives they led, and the fact men who led such lives could go on to be so deeply influential.

“They were terrible stories filled with addiction, prostitution, porn, everything that I’m attracted to—just transgression,” he says. “You could somehow mount them, place them in a conversation, at a bar or at dinner, depending on the films that I have. This would be the structure, but spinning out of this will be these ideas about subculture, counterculture, May ’68, the attack on the spectacle, the attack on control, everything that Burroughs and Debord stand for could come out. You could write a book about it, but no one’s really ever tackled these ideas in a film before… I call it puppetry or ventriloquism, the idea of using found footage to serve as voices for ideas. 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. The point of view is not in my mouth, but in the mouths of these characters, these historical figures, who have the authority, the authenticity of all this life experience. The life of this subculture.”

But as he thought about it, Baldwin realized there was a necessary third figure to consider: Alexander Trocchi, who represented not only a direct line through the Beats and Situationists, but onward into the heart of the psychedelic hippie subculture as well. Trocchi, the Scottish expatriate author of Young Adam, Cain’s Book, and lots of anonymous porn novels published originally by Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press, was also the founder of the early ’50s cutting edge Parisian literary journal Merlin. Through Merlin Trocchi introduced the work of Samuel Beckett to the English-speaking world.

“No one’s ever made a film about Alexander Trocchi,” Baldwin says. “It wouldn’t be a head to head with Burroughs and Debord. I’m trying to open up a space about the subcultures of that era. Trocchi represents the triangulation, he crossed both these worlds. He represented the generational shift. The literature of the time was dominated by a certain set of established journals. Trocchi was a guy who wanted to make it contemporary with the new writers, the transgressive writers, these guys who broke the rules. So he ended up writing for the Situationist International journal, where he finally published his ideas for the Invisible Insurrection. Free schools, revolution of everyday life, all these Situationist ideas—but he was coming from Beat literature, heroin addiction, pimping his wife, his son committed suicide. A damaged, damaged life and a fascinating story. To have him tied up with Burroughs and Debord and all these guys, you would just be unrolling the underside of official post war Western culture from the guys who really made it from the ground up. See, in these cases, the seamy underside of the real—gangsters, drugs, porn, etc.—trump so-called art.”

Baldwin says his goal here, as in his other films, is to find a way to express critical thinking in visual terms.

“Of course there are people who [think critically], but they’re academics and writers. How many filmmakers are taking critical theory to the level of sound and image? Someone should be coming up with that kind of stuff. Godard does it, Chris Marker does it, and I’d like to do it. I’m not quite ready for just the voiceover, “Now I’m in Nigeria, and now I’m in Japan,” that sort of thing. It’s cool, but a little bit too much a tourist trip. You could do that back in the ’60s, but now you have to be a little more cynical about it. I don’t think you can be quite so entitled to dash around the planet and compare a gesture in Japan with a gesture in Africa. The idea of negativity and criticality is super important for me, and that’s what these three guys represent.”

Although Baldwin’s films are specifically focused on questions and intersections of history, looking back on them now as a whole there is an apocalyptic feel to them that remains decidedly prescient, especially considering what has happened to the country and the world since 2001, and even more so since 2016. Glance at the news, YouTube, Twitter, then back at the news again thirty seconds later, and it can feel like the whole goddamn world has been transformed into an endless Craig Baldwin feature.

“I can’t take credit for that. I’m just a man of my times,” he says. “I am pessimistic, my films are pessimistic, things have definitely taken a turn for the worse. It’s not like I had my hand on the lever. These things just played out with the multinational corporations and so forth. Anyone can point to it. Go to Chomsky, who’s another one of my heroes. But the thing is, Chomsky does not make movies. You can say the same thing about Chomsky—he saw it coming—but you gotta go to the Chomsky and read that. Or go read Debord or On the Poverty of Student Life. But you gotta go find these things and read them. Movies are a little more accessible, an easier platform. I was in the moment, that’s all I can say. I’ve lived a life full 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.’”

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