Mu too: Craig Baldwin's "Mock Up On Mu" spins sci-fi and history into a subversive spiral. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

SFIFF51: Craig Baldwin Shoots the Moon, and the Desert

Michael Fox April 18, 2008

Craig Baldwin has slaved in the underground for some three decades, evading mainstream recognition and achieving rarefied status as a guide and shaman for other artists working on the fringes. As the longtime programmer and force of nature behind the Other Cinema at Artists’ Television Access, Baldwin provides a space for radical artists trafficking in the avant-garde, and adventurous, appreciative audiences allergic to corporate media. As a filmmaker based in the Mission—about as subterranean as you can get—Baldwin has made several feature-length, obsessively crafted collage films (including the barbed political satires O No Coronado! and Tribulation 99 and the gleefully subversive takedowns Sonic Outlaws and Spectres of the Spectrum) in which he appropriates snippets from old educational films and "B" movies to construct alternative histories of American history and media. His new film, Mock Up On Mu, is an imaginary science-fiction yarn starring the actual historical figures of Jack Parson, L. Ron Hubbard, Margaret Cameron and Aleister Crowley. More of a lark than Baldwin’s previous films, and featuring a substantial amount of footage he shot, it has its world premiere April 28 at the Sundance Kabuki and April 30 at the Pacific Film Archive as part of the SF International Film Festival. We spoke to Baldwin on the phone from Minneapolis, where he was in the middle of a college lecture-and-screening tour. Our feeble typing skills couldn’t match the torrent of Craigspeak, so any non sequiturs or fleeting incoherence in the transcript can be attributed to us, not the filmmaker.

SF360: In Mock Up On Mu, you use countless clips from old movies, some that we recognize and some that we don’t. Do you view the enormous quantity of fictional filmed images as a kind of parallel, alternative history?

Craig Baldwin: Of course. I certainly do. It’s not an original idea. Collective consciousness, subjectivity, we’re constantly riffling through an encyclopedia of images we’ve received from personal experience and the media. They’re completely braided and integrated, the world of imagination and the world of visual representation. I take it as a given.

SF360: Audiences are much more familiar with and receptive to your style of collage filmmaking than when you began making feature films with RocketKitKongoKit in the mid-‘80s. Did that in any way influence how you made this film?

Baldwin: I’m subject to the same conditions the audience is. Contemporary mass media in society—these ideas populate our imagination. In terms of thinking, subjectivity, memory, fantasy, all these images are useful. Just like words—symbols, metaphors, puns—[images are] units of visual thought. My film tries to probe how human thought operates. Is it a language or is it all just images? I don’t know. Perhaps that’s too heady of a question. It’s hieroglyphic, almost. I think [Russian filmmaker Sergei] Eisenstein wrote about it, in fact. Ideograms, he called them.

SF360: You were one of the first to do this when you started. But now audiences are completely comfortable with mash-ups and collages.

Baldwin: I don’t agree with you. I’m pointing to the pop artists. I’m pointing to Bruce Conner. I’m pointing to Robert Nelson. I’m pointing to Gunvor Nelson. I cold point to 10 people. A lot of people were on to this. Ray Johnson. I don’t want to make this into an art history [lecture]. He was picking up playing cards or baseball cards and putting Elvis’ picture on them, or James Dean. The mash-up has become a little too formalized as a style. It’s an idea whose time has come. I’m not saying it’s necessarily the right idea. But the mash-up is the art form of the day.

That’s the message of the film, to open yourself up to other possible languages, in this case cinema language. It’s still underground film. It’s just sensitive to the world around us. I call it slalom. Instead of going in a straight trajectory, it’s a zigzag—actually, it’s a spiral. Associative thinking, parallel thinking, is what it is. The floodgates are open; you could hardly keep them closed. That’s the challenge of my film to marshal all these forces and try to line them up all together. It’s like trying to herd cats.

SF360: Most of your films critique American colonialism and imperialism. Are you suggesting in this film that space is the final remaining frontier for exploitation? At the same time, I was surprised at how few references you made to Iraq or Bush.

Baldwin: Colonialism as a larger concept certainly applies. And I vehemently abhor and disavow the American presence in Iraq. But the thing is, I can’t have every film be about front-page news. I’ve made films about geopolitical adventurism; certainly that is ongoing. That doesn’t happen to be the overt topic of this film. When I talk about colonialism of the moon, it serves hopefully as a metaphor for a lot of colonial projects. There are other people, incidentally, making films about Iraq. I don’t really have to go there right now. But the same principles apply—that might makes right, and manifest destiny—and it’s appropriate now because it’s just dawning on us that [space] is going to be another area of contention because of technology, privatization—that’s a major subtext of the whole film—and the Chinese. [The film is a] more Swiftian [approach] to the colonization of space. I put these players where they can play out their [folly] and people can consider it in a way other than a news report. By the way, ultimately, I would say the real colonialism is the human imagination. How the human mind itself is exploited, by manipulative brainwashing, by programs, religions and by the military-industrial complex. I wanted to open the film with the Lockheed infomercial, which is better than my film, that’s for sure. In three minutes you get a pure dose of military-industrial ideology. But not the kind you get with Frank Capra where rows of soldiers are marching through the city streets.

SF360: Of the four historical figures in the film—L. Ron Hubbard, Jack Parsons, Aleister Crowley and Margaret Cameron—which is your favorite?

Baldwin: Jack Parsons is our hero, or antihero. He’s a martyr. He’s the Jesus Christ of our day. He died at age 33 in an accident in his lab. I couldn’t write a bigger story than that. I’m just lucky to be the first one there [to make a film]. There are three or four books already. As for L. Ron Hubbard, I’m in awe of the dramatic nature of his life. I was lucky to get there and do it in my Tinker Toy way.

SF360: I was under the impression that Parsons, an aerospace pioneer, wasn’t killed in an accident, but committed suicide.

Baldwin: That’s part of the myth. The more you do research the more you’ll be having a good time. How many shooters got Kennedy? People say Parsons got knocked off because he testified against cops. That’s a conspiracy theory. He just happened to be a very charismatic guy who died in a very dramatic way. So he’s a martyr. Who knows what would have happened [if he hadn’t died young]? He might have whimpered into oblivion. Someone called him the James Dean of the rocket business. The pro-sex thing, the anarchism, the wild imagination, the poetic soul, the punk-rock energy—going out in 1936 to the desert. Who’s my hero? That’s an easy one.

Cameron was a great artist and she burned most of her paintings, by the way. She served as a channel for all these Crowley ideas to become embedded or implanted or assimilated into popular consciousness in California in the ’60s—white magic and Eastern mysticism.

SF360: Back in the ’60s, dimwit journalists would ask McCartney and Lennon what they wrote first, the music or the lyrics. In your case, do you write a script and find the footage to illustrate it or do you have chunks of footage you love and invent a narrative to fit them?

Baldwin: The question is always asked after every one of my films. It’s a process. If I just dive into my archive, I wouldn’t get out of my archive. There has to be kind of a map, a direction. The script was not written when I shot the [original] material. I found the story of Jack Parsons, as a myth, as a schematic, as a way forward. These subject areas/ or themes would be included: the occult, the aerospace-rocket stuff, mind control, all this brain stuff that’s obviously a parody of Scientology, desert landscapes, military-industrial, the moon/outer space. Without a script, even though I knew the story, you can go out into the desert and shoot people looking into the meteor crater. It’s mythic, adds scale, is cinematic. So the two come toward each other—the accumulated ideas you have and the accumulated materials you have. I probably should have been a little more in control of my material. The best model for me was the underground film—this is a term you hardly hear anymore—you go out with people who may or may not be paid actors and you just generate ideas in a great location. I did that with Spectres too. Went down to the Salton Sea and got some good shots. It’s not a realistic movie, it’s a series of ghostly gestures. It’s all shot without sound, and you add the voices later. It is this idea of a personal commitment and a personal engagement with the project. Would I be a painter if I didn’t like to paint? That’s preposterous. There’s a certain amount of that in filmmaking, Filmmaking is absolute masochism, just so you know. Sometimes you have to burn some film that you’ll never use. You just have to be generous with yourself, and with visual possibilities.

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