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By James Riley
“The cult of experimental film is alive and well and if you go to any micro-cinema you’ll see it: it’s like a church in many many ways.”
Craig Baldwin is the subversive grandmaster of assemblage film and cinematic collage. His work is deeply rooted in the Beat and subcultural aesthetics of the San Francisco underground. He is not only a practitioner but also an active networker as evidenced through his work as a curator, exhibitor and programmer for the long-running micro-cinema and DVD label, Other Cinema. As a film-maker Baldwin draws upon the detrital history of cinema to create self-conscious narratives of myth and counter-myth. Films like his first long-form conspiracy project Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies under America (1991) and the dissection of telecommunications history Spectres of the Spectrum (1994) created an obsessive b-movie aesthetic that worked to challenge established media narratives. Think Guy Debord meets Roger Corman.
In this interview I spoke to Baldwin about his most recent film, Mock-Up on Mu (2008). Mock-Up is a head-spinning, conspiratorial treatise looking at the entangled narratives and resonant myths connected to “California’s post-war sub-cultures of rocket pioneers, alternative religions, and Beat lifestyles.” It uses re-created scenes and a complex collage of b-movie clips, public information films and other archive footage to investigate the occult matrix that connected rocket propulsion scientist and occultist Jack Parsons, Scientology founder L.Ron Hubbard, artist and actress Marjorie Cameron and the ‘Great Beast’ himself, British magician Aleister Crowley. These historical figures stood at the centre of a strange cultural intersection of scientific research, fringe religion, avant-garde art and esoterism. As Baldwin explains in the interview, this fertile territory is an established aspect of Southern Californian lore. To date, the best source of information on the activities of this nucleus is John Carter’s Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons (1999). Interested readers should also seek out Spencer Kansa’s Wormwood Star: The Magikal Life of Marjorie Cameron (2010). In Baldwin’s film however, the emphasis is not just upon biographical fidelity but upon the use of these narratives as an instrument of critique; the creation of a “a speculative farce” directed at “the militarization of space, and the corporate take-over of spiritual fulfilment and leisure-time.”
James: There’s a neat synchronicity in Mock-Up on Mu between its subject matter and formal methodology, in that it seems to use cult film in order to talk about a ‘cult’.
Craig: Yes, I agree with you totally, it’s a nice fit but I should say that all my films are about alternative histories and so I guess you could say I’m a kind of a documentary film-maker, an experimental documentary film-maker; not so much a personal documentary film-maker – though I certainly know what that is and it’s a big movement here in the United States, especially on the West coast – but I came a little but later than that in terms of generation. A lot of that has to do with identity politics of the 1980s. My thing was a little bit more along the lines of Emile De Antonio…
James: The Director of Rush to Judgement ?
Craig: Right, that kind of stuff. Not that severe but still based on archival material as a way almost to get outside of myself. In other words, that’s why I don’t claim to make personal documentaries, though they are personal because they carry the stamp of my own nervous system, of course, in the editing. But the point is that I’m not trying to excavate my angst or whatever. I’ve always looked out rather than in and when I look out, I use archival material. Not only archival, (that is to say historical or newsreel) but also ‘found footage’ because those also are traces and artefacts from our collective history. So this idea of alternative history, then, indicates the use of alternative means – collage and found footage – to tell the kind of stories that aren’t taught in the schools and textbooks. These are the stories that are true, (in a way) and they are stories that come from the subculture itself. That’s my expression of individual presence and placement. I’m positioned within the subculture rather than within ‘my’ suburban, bourgeois home, see? As such, I approached those subcultural tales in a marginalised, specialized and idiosyncratic style.
The earlier films I made were a little but more overtly political, certainly as regards imperialism, neo-colonialism and the control of the publishing industry, the music recording industry, private intellectual property and telecommunications and so and so fourth. In the case of Mock-Up, one part of it is the religious thing, the story of this so-called ‘cult’, Scientology. And I thought that I was on the same level as them; I didn’t have to take the high road (or low road) and try to dismiss them and marginalise them but, rather, through an equally perverse, sick and paranoid style I was able to work through their own content and their own history.
James: That’s what I thought when seeing the film: your style is a perfect fit for something like Scientology.
Craig: Yes, I’d say so. It’s true. There’s another film which I just saw called The Master [Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012]. They add a character and you could say it’s a roman a clef. It’s loosely based on real facts but they dramatise it. That’s ok: I see that as part of a spectrum of possible styles. I embrace that and encourage that and of course I recognise the importance of realising the difference between the representation and so-called reality (not that we could ever know what the reality is) but they’re just interpretations of it, right? So Hollywood did it their own way. But, there’s a lot of Scientology content there. I can tell you because I did the research myself for my own film. But let me also say that there’s a lot of kook religions around, like the Mormons: they’re an American religion and I claim them. I have the right to talk about them, because a lot of them are from the West coast, where I’m from, which is completely different from the East of the country. So these are really regional groups. They’re essentially subcultures.
James: So this is a theme you’ve working with before, even in your films that were not exclusively dealing with Scientology?
Craig: When I made Tribulation 99, I felt the same about the CIA; they were subverting sovereign governments like Nicaragua by using all these insanely complicated plots and subsystems. In other words they were very creative. Everyone can of course critique the CIA as agents of imperialism but no one actually gave them any credit for being great fantasy writers. So I thought that would be a great angle. Of course, I do critique imperialism but I also suggest that if you take a look at any one of their scenarios about overthrowing Castro or whatever you’ll see that this is not just politics but psychopolitics: kind of a weird dramatisation of the political scenario. So I took the idea and I thought “the CIA can’t beat me in terms of coming up with a wild, paranoid way of writing history!” It was not coming from this so-called ‘neutrality’ or centre, what you could call a reasoned discourse. My discourse about the CIA in Tribulation was intentionally wilder and more way-out in order to enact a critique through exaggeration. This was the kind of subversive amplification you could find in a political cartoon.
Now, to take that idea and relate it to Mock-Up; well the fact was I had made this earlier film called Spectres of the Spectrum and that dealt mostly with telecommunications. But it grounded the whole development at the human level of real inventors. The whole discussion was really about [Nikolai] Tesla and [Filo] Farnsworth who were really great artists and whose ideas were more or less exploited by large institutions. In the course of producing this film, I had to generate a back-story because I didn’t situate the whole thing in an objective, journalistic way but in a particular kind of mis-en-scene. I created for the film and the ‘characters’ a kind of mythic ‘family-life’ using a little piece of California lore, something that everyone in California knows: the story of Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard.
When I put this in Spectres as a back-story, what happened was that the film got into a few theatres and the Scientology people saw it. It was only about 30 seconds, it wasn’t even the core of the argument, (which was about RCA and NBC and the like), but they came to my show. They intimidated me; they sent me e-mails and they sent me a letter. So, when they sent me that letter on this beautiful paper with the Scientology logo I knew what my next movie was going to be about. In other words, it wasn’t a reasoned decision to make the film; it was more like an irrational decision because they had tired to intimidate me at this other level, the level of a horror movie or science fiction movie. They were, in a way, outside the law and were part of the cult world and had elected to come into my world, the outlaw world, the transgressive world. So you see, this is another example of the cult /cult thing. If they were some massive corporation, they’d be a lot less interesting and a lot less sexy and a lot less juicy than if they were this kind of insane out of control wild, irrational organisation. We were levelled.
So, I picked up the gauntlet and I knew we were both outside of the ring and so the approach of the film was appropriate. I’d never win in the ring. I have no money for international travel to get exclusive interviews. No, my stuff is all just made up from scraps of things. And by the way so is Scientology: it’s completely ripped off, mostly from Freud. They’re just as way out as I am. Maybe they’re over to the right and you could say I’m over to the left. But we do both inhabit this free-form anti-gravitational space where you don’t have to play by the rules.
James: Jack Parsons, Aleister Crowley, Marjorie Cameron and L Ron Hubbard. It’s as if these people already had these kind of mythic auras even before you got to them…
Craig: Yes, yes, mythic. They are urban myths and I approached them at that level. It wasn’t journalism in the factual sense. There are plenty of facts in my movies, but really it’s more about a spectacle, a meditated presence or a symbol that means a lot more than just their petty human lives.
James: This is very much the sense I got from your use of clips from Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide , a film that features Cameron as a strange kind of spirit.
Craig: Oh, I just adore that film. That was Curtis Harrington’s first feature. I love Harrington. Harrington was a totally underground filmmaker just like Kenneth Anger and he got Dennis Hopper, also an unknown and then shot it on the Santa Monica pier which is just such a classic Southern Californian location. It’s a conventional film in a way but the concept behind it is so strong that he could place it out there with the mermaids. It is mythic. It’s a lot like Mu in many ways, a magical kind of film.
James: Your earlier film Tribulation 99 was based around conspiracy theory and that seems to be consistent with Mock-Up. In fact, Mock-Up seems to invite a kind of conspiratorial reading. We’re led to connect its various resonances and references in lots of different ways, to the extent that a whole matrix or spiral of interconnections is established by the end of the film.
Craig: You nailed it. First of all there are real conspiracies in real social histories, of course but also (especially in Hollywood) and cliques and cults and things like that. Harrington (who was gay, by the way) was in a subculture and had various connections. Anger’s a better example because he was totally into a coven or whatever. So yes, that works for my kind of film-making because my strength is in the montage or collage. It works as a way of enacting these connections by literally placing one shot against the other which normally wouldn’t be there. You’ve got to make the connection. It’s perfect. I’m conspiratorially minded anyway as an individual and I would be even if I wasn’t an artist so that sensibility gets into my movies. But the way that I cut when working in the collage mode works as a way of developing that networking. I’m actively creating webs or as you say, that ‘spiraling’ sensibility.
James: It seems that there are certain cultural figures, certain American post-war figures who just seem to inhabit and generate these matrices. Charles Manson would be another one.
Craig: It’s something that grew out of tremendous mythmaking power of southern California and specifically Hollywood in the post-war period. The financial and economic centre of the world moved to the United States and Hollywood became the imaginative centre. The myth was already there and people just stepped into those roles. There was a need, almost for a good guy and a bad guy, a sexy chick and a mass murderer. It didn’t take much and Manson didn’t kill anybody (apparently) but it didn’t take much for him to be in the centre of this thing. Not that he isn’t guilty, of course, but the point is, the world and the western imagination was hungry for it. Right after the post-war period, things were rationalised for a while particularly in 55 and 56 with Eisenhower. But the point is it became this big anti-communist thing. This was already happening within Parsons’ life. He died in 52 – but at this point the culture wasn’t all dominated by the Cold War. That’s why in Parsons’ case he could hang out with science fiction writers, rocket scientists and avowed communists. They could all come to a party at his house. This couldn’t have happened in 1960 because by then the lines had already been drawn and these worlds had become professionalized. Howard Hughes wouldn’t hang out with a bunch of beatniks. But right after the war was a weird period in American history. We weren’t all about reconstruction because there was no damage here. There was so much wealth and everyone was getting cars and living out a big fantasy life. The Cold War and the whole repressive thing hadn’t come down too far at the time. There was a gap, and in this void these free thinkers came through. That’s Parsons. And there was also the birth of these alternate religions. Scientology was an idea whose time had come. Science: what won the war? With L. Ron Hubbard, you’ve got a guy who bases his religion on the power of science and American technology and calls it Scientology. How dare he?
James: Scientology acts as a good psychological index of post-war period. As you suggest there was a desire to wipe the slate clean, an idea that could correspond to the Scientological concern with ‘clearing’.
Craig: Yes, it suggests that we can be a new people now: we won the war, we’re the wealthiest and all we need is to get ourselves a new kind of religion. Not only that, but US technology works as an appliance and a means to that end. Think about the E-meter. It’s just a lie detector, but to have that sat there and integrated into the practice of this religion to such an extent, that’s technophilia; West coast style technophilia.
James: In terms of the mirroring between Scientology and your methodology, the line that stands out for me is when the Cameron figure says “all the bad movies have been erased.”
Craig: The idea of the Engram; the idea that there’s basically a material manifestation of a trauma. It’s an interesting theory. It’s a reification of a trauma. To literally materialize it as an Engram, as a kind of blockage, well that is for me the same kind of thing as a movie. A movie is a kind of materialization of an entire world. Yes, so ‘all the bad movies are erased’ is a line that makes a point about the connection between visual culture and popular culture and this idea of materialized personal trauma.
James: Mock-Up was with all of your assemblage work really puts a lot of emphasis on the idea of film as an actual material substance, something that must be assembled. Is this important to you?
Craig: Ok, yes. Let me place this. Currently, on YouTube, there’s plenty of people who are doing mash-ups. It’s bound to happen due to the media saturation and the easy access of ‘hands-on’ software. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing but the thing is, those clips don’t have the substance or materiality of celluloid film. We’re in a transitional phase. There’ll be a lot more You Tube work and a lot less of what I’m doing with actual film matter. My work harks back to and continues the resonance of the West coast Beat movement. This is, in part, the milieu depicted in Mock-Up. The West coast Beats were the regional artists who worked with found material. West coast Beat, or Funk art is huge here, for good reason. It forms the very centre of the San Francisco Art Institute (where I taught for 8 years). The Institute was founded on this art movement. Bruce Connor was my teacher there and he was part of the scene that included Robert Nelson, Wally Hedrick, and Wallace Berman (who is mentioned in the film). And of course Cameron herself was a visual artist. What made these artists famous is that they took found artefacts; material that is very much “post-war.” This is the stuff that was being thrown out because there was such massive production during the period (think of the post-war levels of car production) that material objects and manufactured items were subject to an almost immediate state of obsolescence. Within this zone, it’s the artists, not the corporations who are picking up and embracing “last year’s model.” It’s the outsider, the loser, the beat, the poor guy who is looking for something in the gutter and redeems it. It’s an alchemical idea of dross into gold and the transformation of the ugly into the beautiful. This idea, which was a rejection of the modern art, the abstract expressionism of the 1940s, was not about the creation of a gestural canvas but was about finding something that already had paint on it – a train wreck, a ruined canvas – and turning it into something else. This was the subculture that surrounded and, to an extent, fed into the work of Parsons and Cameron.
The point is, I’m a child of this scene. I’m older than the guys who are doing mash-ups on You Tube. Where they have a right to use their surrounding media, I’m more into this scarcity model. In the midst of this surplus, I’m trying to embrace the physicality of the material world and its residue rather than attempting to elevate myself above it via the internet and social networking.
Junk art would be another term for this process. It was recognition that whilst things were being remade across the world in the post-war period, the old material carried lots of interesting stories. The stress of the material, its defects and blemishes all come to the fore in the beatific and redemptive part of the process. So the self-conscious materiality in my films is part of a methodology that’s more like sculpture than what’s conventionally recognised as filmmaking.
James: Was the development of this methodology linked to the influence of Bruce Connor?
Craig: He was my teacher, yes but I had always done this, it just so happened that I became a filmmaker. But also, I turned out to be an impoverished guy. I know many people here who could get a job working for a company like Google. My roommate worked for Google. But I didn’t do that. Instead, I remained outside of the professional world, outside of the place where cinematic speech is normalised. I entered, you could say, a more tribal world (again, back to cult) where I made totem poles and worked with bricolage. It’s like a cargo cult. Think of the New Guinean tribes coming upon the remains of a plane and re-imagining a propeller as a scared object. That is kind of what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to project new meanings onto old shit and get them to carry a new purpose. In terms of film, we’re surrounded with material from Hollywood. Who wants to know these stories? I can redeem this material and make use of it. Y’know, I don’t have the resources to create an explosion but I can appropriate an explosion from elsewhere that I can use in my movie. At the same time I can get double use out of it because I’ll be able to critique the original source through my re-purposing.
For more on Craig Baldwin and his films as well as information relating to the Other Cinema screenings, see www.othercinema.com