In his classic 1951 essay ‘As in a Wood’, Andre Breton describes the value of cinema lying ‘in its power to disorient’. This effect is linked not to the content or ‘merits of a given film’ but in the viewing experience offered to the spectator by the spatial organization of the cinema building. The movement into the darkness of the auditorium is seen as a passage ‘through a critical point as captivating and imperceptible as that uniting waking and sleeping’. Breton states that this sense of disorientation can be intensified into a ‘magnetising’ experience through a nomadic transition between various film screenings, ‘dropping into the cinema when whatever was playing was playing, at any point in the show, and leaving at the first hint of boredom – of surfeit- to rush off to another cinema’.(A) Much has been written concerning the attempts of surrealist filmmakers to represent the dreamscape. However, given Breton’s emphasis on the moving spectator it is intriguing to imagine the nature of the fractured, hypnagogic narratives which would possibly have formed from fragments glimpsed during the course of such a restless pinball across the city.
The work of San Franciscan filmmaker Craig Baldwin provides the viewer with this type of perspective. In particular, his early piece Stolen Movie (1976) could be seen as a companion to Breton’s description. Baldwin composed the film by entering cinemas armed with a Super-8 camera and quickly recording a fragment from the screen. The results of several cinematic smash and grab excursions were then combined into a flickering, distorted sequence. Stolen Movie repeats the tactics of re-appropriation used in Baldwin’s short, Flick Skin, (a pornographic montage) yet with the implicit addition of a sense of place and location. The fragmentary nature of the film is indicative of Baldwin’s movement between different screenings. The film thus works as a record of a momentary presence in a series of discreet spaces.
As several other commentators have noted, Baldwin often begins his filmography with Wild Gunman (1978), an interrogation of the cowboy icon.(B) This film lays the basis for his later work which conveys a politicised engagement with notions of history and culture. However, Baldwin’s early pieces contain at least in embryo many of his signature techniques. His primary artistic approach is centred upon a radical process of assemblage and mesmerising montage. Baldwin raids the archive of film ephemera and obscura, excavating vintage snippets of half-remembered b-movies, advertisements, public access programmes and newsreel footage. He is an archaeologist working through layers of discarded celluloid to retrieve a lost treasure or pinpoint a piece of important overlooked evidence.
Once selected, individual segments do not become part of a ‘standard compilation documentary… homologues in service to the narration’ but are fused into dizzying sequences of wild imagery and striking juxtaposition.(C) As with the link to location in Stolen Movie, a sense of geographical specificity serves as the backdrop to Baldwin’s film projects. His work is intimately connected to the creative environment of San Francisco. The city acts as the source of much raw material and subject matter, giving access to an extensive artistic network which is frequently utilised and represented in the films themselves.(D) The city acts as the source of much raw material and subject matter, giving access to an extensive artistic network
These twin preoccupations became apparent during the interview upon which this piece is based. The arrangement was to meet and talk in Baldwin’s Mission District apartment. In the event, the majority of the discussion took place on the streets. Notes were scribbled and questions shouted as Baldwin led the way through a maze of junk shops, alleyways and abandoned cinemas. The audiotape that resulted from this session appears not to have recorded an interview so much as a wider situation, filled as it is with ambient noise, frantic film talk, car horns and restaurant muzak. Throughout the course of the afternoon, Baldwin described but also actively demonstrated via the backdrop of the city his preoccupation with chance encounters and intersections. As with his collage approach to archival film, Baldwin’s zigzag movement across the streets represented the attempt to find new, interesting ways of negotiating familiar pathways.
Baldwin was born in Oakland in 1952 and studied at San Francisco State University, taking classes taught by Bruce Connor. In his essay ‘From Junk to Funk to Punk to Link’ Baldwin credits Connor, amongst others with developing ‘the rather special practice called Found Footage (FF) film’, a phrase he uses to identify his own work. However, Baldwin also notes that his development as a found footage practitioner was influenced by the artistic climate of the 1980s and what he sees as the shift from the ‘unself conscious’ scenes linked to venues such as the No Nothing Cinema to a desire to tackle ‘serious agendas: identity issues, gender positions, media theory’. Baldwin’s own RocketKitKongoKit (1986) thus worked towards ‘the subversion of genres, both fiction and documentary, in order to point back to their ideological bases’.
For Baldwin, when creating an archival montage, ‘the crucial work is at the level of the symbolic…harnessing meaning, exposing intentions and then the enfolding into metacinematic fabric’.(E) It is at this ‘meta’ level that Baldwin’s films are perhaps at their most complex and powerful. Speaking in more detail about his use of found footage, Baldwin refers to a process of ‘re-purposing’ a transformative act analogous to ‘taking a painting and turning it into a house’. Ephemeral archive films lend themselves to this procedure as for Baldwin they have ‘no target’, they are ‘open…left for the taking’.(F) However the intention is not to completely erase the original meaning of a single clip but to connect it in such a context that interesting points of significance are teased out in parallel with the display of an original code. It is a case of ‘new wine in old bottles’.
‘The crucial work is at the level of the symbolic…harnessing meaning, exposing intentions and then the enfolding into metacinematic fabric.’
Baldwin’s 1999 film Spectres of the Spectrum perhaps best exemplifies this approach. The film opens in 2007 with the media guerrillas ‘Yogi’ and ‘Boo Boo’ operating a pirate radio station disseminating information concerning the ‘New Electromagnetic Order’, a totalising communications network linked to ‘the corporate military complex’.(G) In a series of ‘live feeds’ we are shown how the development of electromagnetic technology involved the suppression of pioneering individuals and an increasing movement towards the domination of the human mind. This history is conveyed through a collection of clips ranging from obscure biopics to kinescopes of the television programme Science in Action in addition to commentary from media activists such as Erik Davis. As the film progresses, Baldwin reveals that the key to subverting the current structure of electromagnetic control lies in the ability of his characters to decode a message hidden in an episode of Science in Action.
Subsequently, the same techniques which Baldwin as filmmaker uses to construct a convincing historical framework are seen to operate within the film to distort the dominance of this paradigm. Spectres of the Spectrum folds in on itself with Baldwin’s recovered footage simultaneously functioning as archival evidence authenticating a hidden history and a demonstration of the ability of images to fabricate historical veracity. As a result, the film occupies an ambiguous categorical position becoming, in a phrase Baldwin applied to his film Tribulation 99 (1991), ‘a pseudo, pseudo documentary’.(H)
From the perspective of the viewer, Baldwin’s incorporation of a mass of imagery into a complicated, multi-layered plot gives rise to a wide range of possible readings. This proliferation is a key part of his project and is indicative of Baldwin’s importance as a filmmaker beyond his considerable artistic achievements. Baldwin has stated that he intends for his films to act as ‘networks’ creating for the viewer ‘infinite association’ and ‘chains of meaning’. Baldwin’s choice of the term ‘network’ is interesting here as it suggests that in addition to his films emerging from San Francisco’s subcultural climate of bike messengers, tribal/group identification and creative artistic exchange between communities, their structure to an extent mirrors and promotes this vibrant interaction. ‘Pre-fabricated industrial images’ are, when included in Baldwin’s work able to ‘flourish in a regional film culture that so vigorously valorises ‘the personal’ as their re-contextualisation becomes indicative of what Baldwin calls ‘a redemptive gesture of personal creative agency’.(I) It is this same agency which is expressed by the viewer when generating multiple lines of interpretation.
When asked about his technique, Baldwin once said that ‘my nervous system is in the editing’.(J) This phrase suggests the idea of his films carrying a fingerprint or signature but it also implies a process of interface. Whereas the surrealists used cinema to replicate the escapism of the dream state, Baldwin reaches towards ideas of connection and communication, his films representing the work of a dedicated practitioner and activist. This position can be cemented when considering his role as curator of San Francisco’s eclectic Other Cinema. The venue serves as an important forum for experimental film, presenting work from local and national artists. As we concluded the interview in the cinema’s basement, a documentary about Hebrew punk played to a packed house above us. Baldwin then moved back to his editing table, presumably to continue sourcing clips for his work in progress, Mock-up on Mu. This situation appeared to carry an appropriate symbolism as it seemed that Baldwin’s creative work and film archive provided a literal foundation for the continuation of San Francisco’s current film culture.
This article originally appeared in Vertigo 3.7 Autumn / Winter 2007
(A) Essay available in Paul Hammond (ed.), Shadow and its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema (USA: City Lights, 2000), pp.72-78.
(B) See Andy Spletzer, ‘Collage Maestro, Craig Baldwin’ at www.greencine.com (23rd August, 2006).
(C) Reference to ‘standard compilation documentary’ from Baldwin’s essay ‘From Junk to Funk to Punk to Link’, p. 1.
(D) Baldwin’s film Sonic Outlaws (1995) focuses on the legal problems of Bay Area band Negativeland.
(E) Quotes in this section from Baldwin, ‘From Junk to Funk to Punk to Link’, pp. 3-4.
(F) Quote from my interview with Baldwin, San Francisco, May 2006. Unless stated otherwise, all quotations are from this session.
(G) Reference to the corporate military complex from Gregory Avery’s long review of Spectres of the Spectrum included in the Other Cinema DVD release.
(H) This film is briefly discussed in relation to the phrase in Jack Stevenson’s Land of a Thousand Balconies (Great Britain: Headpress, 2003), p. 125.
(I) Baldwin, ‘From Junk to Funk to Punk to Link’, p.1.
(J) Phrase used in Craig Baldwin: Spectres of the Spectrum, short pamphlet to accompany 2002 screenings of the film. (USA: Creative Capital, 2002), p. 1.