This past summer I found myself somewhere in the Balkans sharing a lunch with five top European film festival artistic directors and programmers. The group was throwing around the names of various doc royalty in need of a lifetime achievement award before old age might take them from our midst. Of the five, one Spanish director ticked off a list of deserving masters who had already responded that they would be unable to attend his popular event. He needed ideas. Out of the blue, it suddenly occurred to me to suggest my good friend, San Francisco’s experimental collage master, Craig Baldwin. The artistic director’s mouth dropped open. “You knew Craig Baldwin?” “What do you mean ‘knew’?” I replied. “I know Craig Baldwin.” He shook his head. “No, it’s not possible. Craig Baldwin’s a legend. He can’t be alive.”
San Francisco Bay Area prank doc maker, activist and media archeologist Baldwin is very much alive, having just turned sixty this past year. Radical fusions of discarded industrial films, scratched science fiction potboilers and ancient TV kinescopes are the stuff of Baldwin’s epic alternative histories, which satirically indict governments and corporations. Considered to be one of the secret heroes of underground cinema, he is the subject and recipient of numerous articles, retrospectives, awards and dissertations. Baldwin first began playing with Super-8 as a young boy, cutting up mail-order Hollywood films to find unexpected meanings.
Following stints at a few California universities, he set about crafting his assemblages before moving onto the dense and complicated features that tore apart the definition of non-fiction filmmaking. His 1992 Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America is a 48-minute masterpiece of re-purposed material that utilizes darkly absurd voice-over to interrogate a half-century of US foreign policy. His quasi non-fictional Specters of the Spectrum (1999) and Mock Up On Mu (2008) are punctuated by elliptical bursts of free form cut and paste that are often demanding, incendiary and poetic.
Apart from creative endeavors, Craig Baldwin is also a publisher and curator. His weekly Other Cinema shows at the San Francisco Artists’ Television Access gallery (ATA) are a highly influential salon of underground experimental documentary, performance and music. I spoke to Baldwin in the ATA basement, the cramped studio where Craig is toiling over a new film.
Like his work, words and ideas poured forth in jagged bursts as he jumped from topic to topic:
– How would you classify your work?
– Essay. Hybrid essay. I’m not rejecting fiction, but rather trying to use fiction for my own ends. In other words, a critique about history, about language, about power. Rather than going out and recording real world instances of abuses of power, I might take material from the archive, be it fiction or non-fiction. To use something that is fanciful and arty to actually make a comment on a real world situation. But the actual imagery does not necessarily have to come from documentary. Though it could. Dziga Vertov’s name will probably come up sooner or later, and his idea of newsreel … like an exploded newsreel. It’s not just reportage. It’s like Vertov in that it draws upon multiple sources. It’s generally about opening a field of ideas, not exactly philosophical ideas, but attitudes and ideological forces and conversations that are embedded within popular imagery.
– But do you consider yourself a documentary filmmaker?
– I don’t. But again, that begs the question what a documentary is. I certainly think you can call my work nonfiction. Almost all of it. But there are narratives in it and, of course, there are narratives in real life. And there are narratives in documentary. I am not an orthodox documentary filmmaker, that’s for sure. And I am less interested in a “record” and certainly I have nothing to do with objectivity and certainly can’t consider myself a journalist. However, I am interested in using artifacts from our shared culture to talk about real world issues. I’m not a doc maker in the classical sense, but I attain some of the same ends of doc making. That is, I get the history out, many alternative histories, by the way. I actually feel more comfortable with the word historian than documentarian. I’m an alternative historian.
– That’s also that dreaded phrase “experimental documentarian”.
– I love personal documentaries but I don’t make them. I do make experimental documentaries. They are personal to the degree that my nervous system shows through them in the music I use and the way I cut and paste. I like this idea of talking
about history but not having to abide by the conventional documentary form protocols.
– For example, my films have never really done well in documentary festivals. Though they probably have gotten in as a sidebar just as I am getting in the DOX magazine now. We can have a better idea of what documentary is if we see what the edges are. There’s this great metaphor that’s also in my ‘Other Cinema’ logo. With the naked eye no one can see the noonday sun or the corona of the sun. You can only see the corona when there is an eclipse, then the brightness of the sun is occluded and you can finally see that crown or the ring around the sun. We get a better sense of the figure by seeing the margin, the periphery that defines it.
– A central theme in my work is this critique of consolidation of power over autonomy. Telling particular stories about the struggle of independent-minded groups of people against institutions of power. When I was coming out of school, I was very interested in experimental filmmakers like Bruce Conner, like Robert Nelson and Paul Sharits. I was interested in the materiality of film and how meanings and images come to be chained together, the negotiation of meaning, semiotics if you will.
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