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Filmic Outlaw

Craig Baldwin Cuts and Pastes Found Footage to Critique Corporate America

Nikola Tesla in Craig Baldwin's Spectres of the Spectrum


Director:Craig Baldwin
Cast:Sean Kicoyne, Caroline Koebel
Genre:Film, Satire

By Ian Grey | Posted

In Craig Baldwin's Spectres of the Spectrum, a small rebel alliance armed only with low-tech gear and good old American moxie battles a corporate/governmental entity known as NEO--the New Electromagnetic Order. And in Baldwin's documentary Sonic Outlaws, megaband U2, apparently in thrall to a real Corporate Monolith, violently litigates against indie electro-collage group Negativland. All that and you get to hear American Top 40 DJ Casey Kasem shriek the word "fuck" in a wide variety of conjugations. Now that's entertainment.

Both features are typical of Baldwin, a master of high-velocity, found-footage collage cinema. You can see both films, plus partake in a Q&A with their creator, at the Charles Theatre on the evening of Oct. 30.

For more than 20 years, the filmmaker--by day, an ordinary film instructor at San Francisco State University--has been cranking out his sui generis stew of B-movie clips, industrial films, and assorted mass-media detritus to create often hilarious, turbocharged cut `n' paste phantasmagorias.

Best known for his frenzied multiconspiracy-theory film Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1992), Baldwin says that one of his intentions with Spectres of the Spectrum was to create a film that's accessible to "audiences more used to watching narrative films."

Set in 2007, Spectres tells of the efforts of a scientist named Yogi (Sean Kicoyne), his telepathic daughter BooBoo (Caroline Koebel; voice-over by Beth Lisick), and their aforementioned rebel cohorts to rescue Earth before NEO can "bulk erase" the minds of all humankind. BooBoo finds she must journey back in time via her Airstream trailer/spaceship to obtain the secret of our salvation from her famous scientist mom who, unfortunately, is dead.

This somewhat unusual science-fiction plot acts as a framework from which Baldwin blitzkriegs the viewer with digressions dealing with a nearly endless array of pop, scientific, and political topics. Baldwin describes his four-years-in-the-making creation as "an agitprop critique of corporations and the centralization of power. I call it 'activist sci-fi.'"

Obviously, the filmmaker has a bone to pick with corporate America. But he stresses that the film is "not about being anti-corporate; it's that our options are becoming severely limited." In his vision, the corporate monopoly of information results in "a loss of [human] autonomy," resulting in "a loss of the ability to make choices about your own life. Minorities [and other 'outsider' groups] are left underserved because the needs of the corporation are not the same as theirs."

The artist's consuming political passions found an almost too-good-to-be-true real-life counterpart in the legal battle between Island Records and Negativland and its label at the time, SST Records, the unifying topic of Sonic Outlaws.

Via interviews with Negativland group members and other like-minded San Francisco Bay Area artists, Sonic Outlaws addresses the hot-button issues of sampling and other forms of artistic appropriation--the individual's right to creatively dip into the plasma pool of mass media. Baldwin uses "normal" documentary technique, leavened with his usual post-kitsch visual assault, to return us to the early '90s, when Negativland members got their hands on a pirated tape of Casey Kasem cursing like a sailor after a failed attempt to record an introduction to a U2 song.

Negativland couldn't resist the art-prank possibilities. The band mixed Kasem's cussing with mangled bits of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." For the EP's cover, Negativland used an image of U2's logo at the time (an eponymous '60s spy-plane) and went so far as to call the EP U2. SST released the recording, only to discover that Island Records, U2's label, was not amused.

Island charged Negativland with copyright and trademark infringement, and sued the band and SST Records. SST later sued Negativland for $90,000 in legal fees. (Ironically, U2 would use a similar mass-culture appropriation gambit on its 1992-'93 Zoo TV tour, during which projected satellite-dish feeds of copyrighted material added a postmodern sheen to the band's image.)

Baldwin admits that Negativland went a bit over the top--"They were probably naive in thinking that they wouldn't incur the wrath of Island," he says--and he doesn't blame U2 for the entire mess. Rather, he sees the lawsuit as a textbook example of artists "losing control of their own project. Rock 'n' roll has less and less to do with personal rebellion and authenticity. It's just this institution of this huge mega-business where the bottom line rules the day. U2 just got caught up in it." Still, he notes, U2 "didn't intervene; if they were really cool, they would have." (Sonic Outlaws also features 2 Live Crew's court battle over the right to parody Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman," along with a vivid demonstration of the de-evolution of cable TV from public-access utopia to a corporate "entertainment" nexus.)

Whether or not Negativland did anything "wrong" is, appropriately, the subject of both Internet rants and congressional hearings. How much appropriated material constitutes copyright infringement? Will information systems--whether the Internet or the radio waves--be the subject of copyright policing? And if so, by who?

Sonic Outlaws argues that, in a world defined by nonstop media emissions, sampling and appropriation are an inevitable artistic progression. The film cites the example of Third World people who take abandoned oil cans and turn them into steel drums. And so, it is asserted, Negativland's activities--like Baldwin's films--constitute a new sort of "folk" art. Baldwin says making this new folk art is an act of "redeeming this century of machine culture and trying to turn it into something beautiful and sensual."

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