Further information on Craig Baldwin, his films and own exhibition project, Other Cinema, can be found at http://www.othercinema.com
The following is part of an interview I conducted with San Francisco filmmaker Craig Baldwin that delves into the context of, and influences on, his work. The interview took place on Sunday 11 March 2001 during his lightning trip to Australia to attend the Documentary Conference in Perth and places beyond. We talked before his well-attended presentation of short and excerpted American moving image works at Cinemedia at Treasury Theatre in Melbourne. That presentation was followed by a screening of his recent feature Spectres of the Spectrum (1999).
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Dirk de Bruyn: What is your background in terms of first getting into film?
Craig Baldwin: Well, I was looking at porn theatre. I first came to San Francisco to go to college. I did not necessarily know I was going to end up in cinema. I was a young man perhaps not even 20, and because of personal connections I was able to get a secure job at a porn theatre. And to me that was a moment of demystification when I saw how completely casual the projectionist’s booth was. There wasn’t a precious attitude, shall we say, in the projection booth, especially in porn. So at the low end of that kind of cinema, you can get your hands on it, it invites a kind of intervention as opposed to like a feature that would always remain on the platter, never touched. In the case of porn there was always this process of excerpting or adding parts, bits were getting scratched, spliced, you know, it was falling on the floor. There were old prints that were just so bad that they were never shown again. So basically I ended up moving in, into that projectionist’s booth, which was also a tremendous experience as far as making myself feel very comfortable in a cinema environment. It was a natural kind of thing, not necessarily theory driven. Picking up film and having fun with it at no risk, for whatever it was worth.
DdB: So at what time did you start collecting film material?
CB: Probably at about the same time because all these prints would just come and go, so many just stacked up, there was no accounting for them, they were just getting dusty. The people who ran these theatres weren’t artists, they were just Mafia people basically. You could probably say I started to steal from them. I can’t remember that, it’s not important, they were not missing things of value but I realised that one could have a little collection of films, make your own films out of them, make your own shows out of the material you had. Not only in the porn theatre after it closed, which we would do a lot, like a party, or in your own home, with projectors that were just so available, so cheap at any flea market or garage sale, in super 8 and 16.
DdB: When would this have been about?
CB: About ’75. So libraries had films at that time and I was aware that there were auctions, estate sales, pawn shops. I lived in that milieu called the Tenderloin – the red light district – so you could get anything you wanted and, basically, it was out of the dumpster, there was just so much turnover. For me I was satisfied at this moment of redemption, salvaging something, and by beating the system in a way, by some kind of oedipal, personal psychological need: I can actually make a film without having to buy a camera, expose film, write a script, get actors. Although I admit it has its uses and purposes and I later came to that but for a while it was more like a perverse playfulness in taking this material. For example: the aesthetic dimension of the surface of really worn film, like scratches and grain, looking at film from different angles, from immediately in front of the screen because these theatres were so funky it was just unorthodox, it was an unconventional way, it was more like an installation. So I just collected not only the material around me but later I started to subscribe to The Big Reel, a major film collector’s journal, which is available now in Tower Records, which is totally mainstream, coloured pictures in it, but at that point it was totally pulp and there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages. You would not be able to read the thing in a week.
DdB: Did you end up crossing paths with people doing the same thing?
CB: Sure. It wasn’t a club. In the bohemian art scene fringe there were plenty of people who liked to collect. Like collecting records would be typical, you don’t have to go far to cross paths with someone who collected records. Sooner or later I was drawn to those people especially after I enrolled in film school. Those people were more interested in the Experimental cinema, hands on, scratch film.
DdB: It occurs to me too that you are in these porn theatres, looking at these films from different angles etc, that it’s a way of separating yourself from it and it’s not the way most would deal with that stuff.
CB: Of course not. That was a way of trying to establish a kind of theory about it. But I didn’t mind being inside it anyway. I didn’t find the films sexy if that’s what you mean. It didn’t bother me, I liked it, I thought it was definitely an alternative type scene; it was a very exciting place to be. It was a very good job to work myself through school.
DdB: How did you get to the point where you started the ‘Other Cinema’?
CB: That just naturally grew. That’s a decent question but I am sorry to say I cannot give you a date. It absolutely organically grew from these late night shows in the theatre that I managed and having people in my own living room. I was always into warehouses and garages and so people would come over hang out and party. Just like you play records at a party now, well even then people would put a film on. It was just a natural thing. You don’t have to watch it, you don’t have to listen to it. It was just part of the mix. A light show kind of thing really.
DdB: That’s interesting isn’t it because the way they are watching those films is like sampling, they watch a bit and then not. It’s a bit like the way they are constructed too.
CB: It wasn’t literary based, it was visual mosaic. Bits and pieces, pastiche, thrown together, very casual, very loose.
DdB: Things to catch your eye. Let’s get to Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1991). How long did that take to put together, compile?
CB: I can say three years but it was more of a lifestyle. I was collecting this stuff for many years. The real thing about Tribulation had to do with Iran-Contra, when Reagan was sort of tinkering with the mercenary fighters in Central America. That was a period of American history that angered me and moved me to organise the material that I had to make an attack on it. Not by a normal social democratic filmmaking style which is guilt tripping, hand wringing getting interviews with the victims, blah blah blah. Again, which is fine, put I wanted to make more of a comic book approach that would appeal to my peers, what I would consider to be people who were into visual language, using humour parody, satire.
DdB: You seemed to be immersed on a daily level in that way of looking at things.
CB: This is my sensibility. It’s just my way of looking at the world which is critical, by the way, but my strength was, sure I can do research, write scripts, but it was this idea of giving over to this energy of the visual mix. Trying to draw some kind of lessons out of this political cartoon.
DdB: I remember someone saying that the profession of this digital age is the archivist, the ones with the power to speak. And it seems to me there is a very archival part to the process of making your films. This long process of collecting, ordering, which brings out a particular slant or meaning.
CB: Archives are extremely important now. Many many works you see now both in the art world and the advertising world by the way include found footage and the price of found footage has gone up very dramatically. It is generally recognised that it is a real gold mine. At the same time there is this tons and tons of stuff that is dumped, simultaneously. There is so much out there. There is a style, a type of documentary that uses found footage to talk about a certain period in history but, again I acknowledge that tradition, but my films aren’t really made out of archival footage, they are FOUND footage, even though there is an overlap but there is more of a Dada element going on with my work because I cannot necessarily access the image that would be the “correct” image. I don’t want to do that, don’t you see, I want to open this space of irony and metaphor. I make what I have work, I call it ‘availabilism’.
DdB: The way you use that footage is not for its historical accuracy but for its emotional resonance.
CB: Not just emotional but yes, by the way it resonates. It could be emotional but it could also be a graphic thing. Something that looks like something.
DdB: I wanted to mention Arthur Lipsett, the way he can have a series of faces that go through an emotional wash, the way he puts those found faces together. Men who are staring at something.
CB: Yes he’s trying a choreography of emotional expression. I don’t do lots of that, maybe that is something that is lacking in my own work. My own work has always been a little bit more political, not so much dealing with the individual human emotional response. I want to invoke emotion in the audience but generally it’s more of a … rage.
DdB: How does Lipsett relate to your work?
CB: This idea of collage. He did not just use footage, he shot some of his own footage. First of all, his audio collage. I think he is more in the world of documentary, producing a kind of essay through a kind of a verite, observational cinema and then finding links between the shots and not necessarily going out there with an a priori idea, but opening himself up to the events of the street over the course of many months and then finding connections in the process. His films are more sophisticated because he would create some of the material in the first place and then make a collage out of it. It was more of a polymorphous thing. It was an essay. In my case there is more of an argument that is more literary based in the sound facts. In his case it has that same what I call extroversion, it moves out, not towards the centre, but decentred. There is a series of ideas that come that resonate with another bunch of ideas, not necessarily in a linear way, opening up a field, a space, there are certain themes that ring through it, but the way he makes the points is through audio visual gesture, not by dialogue or script writing, not the kind of things that come from drama.
DdB: I think another difference is that he was an outsider working in a bureaucracy, the NFB [National Film Board in Canada], and you are very much part of a social movement, immersed in some sort of social thing that is going on.
CB: Well. I don’t consider myself an insider that’s for sure. I call myself an outsider. Don’t you see that Canadians have this Social Democratic frame that they can count on in a way. I really feel marginalised even though there’s this sub culture in the United States.
DdB: You have more people to talk to who are marginalised with you, haven’t you?
CB: There is a lot of pissed off angry people, yes. There is an “underground” but generally the responsibility for carrying through those kinds of projects lies with the maker. See if you look at Lipsett you’ll see credits at the end where the dough comes from. You don’t see that with me, you’ll see a reference to music that I use but basically it’s much more this idea of this single garage person more like this crank, hanging out.
DdB: There is a long tradition of that in the West coast of the States.
CB: Yeah. I guess you can call it an Experimental tradition.
DdB: Do you see yourself as part of a line of Experimental filmmakers?
CB: Oh yeah, much more than a documentary filmmaker. With respect to so called ‘personal’ filmmakers, I don’t make things about myself, that’s the thing, but I am one person, who is responsible for the production, so I very much see myself as part of that tradition, artisanal, cottage industry. Small groups of people who just get together could be making shoes, cobbling together to make little things just through pure dint of labour, not effective in terms of production more to do with idiosyncrasy. I mean to bring in my own particular issues, my own nervous system to bear on the end product.
DdB: What do think of this idea, you’re saying you’re working in this hostile environment but to that you need to form yourself into a cell with a few other people perhaps, like during the McCarthy era they used to talk of communist “cells”, strong relations with like minded people to survive.
CB: By the way that happens to be absolutely true but that goes without saying. I wouldn’t be surprised if that wouldn’t be the case as well here. Of course that’s the case and in fact ‘cell’ is exactly the word that we use. We call each other cell mates or a cadre, or affinity groups, from the world of politics. There are these little groups of people who cluster together and help on each other’s projects and by the way, they end up working in these little warehouses. I can go down and get my optical track struck at three o’clock in the morning if I had to by just calling my friends, see. For certain services we have to go back to the industry but Autonomy is the word. Establish a circle of production that is not state of the art, doesn’t have anything to do with changes in technology, we surf the wave of obsolescence. In other words we take not only the content but the optical printers and cameras that were thrown away by the industry and make our own little cargo cult is what it is, out of that. So we do have this marginal status, there is this benefit of this solidarity or co-operation because we do see ourselves marginalised.
DdB: So reconstituting the rubble of progress.
CB: That’s right. The residue. I’m going to show a piece tonight made by B.I.T. (Bureau of Inverse technology) which is an Australian group. In the credits they actually say taking advantage of the residue of the military industrial complex. As you know the Experimental cinema did come in the post war years from all the tech that came out of World War 2. In other words what are you going to do with it, they were making better jet planes and so all the old jet planes went into these big auctions and you could get an oscilloscope which in 1948 was pretty rad and that’s how the Whitneys started making their first computer animation. And where’s computer animation now? These people are now making millions. Use it for a new purpose, re-purposing. A lot of people do it, collectors and people who are nostalgic but there are certain groups of people who want to use it in a creative way.
DdB: So do you see the Whitneys as precursors to what you are doing?
CB: They work in animation and I don’t and again you keep asking me about these traditions. It’s called West Coast Optical School in case you want some kind of rubric. David Rimmer would be another great example.
DdB: Pat O’Neill?
CB: For sure, I adore the guy, I worship Pat O’Neill. This is a particular kind of filmmaking that is not based on language, it’s to do with layering of opticals, it’s graphic, it has to do with light shows, rock and roll posters certainly drug culture, the planetarium shows that Jordan Belson put on. It is a visual thing that has to do with a sense of the eye. It’s not to do with psychology or social realism, that’s the east coast style.
DdB: Your stuff has a more political out to it than what those people were doing. Scott MacDonald in Critical Cinema suggests that Structuralist film was lying the groundwork for a lot of Feminist Cinema that came after it. Would you say that your relationship with some of this earlier stuff is that they worked more with the form and the visual and you have transformed it to include a more hard-edged political side?
CB: Ok. I wouldn’t disagree, that’s more or less true. I enjoy, appreciate, love structuralist filmmaking and I think it’s necessary, but for me it was too formalistic. Then again on the other hand the social documentaries that were being made, let’s say Witness to War, that supported liberation movements in El Salvador, those were fine but were too conventional, they had no sense of formal…
DdB: They were using the tool of the master’s house?
CB: That’s fine but what I wanted to do was to explore the politics of representation. So I have an appreciation of film as art, as a plastic art, as material not as a window you look at and see the suffering victims of El Salvador. Other people could do that better than me because they were going down to El Salvador, had access to the archival footage, they had a big name Hollywood liberal to do the narration. I said ‘Well look my approach is through driving these pieces of found film together in which we have representation’, like in let’s say Journey to Bananaland which was made by the United Fruit Company which pulled off the coup in Guatemala in 1954. In that itself, don’t you see, the colonial ideology is radiating out of that so that if I was artful enough, in terms of the way I handled Journey to Bananaland, then the colonial message would be clear. So I could help out with a little voice over here, some text over there but often it wasn’t my own voice over it was just found voice over that also had established a critique generally through satire. So it was a burlesque of colonial ideology, now some might call it camp, there was a little bit of that. That camp works to draw us to it but there is also the historical, names are named. What I tried to find is this other path.
DdB: That is an important development out of that earlier work
CB: You mean the structural stuff or the social democratic?
DdB: Bringing both together in a way.
CB: Yes. That is obviously my role. My films have never succeeded, by the way, in documentary film festivals even though I have just been to a Documentary Conference in Perth. Because found footage is not appropriate. You do not use a fictional piece of found film. If I needed some footage I would just take some from a Japanese science fiction film. That would work, that would be part of the collage essay, that would work for Lipsett, that would work for Bruce Conner, that would set it up. Even the Russians who were making newsreels out of bits and pieces.
DdB: I think it’s a question of language, I think those working in documentary form generally are not conversant with the language. It’s a different language.
CB: I don’t know about that. I can’t second guess. No. I’m not saying they are stupid or dumb. They have another set of goals, first of all to bring it to the largest possible audience. It’s true there would be a smaller group of people for the work that I do.
DdB: Even though this is not your aim, your work does, has the potential to reach a large audience.
CB: I don’t know about that. That is something we won’t know. The point is, let’s say, poetry, and there certainly is political poetry. When a poet writes his or her poem, can it reach a possible large audience? Well maybe it can but maybe it doesn’t. It doesn’t make any difference, it has to do more with the expression perhaps of personal, let us say, rage. People who do read are going to be moved, and in perhaps more intense ways. So my project is not to make my films in the image of an audience, some virtual audience, some imagined audience you can never really know. But really make something that is authentic and true and then people would come to it. This is the other way around to which an audience-centred cinema works. Now people make documentaries for which the audience precedes, not only the audience but all the research, all the writing, all the script all the language based things precedes the visual. They are coming into it from the exact opposite end as me. With me the visual precedes. But in fact it’s the visual detritus, the visual throw away, rubbish, the debris. So my work comes out of this to redeem it, to cook it down, like two bits of uranium, and drive them together. There will be enough heat generated that something will come out of it, some explosive moment, right. It may be a quick blast, it may be a slow blast.
DdB: The cooking analogy is a good one, the process of cooking. The process of putting something together and boiling it up. In terms of audience I do find it interesting that some of the content you know, about American paranoia how after you have regurgitated and reprocessed some of that, that it has come back into the mainstream, you know X-files Roswell. I find it interesting that that happened.
CB: Well that is the fingers on the pulse. I’m not claiming that for myself, all I’m saying is that artists are sometimes a bit more sensitive to these things, the Zeitgeist I guess you could say. What I did in Tribulation 99, I kinda picked up upon what I call fringe literature. These tracts that were stapled to telephone poles, that may have been by schizophrenics and I saw them that there was some kind of truth to them. Even though on the face of it they were completely delirious. There was a larger level, not on the factual level, at an allegorical level that they actually did sum it up, the feeling that we all were experiencing it. Of course we are all dealing with it, we are still going to work, still paying our bills. Re schizophrenia, I like this idea of smashing this consensus reality. There are some good things about consensus reality, everyone has to drive on one side of the road. What I was doing, my whole thing was to summon up these other ideas which threatened this feeling of consensus. My project was more corrosive.
DdB: There is a quote from Neil Postman where he asks how do you take up arms against a sea of amusements.
CB: There you go.
DdB: I’d say that you have been trying to answer that question
CB: That’s right, it’s not just saying a no to their yes. That’s OK, people try to do that, but it’s just going to be a mirror image. What I try to do is you know how do you try and flip this Spectacle over. I do it by using the terms of the Spectacle and that is what found footage is in a way. I’m using jujitsu, using the weight of the enemy against himself.
DdB: When you see a so-called hippie, some sort of outsider in some family comedy on TV, they are made to be evil, I feel in a way that that is the mainstream doing to the outsider what you are doing to the mainstream, to the Spectacle.
CB: I’m trying to show how freakish consensus reality is. How completely uncriticised it is, do that in my own terms. This is my world, this is my vision, these are the monsters, these are the zombies here. So I do through this wilful thing I try to set up this subverting.
DdB: That’s that whole tradition of culture jamming.
CB: There are many stripes, of course, within culture jamming. I will be talking about that tonight by the way. There is certainly the contradiction where you have two shots that do not necessarily cut together and you have to resolve the contradiction which comes from collage. But there is also this new form which I would call Trojan Horse where it isn’t necessarily inverted but it is more like through this hyperrealism and this Jeff Koons, post modernism. The modernist is of course the collage fragmentation stuff. This hyperrealism where something looks so much like an official representation yet it has some wrong message in there. So you can have something that is perfectly in the same form of the original billboard but with a word there that should not be there. That does not have to do with collage per se, that has to do with simulation or camouflage or what I call Trojan Horse.
DdB: My girlfriend has a McDonalds sign on her car that says: Do you want Lies with that?
CB: There you go. The L would have to look like the F. That is more effective instead of scrawling some graffiti on there which is OK. Use the language of the Spectacle in a way, you have a critique and a kind of funny art thing.
DdB: This whole idea of colonisation. We have been through this process where countries have been colonised and we are in this phase now where individuals and the self are being colonised.
CB: That’s exactly in Spectres. You must have seen it because that is actually a line out of Spectres.
DdB: There is an inner and outer thing there. The fact that you are dealing in personal filmmaking comes back to the self.
CB: The thing is…. The answer I would give you would be too long, so I am going to make it very brief. Basically over my so called career there has been a movement from the larger geopolitical issues into the more personal issues having to do with the imagination basically. I call it implosion. So my earlier work is about Palestine, South Africa, Latin America and then with Sonic Outlaws it is really about culture within the United States and the next project I’m going to be doing is about Scientology which of course is psychological abuse. So the same themes apply about assimilation or control but there is less of this voyeurism like South Africa shame on you. Sure South Africa is fucked up but maybe the South Africans should start making films critical of that. So maybe I should be talking about local politics and local politics is about the control of sounds and images which I hear everyday like your example television or records or radio or certainly the way I feel about myself, my own identity, my own psychology. So the same themes apply but there is, there is this personal filmmaking, now I am more interested in taking up issues having to do with subjectivity.