Thursday, August 14, 2008

Mock Up On Mu - A Fragment of An Interview With Craig Baldwin

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I'm telling you now, this was a crazy interview. I was scheduled to meet Craig Baldwin on the evening of July 16th at his basement studio. That afternoon I got socked with a rush project and wound up having to push back the interview by several hours. Hammering out the assignment, I flew out of the office and hit the Montgomery St. BART to The Mission.

Baldwin's studio is located on Valencia St., in the basement of Other Cinema, a former bakery that serves as his workshop, his home (which he shares with several other artists) and as a theater, which hosts a number of screenings by a number of film societies; one of which, The Revival House Classic Queer Cinema, was showing two Fred Halsted flicks, LA. Plays Itself and Sex Garage, that evening.

Greeted by Baldwin at the door I was whisked, through throngs of filmgoers, down to his lair. On route, we passed through the kitchen where several people, hunched over a table, were eating dinner. Baldwin asked if I would like something to eat and drink, whereupon he grabbed a Bud from the fridge and snatched an ear of corn off someone's plate.

As I gnawed my supper, Baldwin gave me a tour of his studio, a warren of rooms, jammed with films, videocassettes, books, editing equipment and all manner of ephemera and weirdness. The heart of his operation is a storage space stacked with several hundred [or is it thousand?] cans of vintage educational, instructional, industrial and documentary films, all organized in piles by the Dewey decimel system. This collection, which he refers to as the 'paradigm of all possible shots' serves as the pool from which he draws material for his found footage documentaries; free-flowing assemblages whose editorial methodology brings to mind this scene from Ed Wood.
Ed continues across the lot, carrying his palm tree. An OLD CRUSTY MAN sticks his head out an office window.
OLD CRUSTY MAN: Hey, Eddie! Come in here. I got some great new stuff to show you.
Ed puts down the plant again and runs in.
INT. EDITING ROOMS - DAY
The old guy is proudly showing Ed STOCK FOOTAGE on a moviola. The footage is totally random: Giant explosions, buffalos stampeding, tanks, an octopus swimming, etc. Ed is dazzled.
ED: This is fantastic! What are you gonna do with it all?
OLD CRUSTY MAN: Eh, probably file it away and never see it again.
ED: It's such a waste. If I had half a chance, I could make an entire movie out of this stock footage! (getting inspired) See, the story opens with these mysterious explosions. Nobody knows what's causing them, but it's upsetting all the buffalo. So the military is called in to solve the mystery.
OLD CRUSTY MAN: Ya forgot the octopus.
ED: No, I'm saving that for the big underwater climax!

Baldwin's films have explored post-war colonialism in Zaire [RocketKitKongoKit], Spanish colonialism in the Southwest [-*O No Coronado! ], the audio collective Negativland [Sonic Outlaws] and just plain incredibly strange shit [Tribulation 99 and Spectres of The Spectrum]. His latest opus, Mock Up On Mu is, in the words of Erik Davis, a
"Madcap hyper-meditation on magick and mind control that takes place in a hallucinogenic California spliced together, literally, from B-movies, self help infomercials, UFO cable access shows and aerospace promo films."

Although not present in the film, Davis himself is an influence on it. The author of "The Visionary State", a survey of the varieties of religious experience in California, Davis is fascinated by the intersection of technology, industry, entertainment and spiritualism in the Golden State. Again, quoting Davis, Mock Up on Mu riffs fictitiously on,
"...one of the core narratives of the California spiritual underground: the almost operatic tale of JPL rocket scientist Jack Parsons. A handsome and hedonistic occultist, Parsons performed Crowleyian rituals with L. Ron Hubbard before the latter stole his girlfriend and crafted Dianetics. During his tenure as head of an OTO lodge in Pasadena in the late 1940's, Parsons also hooked up with the mysterious [Marjorie] Cameron, a redheaded witch who went on, after Parsons's mysterious death in a garage explosion, to nurture LA's young Beat artists in the ways of the wyrd. Cameron upstaged Ana/Os Nin in Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of The Pleasure Dome and appeared briefly, but with enormous spookiness, in Curtis Harrington's Night Tide, arguably the first 'independent' Hollywood film.... Baldwin blends live action with his celluloid patchworks.... with actors playing - with varying degrees of success - freely"nvented versions of Parsons, Hubbard, Cameron..., as well as a craven aerospace defense contractor named Lockheed Martin, played with slithering conviction by activist/actor Stoney Burke. As a dedicated scrambler of fact and fiction, Baldwin makes no attempt to retell the actual history of Parsons, but instead weaves a SciFi plot that features a moon-based Hubbard sending Cameron on a mission to seduce Parsons and Martin. The resulting combo of live action and assemblage creates what Baldwin calls a 'collage narrative,' a phrase he admits is oxymoronic, or 'possibly just moronic.'"

Over the course of an hour or so, Baldwin discussed a number of topics pertaining to Mu. Unfortunately, due to a mechanical malfunction, 2/3 of the interview tape became unusable [I am never using an analog recorder again]. Fortunately, Baldwin is a voluminous talker. Conversing with him is like trying to have a conversation with Dick Vitale, Dick Shawn and Handsome Dick Manitoba, all at the same time. So, as unfortunate as it is that our free-flowing discussion of Kenneth Anger, Situationism and Los Angeles is lost to the ether, there is plenty left to savor.
AN INVITATION AND A WARNING
CB: Rick Prelinger's got these early medical films, most are silent. We're having this fantastic band playing live to it. That's a very risky show, but it will sell out. Take my word for it. You should come around for it.
ESF: I will.
CB: There's a huge meteor, though, that's hurtling towards earth right now, that's going to explode, so you and I probably won't be around.
ESF: What's the due date on that?
CB: [Laughs] There's nothing you can do about it, brother.
METHOD
ESF: I have a chicken-and-egg question. Do you look at the footage and construct the story from it or do you have the story and search for the footage to illustrate it? Or do you do both?
CB: It's a great question. If I was in your position, I'd ask the same question of you. In other words, it's a central question about process. It's more like this, both. In other words, I'm not going to make it easy and just say it's all driven by picture. I would like to have it driven by the visual, because I see myself more as a visual artist, a collagist, rather than a biographer or even a writer, even though there's a lot of writing in it; but it would be impossible to make a film, feature length, that long, about so many complex issues that are abstract. In other words, you can't always depict an idea through visuals, so you need language. There's a set of ideas, facts, anecdotes and stories that have to be told and then over here, a set of what I call the pool, the paradigm of all possible shots and they have to meet and where they meet, ultimately, is the membrane of the film; but there's five years of processing in-between, where you've got to break down your shots into categories. So, basically, I have to make decisions throughout the course of the narrative in order to guide my search through that archive. So, it's a little bit different from most biopics. Especially ones that are shot and not made out of found footage, in which you divide up the story in such-and-such a way, a scene at the beach, a scene in the mountains, so on and so forth and that would drive your production; but that is a tradition within the mainstream commercial cinema and is not one I follow or have the money to indulge. What I do is, take story ideas, they may be gestural. In other words, someone has sex or has an auto accident, whatever it is or they may be ideas in terms of books or philosophy or something like that. Then they accumulate into categories and I can organize the shots according to them. It could be something basic like 'beach' or 'forest' or 'mountain'. So, it's an outline like this [gestures to a board with an Other Cinema schedule listed in black marker]. The film looked like this for a long time before there was actually a script. The script came after the montage. Like this thing [gesturing to board]. There would be big written words and abbreviations on a big card with a lot of notes attached "Now I must go to," "Now I must go to" and soon or later broken down into thirteen chapters. So then I knew that this was 'the brainwashing scene' and this was 'the rocket scene' and this was 'the moon scene' and the material came into those categories. So, it's constantly this analysis of breaking down, breaking down, breaking down the story. It's complex, fitting five characters into these categories like the Dewey decimel system and to think you can actually get your head around it, because there's too many things going on in that piece of American sub-cultural history in post-war LA. There's too much going on. So by breaking it down into these sections, I could throw the films on the flatbed and build these rolls, then take them to the transfer place to have them digitized and then I'm looking at them a lot more easily. You're locked down to speed on the flatbed, but once you've got it digitized things become easier. So it was a big hassle, but then you can really move the stuff around quickly. So when you have a shot, you say, 'Oh, that's a shot of the beach and there's something up here, a bird is dead' and then you go 'ah' and then maybe that has enough presence to fold itself into your montage. So in that way the visual is making contributions to the course of your narrative. I call it a slalom. In my case, it's not a straight shot. It's like going downhill. If you go with the flow of the images, a good piece of music or a beautiful shot, then I'll say 'Well forget L. Ron Hubbard' and then go with the shot and it has its own presence like a Conner or a Dada film. So that's why it's a dialogue between the image banks and the set of ideas.
THE SOURCE
Baldwin breaks off and fetches a stack of books and magazines, which he dumps at my feet.
CB: This is what really started the whole thing off. "Sex and Rockets" by John Carter. Two years later there was "Strange Angel" by George Pendle, an even better book, and then there was this magazine article on Marjorie Cameron, a year later. This guy Pendle, probably younger than me, had the same light bulb go off in his head at the same time mine did. He's from the UK. So, all he had to do was get the facts and write them down. What I had to do was not only do that, but then add picture and sound. Then here again, this is typical [indicates a recent magazine article on Parsons]. This is current. I mean that's just not an accident, that's not just coincidence. This is very much happening right now, in the air. This is happening with tinkerers, do"t-yourself rocketry, backyard gadgetry, gimmickry. This was the also the whole thing about Erik Davis's "Visionary State", about making your own religion, which is what Hubbard did.

CALIFORNIA

ESF: That brings me to another subject. I now live in California, a place I've visited before and almost moved to when I was 11 or 12, when my father was offered a job at UC Santa Barbara.
CB: I used to go to school there!
ESF: He was offered a position in their anthropology department.
CB: Cool. Is that what your father does, teach anthropology?
ESF: He passed away a number of years ago, but he was an anthropologist at Columbia and my godfather, who also passed away, was an anthropologist at UCSB. He tried to get my dad to work there but, ultimately, he didn't want to leave NY. So, I came close to spending my adolescence in Southern California.
CB: Ah!
ESF: So now I'm living here and I want to ask you, as a native Californian, do you think there's such a thing as a California film?
CB: Sure. There's no doubt about it. There's a San Francisco film too. There's a Santa Barbara film. That's what I'm into right now, localization. Bringing it back. I think there's too much overgeneralization about history. The West is much different from the East. You know what I mean? Not to say I'm disavowing their history. I'm just saying it's less useful to someone living here and, after a while, you see a lot is completely vested in the values of the East, what I call the Atlantic and that's fine, but it's more about Britain than it is about California. California is more about Mexico, Japan, China, the Indians, outdoors, than it is about Alexander Hamilton. Not to put that down!
ESF: [Laughs]
CB: What do they do there? They have re-enactments. That blows my mind. Re-enacting the Civil War. I say, 'Oh, that's fantastic,' but my film is a kind of re-enactment of something of crucial historical importance that happened 100 years later, which is much more relevant to us now. So, that's my clarion call for regional history, sub-cultural history. Not to disavow the official story. I'm saying it's one of many. So what I want to do tell a story that would otherwise be totally marginalized. Give it the same weight as the Battle of Gettysburg.
ESF: But do you feel you can point to something and say there's a California film or a California aesthetic? It's funny, because you don't really think of it. You think of Hollywood and most of the big films are made there.
CB: Those are global.
ESF: But is there a thing apart from that as California film?
CB: Yeah, Pat O'Neill, James Benning. Both of those guys. They were at CalArts, a school started by Disney, by the way. But it's not for me to beat on my chest and say this-and-that. That's essentialist. What I'm saying is that the idea of a global, overarching American style is ridiculous. It's about time it's deconstructed and analyzed, by region or by generation, but California is an easy one. The Halsted films you would be seeing upstairs. It's very Cali. Less about proscenium arch narrative, psychological drama and more about the sensual aesthetic and gesture. And there's The West Coast Optical School, which was theorized by David Curtis in a very famous book. The West Coast Optical School has more to do with graphics and a flattening of space. And again, is a way to cut away from the Ibsen style of staging. It's more about free flowing camera movement, sunlight, open vistas, depth, nature, people outdoors, sex, humor, all those things. Certainly montage. In the case of San Francisco, it's a lot about collage filmmaking. Also, Wallace Berman. There's all sorts of shows about Wallace Berman now and those guys. They came up, because they were busted in LA at the Ferus Gallery. In fact, there's a new documentary on the Ferus Gallery called The Cool School. So, American art isn't just Norman Rockwell. We didn't even mature as a national culture until maybe the 40's or 50's, the post-war period and Beat art comes out of that, as a sui-generis idiosyncratic self-sustaining component within American art that's not to be completely folded in or whitewashed with all the other stupid older ideas. So when Berman was busted down at the Ferus Gallery those guys came up here and became part of the San Francisco Renaissance. Bruce Conner was making Assemblage, collages, what I call typically San Francisco or West Coast or NorCal stuff. Junk sculpture. That's not the only kind of work that's made here, but when you see something like Conner or Robert Nelson, Chick Strand even, you can say here are some of the characteristics of a particular movement. Call it Neo-Dada or Funk art or Assemblage, which was across the arts in sculpture, painting and drawing. So, I wouldn't go so far as to say there's a California style of film, that would be too broad, but I will say we can talk about characteristics of this or that. There are California film characteristics.
ESF: David Lynch has said his perspective was fundamentally altered by moving from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. The first thing that struck him was that the light and sense of physical space were different. So, wouldn't the environment of California be an influence?
CB: It's a good question. I'm really not one to answer it. I've shot some exteriors, but I'm mostly focused on,AePI can hardly compare to those guys. It's a big deal to shoot outside. I can do it, but it's not my focus. My focus is more about playing between images. It's less about physical space and more about conceptual space, but it's true. That's what I meant earlier when I said outdoors or nature. Very typical. Again, James Broughton who, by the way, wound up in Port Townsend, shooting nude boy or girl scenes outdoors. You wouldn't have to guess, well that's kind of a San Francisco look. Again, it's preposterous, let's put a nude in an exterior, but in fact it's kind of typical, it's kind of authentic. So yes, in that case, placing your story outside, I would say, is typical. Even the Westerns, of course, another great example. So it's true, Lynch or whoever can go out and the sense of space, especially in the Southwest, is very important. You know, I love it, but for me it's like a ready-made set. I don't think of it as nature. I think of it as a ready-made set. There's no doubt about it, but I'm not the person to talk about quality of light.
ESF: Do you feel directly or indirectly impacted by your environment?

CB:
I spend twenty out of twenty four hours right here.
ESF: [Laughs]
CB: You don't need my example. I'm a wretched little studio rat, but I spent a lot of time hopping freights and hitchhiking, so I know all about the West and I've come up under that. Not that you need to know that, but in terms of my own development as an individual I cherish the freedom you typically have in the West, but I can't say that there's too much of a direct connection with whatever landscapes I had in my films.
A man resembling J Mascis comes down the stairs.
CB: Don't let this guy bother you.
SP: Hi Craig.
CB: Steven Fried, Steve Polta.
ESF: Steven, nice to meet you.
SP: Steven, nice to meet you.
CB: He's actually the creative director of the San Francisco Cinematheque.
SP: Have we met before?
ESF: No, I just moved here.
CB: No, he's a journalist working with the ex-Seattle people.

SP:
The ex-Seattle people?
ESF: Well, I'm an ex-Seattle person.
SP: I thought that was an organization. There used to be this thing called 'Ex from Chicago'. I thought it was something like that.
CB: No, no, he's ex-Seattle. Don't worry about it. We're in an interview right now, baby.
SP: You're the one who started talking,AeP
CB: Anyway, like I say, I think it's good question. People who are in a different register in film would be better equipped to answer it, but my thing isn't trying to assess the quality of the light. I don't have that kind of indulgence. I shoot what I can. It's totally punk rock, run and gun. If you get lucky and the light is there, we get the shot. We generally use the first one, that doesn't sound good, but that's just the way it is. There's more desperation when you're out there. It's very hard. We made the film for nothing. We were all just sleeping in a big van. So, I'm not going to rhapsodize. It goes without saying, it's already implicit in our consciousness.
CASTING
ESF: The film is about notable people, but in casting, you put several people in the film who themselves are known in a sort of way. For instance, Damon Packard, who is a larger-than-life character.
CB: I'll say.
ESF: Or Kal Spelletich, who is known for his work with SRL and might be remembered from Slacker.
CB: Well, there you go. Slacker is a good reference, muy bien. That's like the other axis of the whole Southwest thing. Austin, San Francisco. Yeah, there's a little Slacker vibe in there, that's for sure. The point is, anything I would say would make the film look even more amateurish, but it's more of an underground movie. By that, I mean, in the good sense and the bad sense. It's not a professional movie, it's a movie made out of passion. It's a movie that won't make any money, that will only reach an audience of those people who are interested in these things, which is a big audience by the way. But the thing is, I was able to make the movie, by any means necessary. In other words, by those resources which were available to me, which included shooting in my own studio, cutting up my film collection and shooting with my friends and that's the Jack Smith or the Andy Warhol thing, to get someone who isn't a professional actor. Couldn't pay them anyway. I mean, I did pay my actors, but not SAG rates and again, get in a van and drive four days down into the desert in Arizona. It's not like you could put somebody up in a trailer. I couldn't, so it's not a bad thing. What I'm saying is that it's the nature of certain level of filmmaking to get those people around you, who share a value with you and get them in your movies. So, Kal's a friend of mine. He has a good look, he plays the part. He's like a modern day Jack Parsons. So I could get Kal to do this, to show up at 10:00 o'clock at night and drive around in a circle in West Oakland. Damon was really more of a self-conscious decision. Damon as Hubbard was, well,AeP I got lucky, let's face it. Damon's a little bit of an exhibitionist. I knew we were on the same wavelength. I said, 'You be my Hubbard and I'll make you look like a star.' I mean he's in his own movies and I love his stuff, so it was a good fit.
ESF: Reflections of Evil. A lot of people refer to is as a great LA movie.
CB: There you go. A lot of people in the straight business didn't want it, they hate it, but it's a really an authentic LA movie from the street level. To me it's more the other side of LA. You see so much of the downtown area, that's my favorite part of LA. Just so you know, right down there they built REDCAT, a big theater. Frank Gehry designed the building and this film is going to open there in LA along with Damon's Space Disco One, I don't know if you've seen it.
ESF: No, I haven't.
CB: We're distributing it very soon on our Other Cinema label. It's a 45 minute thing, but Reflections is an important film. He distributed Reflections by throwing it onto people's front porches. So, that's Damon, he's a complete wild-man.

2 comments:

  1. Can't wait to hear him speak in person! I'm assuming he talks in the rapid-fire, half-whispered style of Tribulation 99.

    ReplyDelete
  2. He's like Clarke Fletcher on 20 cups of coffee. And I mean that as a compliment!

    ReplyDelete