Going Ballistic: Craig Baldwin’s Mock Up on Mu
By Michael Sicinski
(reprinted from Cinema Scope 35)
Like tracking a quark, any arc we trace through the verbiage, the multiple image banks, the fragments, the histories, and the semi-random stuff one inevitably has to touch upon in order to engage with the cinema of Craig Baldwin is going to instantly imply some other pattern of ascent we might just as (un)reasonably have taken. As Baldwin makes clear, it’s always a question of what’s available. So, in this case, we’ll start with a stab at “journalism,” something resembling a basic assemblage of pertinent facts.
Aside from his contributions as a filmmaker, Baldwin is also the long-time curator of Other Cinema, a weekly film and media program in the Mission District that has historically functioned as a less sober alternative to the venerable San Francisco Cinematheque. He’s also taught at numerous institutions, most notably San Francisco State University, although I recall his guest teaching stint at Berkeley with particular amusement. For a time, he and Ernie Gehr were taking turns doing Filmmaking 101. Something of a Morton Feldman / Napalm Death double-bill, the two men provided a study in extremities of the temperament.
This kind of unlikely passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time forms the crux of Baldwin’s latest film, Mock Up on Mu. But first, some background. Although Baldwin first achieved international attention for his 1991 masterwork Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, his earliest films show many of his chief concerns – media-image blitz, political counter-history, and the American West – already in place. The Super-8 Stolen Movie (1976) foregrounds appropriation; Wild Gunman (1978) interrogates the idea of media masculinity; and RocketKitKongoKit (1986) provides a speculative fiction based on the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the Mobutu regime’s collusion with a German rocket company. (Some viewer assembly required.) Throughout, Baldwin exhibits a concrete connection to documentary procedures, but often the “facts” have spun out of control.
These strands in Baldwin’s aesthetic make-up (or mock-up) achieve dialectic lift-off in his Tribulation 99. A 50 minute featurette, Trib 99 moves a mile a minute, point by point, to demonstrate (with the appropriate visual evidence from B-grade sci-fi, faded industrial science films, classic Mexican luchador films, and just about anything with a tin pie-pan and a gated oscillator) that reptilian invaders from the stars fled their dying planet millions of years ago, set up shop on Earth, mated with snakes, and set to work meticulously orchestrating U.S. foreign policy in Central America. On the one hand, it’s a goof. But it’s also dead serious, relying on actual fact to critique the need, so often an Achilles’ heel of the radical Left, to generate a single explanatory narrative for all nefarious world events. After all, conspiracy mongering marginalizes our political agency by emphasizing powerlessness. If one demands a story in which all things are linked within a grand overbearing logic, doesn’t it stand to reason that one would eventually end up with a tale of Good vs. Evil, of God vs. Satan?
Following this stellar achievement, Baldwin naturally moved in another new direction. While his subsequent films have maintained a basis in collage and found-footage, and Baldwin has continued to explore various facets of the contemporary political sphere, he began to integrate original dramatic material, expanding the “fiction” side of the collage-fiction gene splice. O No Coronado! (1992) compares Coronado’s conquest of what would become the U.S. Southwest with the imposition of nuclear waste dumps upon that same landscape. Sonic Outlaws (1995), Baldwin’s first “straight” documentary, chronicles the copyright-infringement charges against the band Negativland for their infamous “U2” single, exploring fair use, copyright violation, “culture jamming,” and outright theft as a basis for musical aesthetics and social criticism.
Baldwin continued to follow the impulse toward more expansive critique and a greater fictional thread with his next film, Spectres of the Spectrum (1999), a sort of follow-up to Sonic Outlaws. Ever the dialectician, Baldwin moved from an exploration of private ownership of media content per se to an examination of the history of the privatization of the airwaves and, eventually, the Internet. How do you “close” space, and how do you sell it? (Again, we see Baldwin implicitly returning to his themes of the Western landscape, a kind of metaphorical closing of the range.) The sky above us, as it were, piles high with disasters, just as Walter Benjamin predicted. Baldwin’s lowlight reel takes us from the classic Edison/Tesla mismatch, through David Sarnoff’s systematic hijacking of the telecommunications industry, right up through Clinton’s 1996 bandwidth giveaway. Here Baldwin’s fictional armature concerns Radio Tesla, a low-power pirate operation run by Yogi (Sean Kilcoyne), a fully-wired repository of this grim history, giving remote directives to his granddaughter Boo Boo (Caroline Koebel), a young space pioneer planning to enter the ionosphere, travel back in time, and right some pivotal wrongs. But for the most part, Spectres’ storyline serves as a framing device for Baldwin’s scathing fact-based indictment, rather than compelling interest on its own.
Not so with Baldwin’s newest film, Mock Up on Mu (2008), yet another punk-Hegelian synthesis of his recent stylistic migratory patterns and without a doubt his finest work since Trib 99. In essence a feature-length expansion of a historical conundrum briefly broached in Spectres, Mu centres on four major players, three of them real, one a fictional amalgam. Jack Parsons (Kal Spelletich), renegade rocket scientist and post-Tesla anarchist advocate of science for the people, did some time in a Los Angeles occult circle devoted to the teachings of Aleister Crowley. Two other individuals of future historical import were also part of the group at the time: Marjorie Cameron (Michelle Silva), developer of what would evolve into New Age spirituality, and one L. Ron Hubbard (filmmaker Damon Packard), a sci-fi writer who was developing some religious philosophies of his own. Spinning off from this, Mu finds us in the not-so-distant future, with Hubbard having colonized the moon (now known as Mu), a base station for Scientological activity. With the help of defense contractor Lockheed Martin (freelance Berkeley agitator Stoney Burke), Hubbard plans to build a new desert shuttleport between Mu and Las Vegas which also happens to be an SDI-style weapons system. Only by reconnecting to Parsons’ original mission, and Cameron’s free love doctrine, can the world be saved.
CINEMA SCOPE: My first reaction after seeing Mu and rewatching your earlier films was to notice the new film’s very different trajectory (missile pun intended). Almost all of your other films end with some kind cataclysm, and here we see the military-industrial complex hoisted by its own petard. It’s much more optimistic than some of the more apocalyptic visions you’ve concocted.
BALDWIN: Yes, I think it definitely has almost of hippie moral to it: “make love, not war.” I tried to explore the California subculture around Jack Parsons and Marjorie Cameron in a way that wasn’t so apocalyptic. “Apocalyptic” is the perfect way to characterize Tribulation 99, for example. But in the case of Mu it’s more about the confirmation of human agency and imagination. So I see that thread of utopian thought in these California beatniks, even though they were ultimately ground down. I still want to foreground which speeches are actually Parsons’ and Cameron’s, because the last third of the movie is mostly primary source material. And in some of these speeches when they’re just railing against science and technology, certainly are striking a bit of a negative chord. But for the most part, they had this kind of animistic, pagan embrace of the natural world that was much more generous than resentful. So anyway, I think it would be true to say Mu’s optimistic. I mean, the good guys win. It says so at the end.
SCOPE: And as it turns out, it seems as though L. Ron Hubbard wasn’t some kind of good guy gone bad in all of this. He pretty much appears to be a guy who’s already into some nefarious shit, infiltrating this subculture to exploit it for his own ends. Is this about right?
BALDWIN: Well, that’s a good question, but I’d rather not put myself in the position of making a judgment about Hubbard’s entire biography. I’m more focused, to be honest, on Parsons and Cameron. Anything we know about Hubbard is through his own “version,” which is just complete poppycock. And actually, that’s a truly impressive thing about him. It shows an enormous amount of creativity and verve, that the guy would just recreate himself every time he turned his head to talk to another person. It’s a lot like my own films. It’s like, if you can fake it, you can be it. He tells his story, and it’s grandiose. It’s good science fiction. It’s impossible to take seriously that he landed here millions of years ago …that is his story. But it doesn’t have to be reduced to a moral judgment. It’s the way his life intersects with Parsons that’s important, and that’s the documentary contribution my movie makes. The rest of it is sort of speculative. The Parsons material is very important to me. I was born in the year Parsons died, and I jokingly claim to be his reincarnation. But it is real postwar California history. And that intersection of these three lives is the point where I suggest that there is a judgment, and that, yes, Hubbard stands accused. It’s in the records. The Scientology people, by the way, have not tried to defend themselves, yet.
SCOPE: When you mention Hubbard’s skill as a mythmaker, images from the film jump to mind. At one point in Mu Orson Welles appears, and there’s perhaps an affinity there, with Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast as a variation on Hubbard in the explicitly creative realm. So you’ve got two great bullshit artists, and it’s not as simple as one’s good and one’s bad.
BALDWIN: There’s no way one can know about the life of Hubbard and not give the guy his due. He led a fantastic life. But the only ways we can get to his story are through the official Scientology histories, which are totally ideologically biased. But the story is worth telling and knowing. But no one’s ever going to make that movie, despite the fact he was a mythmaker who was just as big as Welles. Having Welles in Mu was a kind of knowing allusion.
SCOPE: Speaking of allusions, casting Damon Packard as Hubbard was inspired. I didn’t recognize him at first, but still I remember thinking while watching Mu that Packard was probably the only other filmmaker working at the same fever pitch as you.
BALDWIN: Well, if anyone hasn’t seen Damon’s work, they’ve got to see it. He’s a way better filmmaker than me, that’s for sure. I was lucky to get him. Like the Welles inclusion, Packard’s presence is another canny example of the movie folding in on itself. Having Damon play this role is so appropriate. I’m glad that Damon’s finally getting a bit of credit now. He’s always so self-deprecating, and he always plays these figures filled with a degree of self-loathing, which entails such pathos. But in Mu I flipped it and made him a sort of master of the world.
SCOPE: Mock Up on Mu relates most directly to Spectres of the Spectrum. That film was a wide-ranging indictment of the privatization of the airwaves and the Internet, and near the beginning of that film, the Parsons/Cameron/Hubbard story is briefly mentioned in passing. You’ve mentioned that you can see Mu as a prequel to Spectres. It’s actually quite fascinating that you’ve gone back and thoroughly explored, even exploded, this little blip. It’s as though Mu is almost a kind of hyperlink, adjacent to Spectres in some way. How did you get back to the Parsons material?
BALDWIN: Well, first of all, it’s a family thing. Between the two films I was working out this ventriloquism thing, putting words into people’s mouths. I was able to get a little closer towards narrative, which really hasn’t been my strength. But with this film, I was able to sketch out characters who had a little depth. So you start to see this relationship between these two people, Cameron and Parsons, like in the noir-romance car scene, for example. With that depth, I could picture that human relationship as it carries on, and the woman and the man could have a child, and that would be the moonchild, who becomes Boo Boo in Spectres. The strength of this thread is that you have all these themes that you find in both movies – the Southwest, the use of technology, the repurposing of older technology and older land, and this kind of frontier, outsider, survivor, desert-rat ingenuity. That’s actually true of a lot of my films. But what you see is a family myth that coalesces around Boo Boo in Spectres. She’s not here yet in Mu, she’s just talked about. So that connection works out perfectly, not that I planned it that way. It was just backward magical thinking – “Of course Boo Boo’s the moonchild.” A lot of collage filmmaking comes together in that reverse-engineered way.
As for the Parsons/Hubbard connection, Erik Davis, who appears in Spectres, told me that story, ten years ago. At the time this was just some little rumour, but Erik put a copy of this in my hands. That was the “aha” moment, when I had the perfect set-up to give a little backstory to my characters. So I included that in Spectres, just a couple of lines and about five shots. I said that Hubbard was a spy. And the Scientology people saw that and wrote me a letter. I was touring in Europe at the time, and I started getting emails from my editors. I got phone calls too. This was well before it was a thoroughly assimilated piece of urban lore like it is now. So anyway, when I got home, there was a beautiful three-page letter, with embossed Scientology stationery. And that became the seed for Mock Up on Mu. I couldn’t write a better script than what the Scientologists had already provided. So their official story is that Hubbard went in there to break up the black magick ring to save our nation’s atomic program…you know, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
SCOPE: So you turned their propaganda against them.
BALDWIN: This letter is the same official position paper on that bit of history. Years ago the London Times did a story on Scientology and the group took them to court, and as part of the settlement they agreed to print this same story in a box on the front page. It’s just a denial story. People know about Hubbard’s past with the Crowley group, they can’t make it go away, so they have an official cover story. And again, reading this, I kept thinking about Hubbard. He wasn’t a subtle writer, or nuanced, or insightful. But he was so bold! So audacious! He spun this cockeyed garbage and ran with it. So making the film was kind of a challenge, like, “I’ll not be outdone.”
SCOPE: Not coincidentally, considering the role of this history, Mu contains some formal elements that are quite new in your work. Here, a lot of the found footage was edited together in an unusually diegetic manner. In particular, you’ll frequently stage a scene with your actors and then intercut multiple scenes from other movies, where those “found” actors are in the exact same blocking and framing as your actors. What was your interest in breaking up the diegetic space in that particular manner?
BALDWIN: Well, above all it’s a “collage narrative.” I’m not just trying to make a narrative film. Other filmmakers could create more continuity, or light their characters’ faces better, so on and so forth. I’m coming from collage towards narrative. I’ve made collage films for a long time; I feel like that kind of editing – comparing this to this to this to this – is the kind of cinema that I most want to advance. But then, if you just do that, you’re stuck in a purely visual thing, a graphic thing, a formal thing. I’m also very interested in documentary form and in these issues of history. So how do you tackle these questions in a collage form? Well, one answer is to accumulate a whole lot of different shots in a collage format and to set them going in a strategic direction, to create a stream—or better yet, a kind of braided rope—to generate a through-line, a continuity, a trajectory. I am trying to complicate narrative, but the original impulse is to celebrate the diversity and the serendipity of collage. At one point I compared it to herding cats. There are all these diverse little tropes, and you try to aim them towards some narrative end, which is usually based on the text, but the collage elements assert their own particular character.
I think by now many are familiar with the style of the collage film. Like the “compilation doc,” which I guess you could say I made with Sonic Outlaws. It’s certainly the form that’s most popular on TV now. The National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, “World at War,” basically they’re written narrations with archival shots dropped in. That’s great, but there’s not enough room in there for someone who’s a little bit more in tune with Dada or Surrealism, playing with meanings, reading things speculatively, or introducing ambiguities. So that’s why I tried to open up the space. I know it’s been done in the graphic form. In the ‘30s Max Ernst produced a number of collage novels. That’s the only iteration I could ever find in which someone actually tried to tell a story that had any arc through collage, because collage always draws people down to the interface between shot 1 and shot 2. I had this larger story to tell, so that’s why these figures appear, but it doesn’t always have to be the same figures. In other words, it’s obviously the same value of the figure. Why just to go back to the same shot of Michelle Silva? She’s obviously just an actress I got to play the role of Marjorie Cameron, so it may as well be Jill St. John for a second. It’s a celebration of the possibilities of cinema. It’s playful. And I didn’t have all the shots I needed anyway. I didn’t take my fucking camera up to the moon! While it allows you to follow the story, each one of those clips harks back to its own separate film history: Dr. No (1962), Flash Gordon (1936), Things To Come (1936). And then you see, oh, there’s Raymond Massey, and hey! Raymond Massey appears four years later in this other clip, and there he is with Ray Milland! Now they’re talking to each other. It’s an homage to recurring types over the course of film history, as well as an allusion to how these connections between aerospace and the occult have been imagined in sci-fi over the years.
And this idea of multiple recycled elements is in the narrative, in this Hubbard concept of “sticky figments.” It’s this insane idea of his, that we’re infested with Thetans, they came from some volcano, you’ve got some of mine, I’ve got some of yours. He characterizes them as these psychologically damaging memory-pictures that stick with you. They’re like bad films!Again, it’s preposterous, not to put any religion down, but it’s pretty…far-fetched, and if Hubbard can do it in his religion, I can certainly do it in my own artmaking. Those sticky figments are all the past parallel lives that constitute my protagonists. They’re multiplicities across time and space.
SCOPE: Yes, I think one result of your film’s form is that it has a certain narrative trajectory from shot to shot, a kind of horizontal movement. But also each shot takes you somewhere else in your cultural memory bank, a kind of simultaneous vertical movement, at all times. And, like you say, within the Scientology framework, this “old” knowledge is bad. This parallels, ironically, with a kind of common misreading of found-footage film as an exercise as visual nostalgia or kitsch. What you do explodes that notion, and the fact that you’re tackling that insane “sticky figment” idea seems to imply a critique of those misreadings. Instead, you’re showing that these images are endlessly pliable. An image can mean something from the past and the future. It can pull up any number of associations while we watch it.
BALDWIN: Yes, I think that’s true. First of all, I don’t feel especially victimized by people thinking my films are nostalgic. They may think so, but I don’t think so at all. Rick Prelinger’s a big influence on me, and sometimes he brings this up when he talks about his library of industrial films. We really consider it media archeology, a way to understand how we are today. These films, these images, are very much with us. Every day I must spend, I don’t know, at least 30% of my time thinking about something out of the past. So it’s really about creating a sense of subjectivity, of consciousness. How is it we think? I’m not a cognitive psychologist, but it seems to me it’s not primarily about words. The image clearly has a place in human thought as well. My earlier collage works were very visual, and very much in front of you on the screen. Tribulation 99 would be a good example. But what I’m trying to do with this narrative thing is much more like a novel, where you almost begin to have the experience of thought. After a certain period of time, maybe twenty minutes in, the film reaches a certain rate, the music comes up, and there’s really a giddy, euphoric feeling, where you feel this lead to that. There’s a fluid feeling, an acceleration, of going through a thought process, an associational process. Yes, there’s the content, the story: aerospace critique and all that. But the form actually does take over. A lot of that is thanks to my editor, and the music. But those nonverbal meanings really take over and carry you along.
I always cite James Joyce as the most radical example of this, playing with each word and pulling it out for possible meaning. Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, all those guys really got this, but cinema’s kind of lagged behind in this. Film usually doesn’t stand up to that challenge. Not that my film is as fine-arty as all that, but it does try to play with words and images to create friction in meanings. So this idea that they’re nostalgic or quaint, it’s just preposterous. They’re hot, they refuse to rest, they stimulate new ideas. Or, think of these images like words. How could you ever have a word that was passé? Collage filmmaking has always been about preexisting, possibly familiar elements in a new context or a new arrangement. “Yeah, I’ve seen this, but not in this way.” So sometimes you need some kind of structure. Now, you can do something totally formal, like listing, or early Peter Greenaway, but for my purposes, an overarching urban legend can create just enough structure that you can play around with it. I come back to this idea of the spiral, like DNA. A film’s form can be shaped like a double helix, but more than just double, maybe a triple helix. All these different strands, guanine, thymine, it’s all there. Every sound, every image, every component, is in some new, recursive relationship to every other subsequent one in the thread, and the whole thing has some kind of organic life to it. Corny metaphor, but that’s really more how I see it. You yourself mentioned horizontal/vertical, but it’s more of a spatial thing.
SCOPE: Right. Those terms are Maya Deren’s. But your work certainly does relate much more to a tradition in experimental film – Bruce Conner, Robert Nelson, Wallace Berman – that has a connection to that aesthetic lineage but also draws from Dada and moves right through to the Situationists and beyond. Found footage can move in both directions. With the films of Arthur Lipsett, or even mid-period Conner, there’s a modernist commitment to finding absolute, perfect relationships between images, such that no shot could ever be replaced with any other. But for that avant-garde counter-tradition, meanings are never contained immanently within the film. They always point outward, outside the film frame and back into the world. In that respect, you don’t seem to get hung up on finding “the” perfect image. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
BALDWIN: Sure. I call it “availablist.” I use what’s on hand. Nelson was a little hipper overall, but yes, I think when you call that tendency modernist, that’s appropriate. There’s a formal exquisiteness to Conner’s work that is absolutely perfect. My thing is much more punk rock, that “whatever works” attitude. And it’s a lot more politicized, more “in the world,” and this has to be, because I’m a generation younger than Conner. So it’s always been, if something didn’t work, try something else. It’s not about beauty, really. It’s more about corrosiveness, what works best as a critique. And if one image doesn’t work, another one might. There’re a lot of pictures in Mu that I’d just as soon switch out with others. So it’s like a patchwork, and it actually shows a certain kind of imperfection. Like in punk rock – it’s okay when they hit a bad chord. It’s the energy, they got up on stage, they played loud. So, yes, I think it’s less about being a ideal crystallization of the poetry of cinema, or the way I feel about the world, and more of onetrace of the world. Like how Rauschenberg put a piece of white paper down and ran a car over it. “Artifactuality,” I once called it – damaged materials and methods compromised by contingency. I draw on Conner, but my thing has much less to do with that art world and more to do with political agency, and certainly with culture jamming and the Situationists. There’s always a “fuck you” to effete criteria and a desire for some utility on the barricades.
SCOPE: We talked a bit earlier about how you saw your work functioning cognitively. One thing we haven’t touched on specifically is speed. With the possible exception of Wild Gunman (1978), rapidity of images and concepts has been a constant. Mock Up on Mu has some slower passages, but it still covers a whole lot of ground very quickly. Do you think there’s some possible connection between cognitive radicality and political radicality? I mean, a lot of people in the avant-garde seem to want to slow down right now, to savour images and defeat so-called channel-surfing culture and whatnot.
BALDWIN: Well, part of it is just my own taste. I prefer films that are fast, and I prefer making fast films. That’s an expression of my nervous system. If I were a painter I’d make paintings that were, say, orange or whatever. In a way it’s just personal prerogative. And all the films have slow parts, but really, my thing has more to do with rage. Punk rockers played older numbers, just twice as fast. Those are the films I like to see and the films I like to make, that don’t waste a lot of time, that don’t dawdle, that cover a lot of ground, and that just presume that the spectator will get the point instead of indulging that person in the feeling of floating in an exquisite bubble of the sublime. That doesn’t exist in my world, to be honest with you. My thing is more like…panic.
SCOPE: But do you think working fast, and asking a viewer to think fast, might have a particular kind of political efficacy that other kinds of filmmaking don’t?
BALDWIN: I really believe that when people make political decisions, they should be thinking long and hard about those decisions. It’s not like they watch a film and come out radical, of course. It would be total conceit to think otherwise. But my films are part of a larger world in which every citizen finds him or herself. You see some scrawl on the wall, you see graffiti, you see stickers. You go to TV and watch their stuff, which by the way is super fast, I mean Jesus Christ! It’s totally hypocritical for some people to put my films down when all the information they get is from the TV news. In any event, there’s not a direct relationship between my films and making a political decision. Mock Up on Mu is only one phenomenon among many others. So instead of meditation or thoughtful reasoning process, which I can only assume people have the ability to do on their own, what I try to bring to the debate is this idea of energy, that something is crucial, something is dire, there’s a need for action. Urgency! You know, if there’s a fire, you don’t whisper, “Psst, fire.” You wave your arms and go, “AGHHH!”