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Craig Baldwin
Mock Up On Mu, Craig Baldwin

Mock Up On Mu, Craig Baldwin

APEngine asked auteur filmmaker Craig Baldwin about Cold War Paranoia in the underground after the UK premiere of his latest feature film Mock Up On Mu at the AV Festival.

Is this your first trip to Newcastle for the AV Festival?

Well, as a matter of fact I’ve been to the UK four or five times. About five years ago I was invited by Eddie Berg at FACT Liverpool to not only show my film but do a workshop like I was doing right here in Newcastle. So when they flew me over then I knew that I should seize on the opportunity to go visit other sites. And I had already heard about an earlier iteration of the Star and Shadow, which was called the Side Cinema, so I booked my own tour, so to speak.

So that’s why I feel comfortable with the people at the Star and Shadow because I met them earlier.  I mean, they’re still young now but like five years ago they were just kids. They have really great energy, and that’s inspiring to me.

The Star and Shadow Is a great space, isn’t it?

Yes.  I love it.  I’ve got my own little microcinema in San Francisco but it’s only one space, where they have three – the bar, the performance space and the theatre.

And how long has your space, the Other Cinema, been going now?

26 years.

And how do you fund the cinema, if that’s not a personal question?

No, it’s okay. It’s not through grants. It’s through earned revenue – ticket sales. The community supports it.

We keep costs down. I’m not paid, I do it for the love of it and maybe if there’s a little bit of money left at the end of the night, then that’ll buy me beer for the next week.  That’s what it comes down to.

And you’ve recently set up your OCD DVD distribution arm of the Other Cinema.  How’s that going?

I can’t claim that it’s making a whole lot of money. But we’re in the black, that’s for sure. It’s more of a personal vision of a small group of people and I’m glad we’re making this stuff available. It pays for itself and it allows us to do certain things, like meet artists.

We connect the publication of the DVD with cinema screenings, and that allows us to have a presence on panels in festivals internationally, and gets us reviews and things like that.

So to me it’s just stepping up to the next level; opening up the space for experimental makers in the US, because there’s not that many spaces, by the way.

Which experimental filmmakers would you recommend then?  Who should we be looking out for?

Oh geez… Kerry Laitala. Although a name you might not recognise, here is a woman who makes 3D films using the Chroma Depth effect, which is where you don’t need 3D glasses and I think that’s brilliant – It has to do with the way the eye perceives colours and their depth. She is so ingenuous to figure out this technique and then shoot with film stock which is no longer made, and that she is so resourceful to save, to make a new genre of film called Chromatic Cocktails. I think that’s particularly inspiring, but you see that’s kind of a local thing.

I mean it could sure play at Rotterdam, in fact I’m sure it has, but what I mean it represents a fertile activity, especially among West Coast filmmakers. Now you might not be as sensitive to this, but as the United States is quite large there are different regional sensibilities, and in San Francisco we have a very active movement. So I tend to support people who I work with, who I know and I like. As opposed to far off worshipping of Chris Marker, who I’ve never really met, but you know I could say, “look out for Chris Marker” but you already know that.

I know a lot of people who are working with projection and multiple projection. I’m very much into that. We always have shows at the Other Cinema on expanded cinema or projection arts. 3D is kind of part of that. Or Live AV, where people create sound and image simultaneously with the Max/MSP system Jitter, which was developed in San Francisco by the way in the school where I teach. Not to brag, but it’s kind of a local thing that’s gone international.

Makers who are interested in developing either photo-chemical or digital applications to allow people to create new kinds of forms and express themselves in different ways. And to do that at the grassroots level within the neighbourhood not at an institution like Google or even in a college, but really coming at it as a communal interest.

You led the 16mm recycled film lab at the Star and Shadow.  Do you similar work back in San Francisco?

Yes I do it all the time. First of all I do it for myself. I worked my way through school by doing light shows. In fact I’m supposedly helping Vicki Bennett’s AV show tonight – I don’t know what that will be, by the way. I have two projectors in my studio and a lot of time they’re both running.  And so someone might come visit or find a film on the street, or I have this huge archive – you know I’ve only seen like one tenth of those films.

Educational films can be very boring, but sometimes they’re really great. It’s like a process of discovery. I have these for free, right?  Either I pulled them out of the garbage or someone gave them to me. Sometimes you can pull a film out of the pile and be like “what is this?” then put it back – never throw it away.

Or you can find a unique film, like I’ve got something made about Pakistan in 1930 by someone like the British Film Institute in a beautiful Duo Tone or some other obsolete process. Now that’s brilliant.

That film could be worth a thousand dollars -not that that means anything; what I mean is there’s true value when you do that kind of digging through. So I do that all the time, not that I have a lot of spare time to do it.

People come over who are making films, and so we actively search. Bill Morrison was just at my house only three days ago. He was doing something on Frankenstein. So we’ll pull from the pile and then he’ll start looking at the stuff and he’ll be editing in one room. Sometimes we’ll have two or three people editing at the same time. And that’s my kind of a lifestyle. Being around film I love to do it, just to have fun and be just playful with film. “Let’s do a double projection… Let’s take it out on street… Let’s take this over to this other party…” That kind of stuff.

So yes out of that comes this workshop: both in school, and also the workshop that I did at FACT in Liverpool and the one I did in Berlin like three/four months ago.

You said that your collection was divided into six categories – what are they?

I drew them from the Dewey Decimal system. So it’s one of the most general divisions that any person, an intern or a busy artist would be able to find useful. So it’s Natural Science, Social Science, Applied Science or Technology, Geography and History, Humanities, and  Language/Arts, which includes Literature and a few narrative films.

I thought it would be more bizarre.

Oh no, no. Not idiosyncratic at all. I just wanted the most ‘normal’ system that anyone would be able to use. Obviously there’s overlap – conservation could be in Natural Science, but then again it could be in Applied Science.

I’m interested in what we were talking about at the Symposium, the Archival and film history. The value of film and the kinds of film, like industrial film. Industrial film is fascinating to me because the makers don’t get the credit. They have just as much imagination, and more control over what they’re doing in a lot of cases than the Hollywood stuff that gets all the credit. And there are vastly more educational and industrial films. Also there’s a found quality which I like, there’s something absurd about them.

So you collect home movies as well? Is there anything you ever say no to in your collection or do you just take everything?

I never say no. Not wanting to seem like such a whore but basically that’s what I’m saying. I will take anything off the street, you know, it could be pop, it could be like a cartoon…

There’s different kinds of archives. I represent one kind of thing which tries to find value in anything – even the lowest most common thing like a PSA or a commercial.  But also even a scrap or fragment.

The narrative films I have––and I don’t generally collect those––are the ‘odd reels’. In other words, if you have a feature which is 90 minutes let’s say, on three 16mm reels and one reel gets separated from the other two, well what happens to it?  I mean just think about that, I mean just conceptually it’s a bizarre idea.

You’re like an animal refuge for films.

Yes, that’s what we mean by orphan films. They’re little children and for the most part they’re just going to be thrown away because they don’t have any value. And that odd reel doesn’t have value because most people want to see a feature with a complete story. It could be the last reel of Godzilla let’s say. Which is the reel you want to see anyway which has all the action on it.

Like with the extra footage of Metropolis that has been found.

Yes, sure. That’s more in the library. The fetishising of film history, and that’s fine but I’m on the other end of that. I appreciate that but I’m on the other side – of not finding something missing but putting missing things together to make a complete thing out of it, like Frankenstein. It’s not so much analysis, it’s more synthesis.

To actually take the footage and take it to another meaning. It has the original meaning embedded, and then is taken to somewhere else creatively. And that’s kind of a way of adding context too – personal imagination.

Which is what you do.

Yes, I do that when I produce. Collage narrative is a new form; maybe it’s not worth living past my life, but it’s an interesting way of making use of this material. I don’t have to go out and shoot an explosion when there’s already five billion explosions in five billion bad movies. So to use that I think is crafty, it’s clever, it’s funny, it’s sardonic. It represents a critique of the original sensationalism and bombast of the film in an ironic pop art way.

And so with Mock Up On Mu you’re taking real people and you’re fictionalising them. Where did that idea come from? Is it a case of truth being stranger than fiction?

Yes. With the sub-cultural stories. That’s a good history and it’s a true history, the kind of history you wouldn’t hear about in schools. So I feel like I’m doing the right thing by telling this story, enriching everyone’s life by telling a story.

It’s really about my own background. My father worked for Aerojet, and the New Age movement came out when I was growing up. So this marriage of Aerospace and the Occult is really the ground against which I formed my own identity. So that’s why I’m close to it and I’m entitled to make that film.

If I’d just got people to act it out it wouldn’t have the same impact. People have already written the story, in fact there’s two or three book out now; one’s by a British guy, George Pendle. I wasn’t trying to write the story and do the research, what I wanted to do is tell a story in visual terms, with creativity. Like the era of Kenneth Anger, 50s LA guys who were making assemblage, they were making junk sculpture. So mine is a junk sculpture, where form and content are married. That’s what I like to do. That what makes it arty and not just a biography.

If other people want to make biography, that’s fine. You know I could do it if I wanted to, but I’m not interested in reproducing a genre.  I’m more interested in smashing genres. In the way that Vicki Bennett’s work is called Genre Collage. Through mash-ups you see what a genre is.

I’d rather do something more surprising than documentary, more like painting. Here’s a painting of Jack Parsons, you know, and then Marjorie Cameron. It has more humour and more spirit and life to it. It’s funnier and more imaginative; it has more creative energy behind it.

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

But you have mixed the footage – you shot some of Mock Up On Mu?

Yes, I did. I like that idea, of doing something new. I’m adding, hopefully, to the world of fine art film – this idea of mixing found footage with live action.

It’s a storytelling strategy and it takes a certain amount of bravery, but you know I think it works.  I could go to inter-titles in the archive sections. Everybody would say “Great. He has this archive material and he told us about stuff that’s missing through the inter-titles”. But that’s already part of the convention.

But even the so-called re-enactments are part of the convention, too. But mine weren’t really “re-enactments”, they were more like what Anger was doing earlier on – actually creating poetic gesture.

Does Kenneth Anger know that you’ve used some of his footage in your film?

I don’t know if he knows. And the thing is when Rebecca Shatwell said, “Kenneth Anger would like a copy of Mu.”  My jaw dropped, but I gave it to her.

But you know, I shot it off a piece of toilet paper. There’s one shot of Marjorie Cameron.  But basically it was about ten seconds. But I don’t feel sorry or sad that I ripped him off for that. See the great thing is the distance created by the implausibility of the complex collage I created and the fact that it’s really a true story. It’s all based on real history, like Picasso’s Guernica, which was based on a real event. What I like to do is an historically based thing but with my gestures, be it in the live-action or the stock footage.

I couldn’t necessarily tell the story with stock footage because there’s certain things in the story that aren’t in the stock footage. As I said, most people would solve this problem through inter-titles or a shadow on the wall or shooting from behind or a silhouette or it can be total voiceover – there’s other cinematic strategies.  But we’ll go out and shoot in the desert because the desert looks beautiful and it’s a desert story.

All my movies are about the West and the Southwest. O No Coronado! was about a conquistador, a real story, where he was looking for the Seven Cities of Gold. Are there seven cities of gold? No. Did he change the life of everyone? Yes.

His whole history was based on a lie, a fable. So, it’s to contradict the idea that history is a set of rational decisions. It’s a set of fabulous ideas, dreams, fantasies. I like the idea that what really drives a lot of political decisions is based on fear, or it could be love or desire.

What I have to offer is this kind of mad, fantasy, fabulist thing. It’s in a way like poetry or metaphor, you know? And all of a sudden the way that history’s represented has another presence on the screen, and that’s my right. I have the prerogative to do what I want with those images, with that screen, with those shapes.

So this is my version of the story. There could be other versions but no one else would do it because L Ron Hubbard’s Scientology would sue them. But a guy like me could do it because I’m beneath the radar. So that was my opening, you know, it’s a very small window but I got through it.

If not a lot of people see it in a theatre, it doesn’t make that much difference because people into the sub-culture are going to know it’s out there with the world wide web… So I don’t have to speak to a larger mass culture, I don’t believe in it.

The film is structured as 13 episodes. Have you thought about putting the film up online in episodes?

The first episode is online but I didn’t put it there.

I’m not worried about it, I mean I’ll sell the DVD, I do a lot of work to get stuff out. UbuWeb has put up my stuff, but I don’t complain when that happens. That’s just bound to happen.

And it took you five years to make?

More than that, at least five years.

Is that partly due to the vast amount of material?

If you’ve got a production company, usually you’ve got a lot of money upfront, you kiss a lot of ass, get a lot of money and then hire people and get studios and stuff like that. But that’s not my model.

My model is more closely knitted into my lifestyle. You don’t clock in when you’re making an experimental film, you don’t hire certain people and have a budget. You’ll live with it.

So I could’ve made the film in a shorter period of time, but it’s just more of a trace of decisions I’ve made over a long period: looking at, thinking about, reading more and figuring out problems. So there’s weeks that I wouldn’t work on it at all.

It was six years or so after my last film. But all that time I was doing other things, travelling round the world, teaching, running our gallery, etc.

Also, your DoP or Cinematographer might go out of town and then only come back once every few months – so when he’s there you jump on him. Your actress might not be available. All these continuity problems.

Some of the last pick ups were shot literally five years after the original material, only because my actress came back in, and I said, “I have to have a fix here.” I had to have her in the opening sequence; when Hubbard’s lecturing we realised it would be much stronger if she was listening to him. You know, I hadn’t thought that one through. I didn’t have a script when I shot, which is not the kind of way that feature films are generally made.

So I made an experimental film, but it had to be feature length; it has a big story and deserves feature consideration.

But my thing was more exploratory. When I was in the desert, we shot that fantastic location. I didn’t know how it’d be used, but it resonated and spoke of the same kinds of sensibilities that I was trying to express – something weird about the West, something mysterious.

So I shot it, then later decided it would be the lab – it’s not like it necessarily looks like a lab, but in the allegorical state that I have hopefully brought the audience into – people say, “Oh, this represents the lab.” With the film as a whole, I want people to see the whole thing like a puzzle they would put together. It’s participatory and it demands a bit more of people rather than an easy through-line.

Mock Up On Mu, Craig Baldwin

Mock Up On Mu, Craig Baldwin

Yes. And are you happy with the final product? You said there were some edits you weren’t happy with.

No, no.

I think there’s some great things – the idea of mixing live action and found footage is brilliant. (It sounds like I’m patting myself on the back.) The idea of putting words in people’s mouth is genius; I call it ventriloquism, and my next film is definitely going to do that.

But, it’s poorly paced, there’s no rhythm, there’s too much talk, it goes on too long… a lot of things are wrong with it.  Any artist would probably admit that he or she sees flaws.

So, no, I would do other things, but there’s things I did in this case that I have never done before. I’m not a professional filmmaker, I’m a curator, I’m an educator. But I made a film that will carry this story further; it’ll do justice for a very small amount of money compared to what other makers would require, even Kenneth Anger.

It was made out of found materials. It’s like when you make a piece of junk sculpture, using stuff from the beach. I redeemed it, I brought the story out of the stuff that I had.

Is it all footage from your own collection is it? Is it all 16mm or is it a mixture of different formats?

Yes, mostly 16mm. There was maybe 10% video.

Yes, and I noticed that there was a few shots zooming in and out of internet maps.

Yes, everybody’s always picked up on that.

Thomson & Craighead, who spoke yesterday, have made work with online maps.

Yes, well you know I saw that at the Symposium yesterday and thought, “That’s exactly what I did.”  It’s not like they or I invented it, it’s just a great idea, obviously. Am I going to worry about Google maps? No, it’s just a beautiful way of using something available and free. In fact it wasn’t even from my laptop.

But that’s the exception. For the most part it was made out of the stuff that I had available. It’s working with the material one has, like a beatnik guy who has no money and yet can do something magical because of the limitations.

And if you can’t solve it, then you can have your friends make these gestures against the wall. In this last pick up sequence we had to have Marjorie Cameron say something and so I just put my actress against the wall and just filmed it.  And then later put the words in. I don’t know if you remember that, but the point is it’s crude, it’s beautiful.  That’s the aesthetic of it.

I appreciate the funky quality. That’s the aesthetic, which is jerry-rigged, cobbled together, like Rube Goldberg. The whole thing is held together with springs and pullies, like a creaking machine, but it actually works. It’s just a punk rock thing.

There’s something nice about the materiality as well. When you can see the wear on the film. There was one bit where I thought you’d animated a butterfly, and then I realised it’s just a scratch…

I felt terrible about that for so many years, but after a while I said, “Well, in fact that’s cool.” It’s like a piece of marble or wood. If a table is made out of wood and there’s a knot in the wood, that’s cool. And that’s what it is with the film, there’s a knot, there’s the grain, it’s the film. So that again is another level of self-reflection, people see how it’s constructed.

You’ve been making films since the ‘70s. Has the internet made things easier for you to collect or do you still stick to collecting celluloid?

Yes and no. The internet has not made a whole big difference to me except in the case of sound, because my thing remains this resolutely Luddite kind of thing. But the thing is the audio – I really have to give a lot of credit to my editor Sylvia Schedelbauer whose work I showed at the Symposium.

Oh that was great. I loved that bit of the film.

You can get the audio all for free; basically it’s a virtual beach to comb. It’s a little bit more difficult for the picture, the picture would look terrible if you got clips off the internet. But the audio’s worked totally, no one could tell. And there’s so many people who’ve given their stuff up for free; there’s a huge range of things. I have to give Sylvia credit for that.

I’ve been able to find movie sound tracks etc., that’s what I’ve always done. In this case the sounds were more individualised, more creative, more experimental, more industrial-drone that just worked so perfectly. You could make 99 versions of that movie, all with different sound tracks, there’s that much material there.

So, I have to give credit to the online resources too. And those people don’t expect any pay, so it’s not like pirating.  Not that pirating bothers me.

I don’t pirate from other artists, Kenneth Anger is the only example there for ten seconds of this movie. But I pirate from the Hollywood productions or industrial films or educational films, which are mostly in the public domain because they’re 50 years old and their producers are dead and they’re orphans, no one’s taking care of them. I’m doing the best thing for them, I’m giving them a new life.

Anything else you want to say about Kenneth Anger showing his films off DVD last night?

No I don’t want to.  Maybe I’m getting over excited. I almost had a tear in my eye at the screening. Should I have yelled?

He probably would’ve loved that.

Well, I’m not so sure.

But it was very much a thing about celebrity. I admit I’m part of that, I was like “Wow, it’s Kenneth Anger.” I was very excited to see him in the flesh.

Well, he certainly looked freaky. Yes, I loved it. Yes, that part was worth the price of admission.

He could’ve been in your film.

Oh, yes.  That’s what I mean, you could find footage of a person, you don’t need an actor, or a found location, that’s what I’m totally into, like that big dome in the desert. It’s a ‘found’ thing that speaks for itself. It doesn’t represent, it presents. There’s so much weight in the presence of it and that’s a story in and of itself.  Every shot in my movie is like that. There’s a story that resonates at so many levels.

I know I definitely need to watch it again because I just felt like so much was happening. You could almost watch it without the narrative, the imagery was amazing, so strong.

Thank you very much.  Well a lot of people watch Tribulation 99, my early film, with the sound off. All these Americans, they don’t want to hear about Imperialism, they want to see flying saucers. My whole strategy is to take the luridness of cinema and yet take it to a progressive, critical point. I don’t want to make a guilt-ridden, hand-wringing film – I’m glad those films are made, but other people can do them.

But my strength is visual art. I have a certain way of putting the images and sounds together that is provocative. I don’t want to do it for the sake of it, which is what you’d call your experimental film, like at Ann Arbor, it’s like one flower film after another, super close-up of little bubbles and grain – and that’s great, I love it. So I said “Why don’t we take these tools for telling – taking positions, not telling stories, proposing ideas towards something other than a pure formal play?” Formal play’s okay, but actually to create an experimental way of writing history, experimental historiography is what’s needed now, not more avant-garde, big, Abstract Expressionist painters.

That’s fine if you’re an expressionist painter. But my point of view is “every image is political.” This conference could be seen as a way of politicising this issue of archives. It’s like, what use do we make of them?

That’s the question that Anger is totally clueless about with Ich Will!, he’s insensitive. Those images have a history and meaning and he could’ve played with the context of it but he just completely drained them of history and just took the gesture, as if it didn’t contain this tale of the 20th Century.

I like this idea of adding context – that’s why I liked A Short Film about War by Thomson & Craighead. You could see this came from this and this came from that. To me that’s so much smarter, and actually that’s why cinema can’t keep it up.

Yes, it’s demystifying, showing where the source is, real people’s experience of war…

Yes, it’s genius.  I really felt close to that project, I totally got it.  I mean, I had that thought too.  With Negativland, the band I represent, at the end of their record they have pages of sources. I don’t do that because I’d have way too many sources. I just name some for about a minute and then say there are many more.

It’s at least a gesture towards this idea that we live in a vast pool of information, of images and sounds. And that we’re made of that, we’re children of it.  And it’s all in our head already, so you just trigger it and the meaning flows out.  And that’s why all this resonates in your head when you’re watching Mock Up On Mu. What I want to do–and this is the problem with the film –is that it gets a little bit too much, all these overtones.

It’s just like noise music, industrial music or punk rock.  It’s supposed to be loud, it’s supposed to be confusing.

Now if you wanted to coddle the audience then you keep everything plain and simple, and it’s easy. I’d rather do something that’s more disturbing. It’s supposed to be aggressive, it’s supposed to hurt just a little bit. That’s the experience.

So what’s next for you? What’s your next film?

My films are not just about gesture even though there’s a lot of gestures in them… it really has to do with this relationship between gestures and identities and histories.

It’s always an effort to create a set of ideas, I’m trying to get behind to the history and the ideas behind the gestures. For example Nazism. Okay, all those guys in Anger’s Ich Will! are dead. We don’t really want to think about that, I don’t know if that occurred to anyone else… But still we have complete right wing arseholes who are destroying the lives of others. So in other words, Nazism is not dead. So the idea outlives the human flesh.

Cinema is not just about beauty. I see the beauty in ideas. So I’m moving increasingly towards a kind of literature – writing with images is what I want to do.

So my next film is really about literature. It’s about the literature of William Burroughs.  Okay now, William Burroughs, who wrote Naked Lunch, which is a cut-up, that’s exactly what I do.

Now there’s been a trillion films made about Burroughs, but not that many films are made about Guy Debord of the Situationists. The films that are made about the Situationists are all made by the Situationists.

But yet if you look at Paris in the ‘50s where Burroughs and Debord were living in the Left Bank, when they wrote their most famous works – Society of the Spectacle from the Situationists and Naked Lunch.

Well Naked Lunch was actually written in North Africa, but they both were published by the same guy, Olympia Press.  So now I have this triangle like I had with Marjorie Cameron.

They’re historical figures but they represent citation of history in the case of the writings of the Situationists or the collage techniques of their filmmakers. And in case of Burroughs, a very cinematic way of writing literature.

So they were both there working in the same literary circle, but all these literary circles grew within a subculture. Again, another sub-cultural story. Yet it changed the lives of every artist, every citizen and every cultural activist on the planet with what was being born in that little cauldron there, of Paris at that time. Just like I feel in San Francisco sometimes.

So what I’d like to do is create a coming-together of these two minds, which represent the post-War undergrounds of both continents, but also ways of working with found material – found literature, found philosophy, and creating their own distinctive body of work, and the idea of their followers. There’s enough drama there – the intrigues and the deaths and murders and addictions…

The whole thing would operate on this level of critique of literary form. Not form for its own sake, but ideas about how contemporary reality can only be expressed in a collage way, because there’s too much going on. It’s not ideal, idealist or naturalistic. No, it’s Constructivist, it’s multi-layered.

My next film will be called Invisible Insurrection, which was the title of an essay by Alexander Trocchi, who was also there at that time. And they were all addicts, they were all bad people, they were gay and they were drunks… It’s got a good human story. I like taking those ideas and working between the human life of these people, which is exactly like mine, impoverished.

You like anti heroes don’t you?

Yes, anti-heroes, sure.  People who are against the grain.

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