Every Day is a Birthday: Fighting the Power in the films of Craig Baldwin
by Mike Wood
“I know of no safe depository of the powers of the nation other than the people themselves. And if we deem them too unenlightened to wield their power with healthy discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform them.” — Thomas Jefferson
Film Monthly Home
Short Takes (Archived)
Small Screen Monthly
Behind the Scenes
New on DVD
Books on Film
What's Hot at the Movies This Week
What can film mean when everyone is an actor, or can be their own filmmaker? Does the access to personal cameras and digital media liberate or distract? With everyone capable of making their own movies, music videos and games, are they prone to be less or more aware of their manipulation by mainstream media and politics? Today, answers to these questions have to address this: When the largest producer of media distortions is the government itself, how does one interpret the truth? Is pursuing personal creative exploration and innovation to come at the expense of a communal willingness to respond to government abuses of power? Can truth be apprehended or understood in this saturated climate of images and personal networks, or are we content to live in our own realities, so long as we remain free to pursue it? Is an artist who calls for an awakening to the liberating potential of the mind to process the truth through media just pissing in the wind?
Director Craig Baldwin has been posing and suggesting answers to such questions since the late 1980’s. His films build off McLuhan and Debord, Brion Gysin and Terence McKenna; by using cut-ups and absurd juxtapositions, and by creating a new visual possibility for found and famous images, he both exploits and exposes propaganda. His many films attack this from several angles, from exploring conspiracy theories through the use of old sci-fi movie clips and politicians own words; by offering alternate histories of regions exploited for profit; and by exposing the hypocrisy of stars who promote freedom by crush it when used to poke to fun at them. Like Monty Python, he uses humor in the service of angry satire, which makes his points more devastating than they would coming from the academic avant-garde, who would be too self-conscious to be as probing as Baldwin. The best Dada has always been funny.
But what can collage and absurdity mean in an era where the government is the largest producer of the surreal? Can agitprop fight agitprop when the audience is in its own safe world, with both more entertainment and creative options than any generation in history? By mining for images throughout pop culture and splicing them together, Baldwin is offering not only an alternative history, but an illustration of how history itself is spliced for one’s own uses.
No better example than this is his 1991 film Tribulation 99, Baldwin’s 1991 masterpiece, which uses shreds of 50’s sci-fi movies to tell the tale of American crimes in Latin America. The narrative is placed in a mythological context—the CIA was really fighting an ancient race that was disturbed from its sleep by A-Bomb testing, and which then vowed to destroy humanity, and provided “dupes” to, much like the CIA, infiltrate society and disrupt it. Was it aliens or shadowy government figures who assassinated Kennedy, and overthrew Allende in Chile? And just which side of the cosmic war did Howard Hughes, Ian Fleming and E. Howard Hunt really work for? As with all of his films, the narratives of fiction and non-fiction, history and fantasy, are scrambled, revealing hidden truths and buried lies. But the blurring is not some academic playing with “text”; by exploring the depths of the “carnival acts of history”, Baldwin re-arranges words and images in his “struggle between personal autonomy and assimilation.” Rather than use his cut-ups to teach, he uses even the trash clippings of culture to challenge the viewer to become active in her own history. His films are a celebration, and in some ways, a lament at the lack of, the visionary and mystical potential of both media and media consumer.
The implication is that, like found images re-imagined, we too are meant to be more than we often are.
But creative autonomy today is a risky business for the larger community. If we use unprecedented technology to explore and create our own niche-walled world, what becomes endangered is the idea that we belong to something larger, and that the world doesn’t revolve around us. Today we can literally create a world that does, which means that we can at once totally dedicate ourselves to the freedom of our interests and become slaves to those who are banking on our being distracted. Autonomy must be balanced by the continual skill in reading the way words and images are manipulated by power for sinister ends. Freedom is not enough.
When I think of autonomy, in the context of rebellion against mainstream thinking and with a liberating anarchy in mind, I think of Hakim Bey. His concept of the TAZ, a temporary autonomous zone in which one rebels against conformity when the occasion presents itself, or staking out a portion of one’s life for rebellion while still being part of the larger system, strikes me as a reassuring way for the affluent to play at rebellion. Clearly, an academic with tenure can spout revolutionary rhetoric while still maintaining a healthy consumer lifestyle; it is this fragmentation that allows one to be seemingly be daring while still also willingly taking advantae of the fruits of a corrupt economy. Is the internet providing one huge glorious TAZ for us to get lost in while society is pillaged by the few for their own gain?
In this context, playing at rebellion is no longer an option. Is being rebellious in one’s own little pond, rebelling within personal confines, to be a willing participant in tyranny? Is there still a way to incite awareness, to be fearless in the public arena?
Now, how to be a real rebel, when rebellion is just another visual or rhetorical option to browse?
Baldwin aims for permanent liberation, regardless of social opportunity. His films stand as a rebuttal to the current exploitation of the public’s visual knowledge, through the use of fake news reports, edited soundbites, altered video. His films are also a challenge to academia, and others on the left who have not acted, only self-righteously criticized this exploitation. In other words, an overview of Baldwin’s work suggests both a reaction to exploitation and a call to fight fire with fire. While the left has written books, parsing films according to Marxist, Feminist, or Semiotic trends, it has stood idle while governments have exploited the same visual images for their own agenda. The greatest failure on the left has been that passivity which, in my view, is not born of resignation, but arrogance, one that expects power to come to it once their superiority is recognized. While the left has been attending conferences for the converted and taking up every seat at the coffeehouse, holding out for their eventual coronation as the Vanguard, history has been made by the right, who have faced little but whining opposition. Today, one can be both more creative and also more passive to a government that will allow such creative freedom. Creativity needs at some point to be directed at power, not just at oneself, or when creative freedom is slowly denied, no one will notice until it is too late. The visions and warnings of Philip K. Dick, not Marx, will have won out.
In his films, Baldwin both parodies and subverts that, and assumes that the viewer can read the same symbols, decode them, and act. The implication in many of them is that the same hubris that allows power to manipulate is the same that drives them to talk “freedom” but try to discredit those who see through their definition of it. His work is especially vital now, given that the concept of freedom itself is politicized.
From his first film, the 1976 Stolen Movie, Baldwin has been trying to rouse the viewer to think for himself. In that film, As he said in a 2003 interview, “Everyday is a birthday.” His work is a conscious attempt to get us to the table to blow out the candles.
Likewise the challenge to separate truth from pose exists also in the claims of authenticity made by artists. When those who claim to support freedom and rebellion against the system are also part of that system—and act according to their power within it—what is true rebellion and what is rebellion as a marketing tool?
Sonic Outlaws details the battle of the band Negativland, in its fight against, of all people, U2. While Bono runs for sainthood and the band is promoted as the last classic band to uphold the spirit of rock, they also destroyed the career of a band that sampled one of their songs. That song, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”, was spliced with hilarious obscene outtakes by Casey Kasem from his American Top 40 radio show. Almost inexplicably, it was Kasem, who came across as a foul-mouthed barfly, who thought it was no big deal and did not pursue any litigation, while U2 sued for copyright infringement. They also lamely claimed that the sleeve of the released song was so close in resemblance to an actual U2 record that fans might be mislead. That lawsuit bankrupted Negativland, and in the face of criticism that they were using their star muscle to beat down a little guy, U2 blamed the suit on their label, Island records. That may have satisfied fans willing to forgive and forget—and preserve the band’s image reassuringly in their minds—but a closer look reveals a further manipulation of the truth. Without U2, Island would not be in business. Aside from a few relatively successful Tom Waits records, most of its income has come from U2 sales. For the band to say that it was label execs not them, that pushed the suit, is to overlook the fact that anyone at Island would have risked injury to stop a lawsuit had U2 wanted it stopped. The film is raises the subject not only of fair use, but of media manipulation.
So how does one truly rebel in a way that speaks to power and still take advantage of all our wondrous creative toys? With the internet, in theory the voice of anyone willing to cry in the wilderness can be heard, their idea read and compared with official versions of truth. But the internet raises two serious questions:
*How subversive is subversive, when even the most radical idea on the internet, whose power is supplied by snooping telecom industries, may as well be presented in the lobby of a police station?
*Why does power allow such ideas to be spread freely online? Is it because there is too much of a din created to present any real threat, or is it because, by virtue of its being driven by corporate technology, subversion is already co-opted? In either case, is meaning lost?
In most of Baldwin’s films, the CIA, NSA, corporate dupes and spooks are the usual culprits in helping to subvert or mold reality according to military-industrial aims. What can propaganda mean in a climate where the CIA etc is almost the voice of reason, attempting to present real intelligence to an administration obsessed with spinning all information to advance its political ends? Where can rebellion and dissent flourish?
The loss of meaning of words like “truth,” “rebellion,” and “freedom,” combined with the willful distortion of images and news venues traditionally valued, at least in America, as independent of propaganda, that calls for new ways to approach dissent.
Has meaning been so distorted and politicized that it is too late to restore meaning? Hell, is it just better to play the fiddle and wait for the fire to come up your street? It is ironic that, given the unprecedented opportunities for anyone to express creativity, be famous for a day, the best that the true rebel can hope for is to say his peace fearlessly, get crushed, and disappear without so much as a ripple made in the larger culture. The fifteen minutes of fame not only includes someone who eats a horse’s anus on Fear Factor or is caught on tape flipping his Cooper on World’s Most Wild, Fucked Up Car Chases; it may also apply to someone crying in the wilderness about where we have all gone wrong in our complacency. Like the other examples, most will just look, get a little thrill, and change the channel. Craig Baldwin raves on anyway, and that is not a bad idea at all. And yet, can even his work rise above the din?
Is there a problem in parodying the work of empire, causing further confusion? Baldwin assumes the intelligence of the viewer—for better or worse—to crack the code. His respect for his audience is also a reminder of the viewer’s duty. His most recent film, Spectres of the Spectrum, deals explicitly with the “corporate colonization of the imagination” currently creeping into the internet, as it did with cable TV in the mid-80’s. This colonization not only stifles creativity, but provides a constant venue for official manipulation, turning an egalitarian source of ideas into a consumer Wonderland. In this way not only the versions of history available are limited, but the viewer is both numbed and dumbed down by the fare that is offered. The twin teats of fear used by government as control and infantilization of the viewer into a consumer who actually likes reality shows and nostalgic recaps of has-been stars—pop has finally eaten itself, if you watch VH1—make awareness difficult. What are the alternatives to apathy, with choice shaved down to what there is to purchase, when political choice mean to be either Liberal or Conservative, Patriot or Traitor? One can create an isolated world of creative interests, but those in power do the same, and have more influence, only one example being the almost complete Bizarro World currently being constructed by Christian Nationalists, with its own universities, law schools, and “Scientific” research centers, dedicated to proving that Global Warming is an anti-Christian myth.
Spectres, like Tribulation 99, ends with destruction, though here, it is a destruction that leads to hope. Whereas in Tribulation, there is almost relief in the coming of the apocalypse, which brings to a burning end the political and religious corruption and endless games of trying to manipulate history for the benefit of the few, in Spectres it is the progress of media that is stopped in its tracks. In the settling dust, there arises the opportunity for a new, fresh look at the options open to all. Childlike, not childish, wonder, at the options open and to the potential in each, is one way to insure corporate colonization is never complete.
What can be done with this knowledge? In what ways can we then promote awareness and change? With the technological options available today, wake-up calls co-exist with distraction and distortion. Is a mass wake-up even possible any more? Why, then, is it important to know how you are being manipulated if there is no way to then dissent in a way that can bring change?
Here is where the individual, and the idea of autonomy, can come into play.
Baldwin’s films are the type of crying in the wilderness that usually wake up enough people to at least give power a short-term run for its money. That there is more of a din in the wilderness than ever before shouldn’t stop other attempts. His films challenge power, and also expose the ways the powerful have covered up their actions. We need not be fearful and complacent; we can use the toys that we are given to make to us lazy and distracted and put them to liberating use. Make a video, parody a speech or political ad, spread the word about a video or band, use network sites like My Space and You Tube for more than just being able to say you have 12,000 friends or have made a movie. Someone will listen, or watch. And then their eyes are open. True autonomy is doing more than saving or entertaining yourself: it means taking people with you for the ride to the wake-up call. Craig Baldwin’s films point to several ways to wake up; the questions posed here, I hope, may point to more.
Mike Wood is a novelist, painter, and critic living in Rhode Island.
Got a problem? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org