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Spectres of the Spectrum

by Craig Baldwin
Other Cinema, San Francisco, CA
DVD, 91:00, col.
Rental, $ 26.95 individual; $100 institutional price
Distributor’s website: http://www.othercinemadvd.com.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


"Earthlings, there is a spectre haunting the planet! Electromagnetism is life . . . and death!" With this warning, filmmaker Craig Baldwin presents us a dystopic future (awfully near!), after war has burnt, brutalized, and stupefied all creatures, and "shredded the delicate tissue of the pulses". The yarn is richly written, tightly edited, and filled with very rich imagery, some half-glimpsed in a millisecond. This reviewer saw a rough cut of Spectres of the Spectrum in 1998 and found it slack, its talking heads too prominent. The heads are still there, but better integrated into short, pithy lesson-ettes and rousing science fiction, constructed upon a skeleton of past cultural detritus.

The story is punctuated with clips from science, educational, or industrial films, but "Spectres" makes best use of "Science in Action", a charmingly low-budget California Academy of Sciences production of the late 1950s and early 1960s, hosted by Dr. Earl Herald. Nothing dates like futurism; witness the geplonking electronic ukulele demonstrated on the show. Herald often demonstrated scientific principles using curios props, such as unspooling tape to indicate the duration of cosmography, superimposed portentous words in spinning block letters, and grim or befuddled military experts. One imagines smart little Craig at home in Sacramento intently watching the show. Baldwin remains fascinated by the voice of authority, dictating confidently some folderol to a cowed, rapt audience of good students or citizens. He juxtaposes these with clips from science fiction films, quirky visions of the future. Baldwin originally began filmmaking with found footage, for reasons of economy but also because so much of what had passed before the camera in decades past demanded a fresh, critical viewing (and its squareness was laughable to a post-Punk, PoMo hipster audience). It can be re-framed in a political context: "Tribulation 99" critiqued US foreign policy towards the Caribbean by framing it as a last-ditch defense against space aliens (like Castro, Salvador Allende, and the Sandinistas) from the Quetzal planet.

Since "O No, Coronado" (1992)——his commentary on the Spanish "discovery" and exploration of the western hemisphere——Baldwin has worked with actors, staging and shooting new scenes. This has been a learning process. Set in 2007, the heroic guerilla team in Spectres rushes to thwart a military-corporate attempt to generate a mono-polar pulse to erase the last vestiges of resistance in human brains. The story tells of BooBoo, granddaughter of scientist Amy Hacker (Dr. Herald's onscreen assistant), whom BooBoo is hastily burying in an opening scene. BooBoo's mother was a Russian agent skilled in remote viewing. BooBoo’s father, Yogi, is a former government intelligence operative who now leads of a crew of rebels broadcasting dissidence on TV Tesla. A quick aside pegs Yogi as the son of Amy's liaison with Jack Parsons, who was a founder of Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Parsons not only has a crater on the moon named after him but also he is the subject of Baldwin's current film project that makes connections between satanists, Scientologists, and the JPL.

Yogi is played by skilled veteran actor Sean Kilcoyne, and BooBoo is mimed by Carolyn Koebel with the voice of Beth Lisick. BooBoos’s spacecraft is crafted in the best tradition of low-rent science fiction movies, a flying miniature airstream trailer held jigglingly aloft with prominent wires. A rebel outpost called TV Tesla is manned by Erik Davis, Phil Patiris, and Jesse Drew, like the stalwart "Lone Gunmen" investigators appearing a decade ago on "X-Files" (and, briefly, their own series). These savants are Baldwin’s colleagues: Baldwin team-taught with cyberspace theorist Jesse Drew in San Francisco State University's innovative but now-defunct Inter-Arts Program. Baldwin’s Other Cinema series has showcased filmmaker Phil Patiris, who in Spectres calls on activists like BooBoo to "extrude space, external-internal media memory" in the defense of freedom.There is much serious historical information contained in this bricolage film, where biographies of Franklin, Tesla, and Morse jostle with clips from Frankenstein, King Kong and other monster movies. We learn of the nineteenth century spiritualist Fox sisters, and the spiritualist interests of Alexander Graham Bell's assistant Watson. We are shown the struggle of Philo Farnsworth in San Francisco vs. David Sarnoff of RCA and Sarnoff’s favored scientist Vladimir Zworkin. Corporate propaganda films unspool their weird poetry when innovations were asserted to have sprung from "General Electric's House of Magic in Schenectady, New York", or inventor Farnsworth was given a carton of Winston cigarettes for appearing on the game show, I've Got a Secret. We fly over Wilhelm Reich's research park in the western US, tuning the clouds, launching balloons——an idea co-opted by the US government, who hastily constructed extraterrestrial excuses when one fell near Roswell, New Mexico. We are smacked with a disturbing list of genuine military projects in the cosmos, including the rearranging of the Van Allen radiation belts, several of these schemes initiated by Dr. Edward Teller.

Spectres charts the militarization, then corporatization of all electronic media, first radio, then television, then the Internet. It quotes Commandant Marcos' comments on globalizing effects of mass media. It reminds us that by 1990 the Internet was largely in private hands, tending to "theme parks and shopping malls". Bill Gates' spectacles are besmirched by a prankster's cream pie as he allies with Sarnoff's creation NBC to form MSNBC. In a poetic moment, the 1960s variety show host, Ed Sullivan, is sited as a hypnotist employing the CBS eye, perhaps the oculus struck by a pizza pie in Dean Martin's "That's Amore." Enervated by all this, our moods find balance and centering in the soothing organ music and mooning gazes of Korla Pandit. Yet Baldwin’s love letter to the electrosphere culminates in a psychic kaboom, the fast-talking plot McGuffin of a climactic solar eclipse and the bittersweet BooBoo story’s last heroic act (copped by the Hollywood blockbuster Armageddon). BooBoo acts upon Grandma’s last words, delivered on "Science in Action", and Yogi muses, "Her grandma would've been proud." There are suggestions of a new day dawning, Spectres finally ends in a 1957 "Today" show, with hosts Dave Garroway and Frank Blair in momentary reverie as the music of the spheres penetrates the TV studio.



Updated 1st December 2006

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