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Spectres of the Spectrum

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 24 December 1999

Written and Directed by Craig Baldwin. 

Starring Sean Kilcoyne, 
Caroline Koebel, 
and the voice of
Beth Lisick.

In 1991, a lot of talk began circulating about a film called Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America The film suggested that, in 99 steps, the Earth had not only already been invaded by extraterrestrial creatures, but was in the process of being completely conquered on every level, causing, in the process, everything from the Roswell, N.M. incident, to the political assassinations in the Sixties and the political upheavals and unrest in South America in the Seventies. And that, as we reached the end of the century, the aliens were in the process of undertaking the very last steps on their agenda.

What was even more surprising was that the film's maker, Craig Baldwin, made the entire film presenting this scenario out of "found footage" -- old 16mm. film that had been thrown out in the trash or used as "filler" material on reels going to or from processing labs. Baldwin had to cull through tons and tons of stuff in order to get the shots and footage which could match his fantastically complicated narrative, but the results were nothing short of breathtaking: a phantasmagoria that took on vast proportions, one whose very complexity did not keep one at a distance but, instead, drew you further and further into what was unfolding on the screen, taking on a logic and sensibility all of its own. One of the great feats of filmmaking in the 1990s, Tribulation 99 was a little difficult to see because it was entirely self-distributed, but if you had the chance to see it, you often didn't stop talking about it for days, even years, afterwards.

Since then, Baldwin made O No Coronado! (1992), about the Spanish conquistadors and their subjugation of the indigenous American cultures; and Sonic Outlaws (1995), which was inspired by the real-life instance where the music group Negativeland was sued when they appropriated satellite footage of one of U2's concerts. Now, Craig Baldwin is back, with a new film, Spectres of the Spectrum, which premiered in October and was recently shown, just in time for the end of the century, as part of a retrospective of Baldwin's work at the venerable Clinton St. Theater in Portland, Oregon, just up the road from Baldwin's home base in San Francisco. This time, the danger comes not from without (as with extraterrestrials in Tribulation, or conquistadors in Coronado), but from within, from the corporate-military complex that seeks not just to control not just the land, but the very sky itself.

It is the beginning of the 21st century, and the Earth is a flickering, blighted ruin, seared under holes torn in the atmosphere or by the irradiated remains of what has been left. Birds and animals are vanishing. People themselves are fading, like newsprint under direct sunlight. Others, stumbling "through the electronic miasma, their memories obliterated,” exist as zombies. From a pirate radio station in the Nevada desert (sitting on what is now the Pacific coastline, after the melting of the polar icecaps), a former intelligence operative who goes by the "moniker" of Yogi (Sam Kilcoyne) transmits to the world information on how things got this way. The monopolization of the emerging industries of electric power, radio, television, and the Internet -- a "great extruded space" that is "both internal and external,” a means for 2-way communication and a repository of "the whole contents of the media culture's memory,” only now reduced to a mere place for buying and selling, a narcotizing cyberspace collection of "shopping malls and theme parks" -- has joined together to form an oppressive "New Electromagnetic Order,” with but one land left to systematically conquer in order to complete its agenda: the "imagination,” or the mind itself. This it will do when it initiates its plan to blast the sky with tons of particle beams, flash-frying the planet in the process.

Yogi has a daughter -- born on the same day, in 1984, when Ridley Scott's commercial introducing the Apple Macintosh computer aired during the Super Bowl -- a "fuzzy ball of energy" able to "move around during the full-on electromagnetic day,” a full-fledged telepath capable of reading the thoughts of the cosmos itself. This is how she discovers a way to save the world from its horrible fate: a coded message left by her recently-deceased grandmother, who had worked, years ago, as an assistant on a live TV program, Science in Action. All the daughter needs to do -- a cinch, given her wildly advanced mental and intellectual capability -- is to rig a way to travel back in time and decode her grandmother's message. She's anxious to blow this joint, anyway: "First chance, I'm outta here."

When night falls, "Pops" and daughter sit in their "biosphere,” a converted Airstream trailer, and share Spam baked over the flames of lighted flares. When the zombies come out, they keep them at bay by turning up the volume on their "contraband" video tapes of Korla Pandit, an obscure Fifties TV personality who plays the electric organ, never speaks, and looks just like Sabu. ("Korla Pandit now presents his interpretation of the haunting strains and violent rhythms of 'Blue Tango'....") The daughter's name is Booboo. This in no way impedes one's enjoyment of the picture.

Spectres of the Spectrum depicts the history of the "invisible wars" that led up to the state of things under which the characters now live. The "wars" have had their heroes, and martyrs: Benjamin Franklin, who "democratized" electricity by showing that anyone can pluck it out of the sky. Nikola Tesla, the brilliant inventor and physics engineer whose discovery of alternating current, more efficient and practical than Edison's direct current, eventually led him to be driven into obscurity, but only after his methods were appropriated. Philo P. Farnsworth, the boy from Rigby, Idaho who invented the method for basic television transmission and reception, only to have his ideas appropriated by David Sarnoff, the creator of R.C.A. and, later, N.B.C., the first electronic media network. (The message left by Booboo's grandmother happens to be on the one "lost" episode of Science in Action, when a representative of Sarnoff's appeared as a guest on the program.) And then there is Bill Gates, first introduced in the film via footage of Twiki, the stump-shaped, blithering robot in the 1970s remake of Buck Rogers. Not only do Microsoft and N.B.C. couple to produce a cable channel, MSNBC (I always wondered what the "MS” stood for), but Gates helps advance the concept that everything -- home entertainment, communications, information, commerce -- can eventually be done on fiberoptic cable, a further funneling of all daily social activity into one single entity. Paranoia? Maybe. But rather believable paranoia.

Spectres of the Spectrum works on so many levels, and to such a mind-boggling extent, that it's hard to know where to begin. (After three viewings of the film, I'm still only picking up half of what's there.) Along with being an invective and a warning against the privatization of communications, it also works as an amusing trip into the past (see which film clips ring bells in your head that you haven't heard rung in years), an adventure story (complete with charming in-house special F.X.), socio-political commentary (Spectres expands on an idea first introduced in Tribulation 99, that figures in authority would create advanced technology only to turn it against their own people, subverting the whole concept of science as something to be used for the betterment of mankind), a David and Goliath story, and further proof that Baldwin and his associates (which include editor and, on the new sequences, cinematographer Bill Daniel, and sound designer Gibbs Chapman) can take anything, from anywhere, and use it to convey messages that the original makers never dreamed of telling. (Who knew that Twiki, whom everyone in the late Seventies agreed was the most unbearably annoying robotic creation ever to be foistered upon the public, would turn out to be the perfect representation of Bill Gates?)

The filmmakers have collected and put together footage from a vast and formidable array of sources: kinescopes (along with Korla Pandit, there is also footage of a program starring a hypnotist who puts his subjects to sleep on the air, clicking his fingers and causing cameramen to keel-over onto the studio floor), corporate films (one of which features an early-Seventies version of William Shatner!), educational films, preview-trailers, clips from both TV programs The Twentieth Century and its short-lived successor The 21st Century. Clips depicting 1965 are drawn from the 1959 Japanese science-fiction film Battle in Outer Space. The ones depicting Tesla are from an obscure 1980 film by Yugoslavian director Krsto Papis, The Secret of Nicola Tesla, in which Strother Martin played George Westinghouse, and, as J.P. Morgan, who initially backed Tesla but then turned against him when the inventor came up with a new energy source that everyone could use but which could not be monopolized for profit, Orson Welles (who, in Papis' film, arranges for a meeting with Tesla so that he can find out for himself if the man is a "bunkum artist"). Baldwin's film effectively uses music ranging from the haunting themes written by Dominick Frontiere for TV's The Outer Limits (the Bill Gates sequence is accompanied, very cleverly, by the music Frontiere composed for the episode The Hundred Days of the Dragon, where a sitting U.S. president was replaced, overnight, by a malevolent dopplegänger from another country), to Akira Ikufube's mournful children's choral from Godzilla.

"Corporate raiders? Even out here? Probably trying to privatize the past!" fumes Booboo as she fights off incoming fighters during her time trip into the past. However didactic Spectres of the Spectrum may seem at times -- and it does, although it is both entertainingly and engagingly didactic, and for a good cause -- it has its own sense of humor. And there is also a poignant strain regarding loss running through it, of hopes and utopias which were thwarted or never to be realized. Tesla died, bankrupt and in seclusion, in 1942, within the shadow of the towers of Rockefeller Center, where David Sarnoff's NBC studios were located, and questions remain as to whether Tesla's death took place under nefarious circumstances or not. Philo P. Farnsworth wound up appearing as a guest on I Got a Secret, on the very medium that he helped create but for which he would receive only belated credit for; later, he would wind up an employee of I.T.T., one of the first big commercial computer companies.

When asked by the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle to contribute, for their special 1976 Bicentennial edition, what he thought the world of 2076 would be like, designer Rudi Gernreich speculated that everyone would be able to fly, independently, from one place to another, on wings propelled by solar power. An conception of complete freedom at the time Gernreich came up with it, one now wonders who would hold the copyright of the image and design if it ever came to pass.

The conclusion of Spectres of the Spectrum is left a little open. Will those living in the new world know better than to make the mistakes of those before them, or will they end up falling into the same traps as they did? (Power and wealth, can be powerful, and terrible, incentives.) You expect a title to come on, just like in a hokey 1950s science-fiction thriller, announcing "The Beginning" instead of "The End.” (Not just in those films, either: Romain Gary also used it to conclude his totally deranged 1971 anti-narcotics film, Kill.) Instead, early Today show host Dave Garroway, that most utterly Zen, and hence most possibly subversive, of television personalities, puts in an appearance -- looking a little puzzled, perhaps, but ready for whichever way things go. And the makers of Spectres of the Spectrum show that people working outside of the commercial system are still producing some of the most vital, exciting, challenging, involving, and surprising work today. We need that. So, here is one of Garroway's famous closing salutations -- an outstretched palm, accompanied by the spoken word, in Garroway's most beautifully assuring tones, "Peace.” And more power to them.

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