For about two decades now, Craig Baldwin has been the exemplary purveyor of politically-motivated collage filmmaking. A student of Bruce Connor’s, and an acolyte of the Situationist International, the Beats, and a whole subterranean web of conspiracy theorists, Baldwin has built upon his chosen forebears to substantially reinvigorate the possibilities of appropriation art. Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, his 1991 film that narrates the history of C.I.A. intervention in South America by way of a fantastic alien infiltration plot, is still the richest, most elegant manifestation of cinematic détournement. Where many of his contemporaries re-work commercial material to attitudinize about media cynicism or political hypocrisy, Baldwin sculpts complete, multivalent works from his vast archive of 16mm film, rending from the footage whole worlds that seem to have been there all along, waiting to be discovered.
For Mock Up on Mu, Baldwin assigned himself the task of engaging the problems of character-based narrative within the constraints of the found footage mode– apparently picking up where he left off with Spectres of the Spectrum, a previous feature I have not seen. Baldwin being who he is, the story moves more like something you would hear on Coast To Coast AM than Madame Bovary. Mock Up On Mu explores the strange intersection of early rocket science and the occult that occurred in 1940s Pasadena. The “70-percent true” yarn, drawn largely from John Carter’s 1999 history Sex and Rockets, centers around Jet Propulsion Labs and Aereojet founder Jack Parsons, his wife Marjorie Cameron, an artist and Kenneth Anger starlet who later helped popularize the New Age movement, and sci-fi writer and huckster L. Ron Hubbard, all of whom participated in sex magick rituals at Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis.
Baldwin’s account begins after Hubbard has betrayed the cause, running off with some of Parsons’ money to found his for-profit Scientology cult, for which he cobbled together Crowley’s teachings with hoary SF tropes and whatever else was at hand. The plot, as it were, traces Hubbard’s attempt to use Agent C, a brainwashed Cameron, to ensnare both Parsons and a military contractor named Lockheed Martin in a plot to build a system of extraterrestrial armaments which he could control from his moon colony. Baldwin here pits the malevolent forces of technology and organized religion against the purity of scientific curiosity and experimental spiritualism. Most of the images are culled from Baldwin’s archive — long forgotten genre features, science and industrial films, wartime propaganda, and even snippets of North By Northwest. But to develop his narrative Baldwin also shot some original, lit to resemble the mid-century low-budget flicks that make up the film’s palate, and using actors to provide consistent visual identities for his characters alongside their multiplying celluloid avatars.
While it affords some of the pleasures one has come to expect from Baldwin — exacting manipulation of the found footage, a flair for macabre absurdism, and finely observed pastiche of the logic of conspiracy — Mock Up On Mu is mostly confusing and frustrating. The story is difficult to follow if you are not steeped in the West Coast lore of aerospace and New Age spiritualism. And even individual sequences can be impossible to parse. Baldwin’s rapid editing and manic accumulation of images do not lend themselves to the kind of action scenes he attempts here (including a lengthy car chase), their difficulty sharing more with Michael Bay-style sensory overload than the prickly reticence of the avant-garde. His characters are drawn in sketchy outlines, too indistinct to inspire even the trace of novelistic identification he intends. It is far too long, and the ins-and-outs of the proliferating conspiracies and double-crosses are more exhausting than intriguing. Baldwin is simply not as adept at navigating conflicting human impulses as he is at tracking secret histories and unraveling paranoia’s intricate constellations.
It is hard to be too upset — Mock Up On Mu‘s failures are largely those of a filmmaker pushing himself in new directions, widening his scope. Baldwin could have spent the last twenty years peddling Tribulation 99 knockoffs to an insular and adoring public. But for an artist with such a trademark style, Baldwin has amassed a surprisingly varied corpus. Mock Up on Mu is a step, however clubfooted, towards something new. During the conversation that followed the screening, Baldwin acknowledged some of these faults, and there is much here to suggest that he could get it right the next time around.
What the future holds for Baldwin’s preferred aesthetic is an open question. Throughout his weekend at UnionDocs, he spoke as though little has changed since the culture jamming era he documented in Sonic Outlaws. But even if copyright law has not caught up, broadband internet capacities and a wider availability of editing software has elevated the found footage film, or collage essay, or whatever you want to call it, to one of our culture’s dominant forms. Whatever political charge art like Baldwin’s once carried has been, in SI terminology, recuperated by the mainstream. Baldwin and his ilk have won, and the nature of their work has fundamentally changed. Baldwin’s idiosyncrasies are so pronounced, and his vision so fully developed that I doubt the success of his future productions depends on him realizing this, but I cannot imagine anyone better equipped to map the altered landscape.