In his latest film, Spectres of the Spectrum, filmmaker/archivist/pack rat Craig Baldwin creates common ground for his postmodern bricolage somewhere between the hazy vision of a corrupted techno future and the rose-colored modernism of the postwar American media. It's not nearly as much of a stretch as you might think. Using found footage, old news clips, and fuzzy kinescopes of long-forgotten television programs, Baldwin unearths a world where science has been fetishized, filled with clunky hardware and enough vague promises of a rapidly changing society to make even the most hyperbolic dot-com commercial look practically shortsighted. The film takes the stray imagery of the past -- from action hero Captain Video; to real-life scientists talking shop on the educational program Science in Action; to the most peculiar of Baldwin's finds, a turbaned organist named Kola Pandit, an exotic low-budget Liberace whose quietly eerie performances serve as a coda to the film's apocalyptic rants -- and presents it as a secret history of the long, hidden love affair between technology and the military. Spectres of the Spectrum taps the archaeological roots of television to find equally rich strains of involuntary surrealism and conspiracy-addled paranoia.
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There's a science-fiction narrative embedded here somewhere: A telepathic woman named BooBoo wanders around an old bomb site piecing together her relationship to the history of telecommunications while her father, Yogi, broadcasts anti-tech messages over the radio. Operating on the theory that the voices and images sent out so many decades ago must still be floating around in one form or another, BooBoo becomes a kind of video astronaut, flying into the ether to save the world. Although Baldwin uses actors to play the cartoon-named father and daughter, most of Spectres of the Spectrum consists of stray bits and pieces of film assembled according to the filmmaker's own junk-shop logic, allowing both historical and fictional figures to share the frame. Viewers are left on their own to determine which is which.
Baldwin, a San Francisco-based media programmer and political activist, has been working with collage forms and found footage for many years (his earlier Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, which zooms through everything from flying saucers to Mexican wrestling films, is an underground classic), but Spectres of the Spectrum is harsher and more politically challenging than his previous work. The director's political discourse proves to be as much a disadvantage as it is a blessing; it's not always clear where the ranting stops and the history begins. The constant flow of images, the rapid changes in film stock and image quality, and the barrage of kitschy pop-culture antiques take on a hypnotic life of their own, making the film stronger in its lack of convention than in the lucidity of its argument. As in Tribulation 99, Baldwin pokes so many holes in the logical walls of the media that there's no place left to post a message.