Specters of the Spectrum (2 of 3 Part Installment)

  • Craig Baldwin
  • 2001

Promethean Diatribes of a Quasi-Transmundane Archeologist

Specters of the Spectrum is a meticulously constructed cinematic macrame disjunction; coarsely filtered by an analytical pedagogue towards the fetishistic employment of stockpiled archival documentation to weave a critical reinterpretation of a quasi-factual cultural history via contorted narrative ephemera and esoteric data mining. The theme of the entire film can be summarized as the marriage between the technology of broadcast and the technology of weaponry (the televised spectacle of detonating an atomic bomb for the devout viewing public, condensing all the impulses of the middle part of the century in one blinding flash). Saturated with a distinct librarian genius, the film is a swollen artifact of bricolaged cinematic garbage stricken void of cultural relevance — representations of obsolete science and backwards modes of thinking — providing an x-ray into the technological progressions of twentieth century culture. Craig Baldwin folds together the early technologies of starry-eyed space-time travel with the beginnings of television — itself a utopian system — into undeniably compelling formations of self-reflexive moments of beauty. This long-form compilation narrative of political satire ala montage creates an improbable unity with a political lesson; a complex essay that successfully avoids reducing the viewer to one point in space, in preference to multiplying perception into many possible meanings, composed using the tropes of fiction film and literature, towards a kind of story telling told through desperate pieces of audio and picture.

The material invokes the powers of the viewer’s imagination to reposition elemental pieces into a compilation narrative of fantasy, opening up spaces of mise-en-scene immediacy and compulsory emotional investment throughout the temporal disjunctions. As an effacement of literalized time travel, staggering towards the simultaneously brutal liquidation of linear time and eradication of formal narrative expectations, the melodramatic family saga is folded, split, and coiled to collapse classical modes of meaning-making as unsuspecting viewers drown among the myriad significations. Baldwin confesses an aesthetic philosophy of “less is more,” conveying honest simplicity of form as the path to electromagnetic transcendence and invoking a material metalanguage of bifold identification — theatrical and cinematic materiality as both trash and vehicle for an elegant mythology. Baldwin’s misappropriation and repurposing of sets and props, detourning and detouring of archival goldmines via ad hoc improvisation, and exclusive use of the cheapest and lowest materials from his immediate environment are perversely entwined on purely analog apparatus, reflecting an affinity to the Bay Area street publication paradigm — the outsiders Xeroxed leaflets and schizophrenic rants posted on telephone poles. He skims along the bottom of the literary body, portraying an abundant handful of outre ideas cumulated into a script associated with — but surpassing — the back cover of pulp magazines and speculative literature.

…the film is ultimately comprised of the material of science-fact as Baldwin seizes upon real historical instances (such as the introduction of television at the 1939 World Fair) to examine proposed models of the future

Specters of the Spectrum presents a real history of media technology told through the lens of fiction in order to construct a world that can take advantage of the allowances the form offers: colorful characters, interior monologues, and supernatural phenomena. Even as a tale of space-time travel, the film is ultimately comprised of the material of science-fact as Baldwin seizes upon real historical instances (such as the introduction of television at the 1939 World Fair) to examine proposed models of the future — the utopian embracement of technology and the capitalist dream — to contort the viewers imagination and coerce consideration of issues slightly outside rational (meta) physical reality. The fetishistically obsessive habits of Baldwin as artist, media-archeologist, and revisionist historian are communicated through arcane phenomena as experienced by the resident characters of twentieth century scientific progress, symbolizing the perpetual power struggle of creative visionaries threatened by tireless corporate conquerors. Tesla and Farnsworth are sympathetic characters “found” amongst the pop cultural amnesia, exhibited to reflect the artists personal priorities as they are woven into the larger arch of the narrative construct. The psychotropic film segments are middle brow, using the garish exploitative language of genre to propose ideas in an explicitly non-academic, humorous, easily accessible manner. The compelling visual means mount the same arguments as academic essayists, composed upon a rickety stage that serves provisionally to mount a very serious play.

The film frequently references the mythology of Frankenstein — the power of electricity to reanimate dead body parts, or rather, the human imaginative spirit reanimated by the prospect of electrified lives — and the birth of the universe, the Big Bang, as it is fictionally visualized through opalescent video effects and kinescopic granulation, special effects illustrating a particular physical concept as it opens into the conceptual space of mythological fantasy. Even the streamlined trailer-ship, as the most banal and mundane metaphor for nomadic western existence, located where state borders blur, names become asinine, and legal jurisdiction is abandoned with the provisional communities, acts as a stand-in for a possible world that can be seen to exist even now. The instability of identity within such a community holds forth a possible model for the future, a prediction of global airstream migration patterns for the future-beatnik. Specters is epically mythic, playing amongst the magical dimensions of the electromagnetic spectrum its role in motivating a lineage of scientist-mystics. It is an uncommitted history to the extent of advocating for a theological point of view, but needless to say emphasizes how technology has continually changed the human position in the universe and became intrinsically involved with various religions as they developed within the onset of communication technologies (the telegraph and telephone). Although mass-media broadcast communications might even be portrayed as the death-ray of the future — open electronic channels blazing mind-bending beams of degenerative data into every home around the world — the narrative is less active as an explicit fetishized fear of weaponry, directed more towards the loss of autonomy and creativity within every sector of our lives. The film operates through a series of parentheses — collateral lines — a thread that moves consistently throughout, exercising control not through physical manipulation of brainwaves, but via the conscious surrender of citizens eager to internalize the values propagated by the mass media mechanisms by their own volition, not because the’re subjects of a weapon, but because they literally “elect” to surrender their autonomy into a herd mentality for the sake of security and comfort.

Specters of the Spectrum is by no means a space opera, an arguably indulgent waste of time, but refers back to the real drama of the current issues of the day, real histories with real outcomes in real past/present/future. The New Electromagnetic Order is a fact, only slightly inflated and dramatized by visual means as an allegory for the real consolidation of power in questionable hands. The literal interpretation as a call to arms against the tyrannical rule of the NEO would certainly not be off mark, but would fail to apply credit to the films ability to paint a grander vision that is more than topical, as an electronic fable mixing fact and fiction not to confuse or manipulate, but to resonate from a literal narration of history and create a poetic gesture.

Baldwin reveals various truths by which the viewer can develop a critical agency of their own.

Baldwin is interested in taking a position in history without transplanting the record of historical memory, and in a self-reflexive way the film does present a model of history, pointing to the process by which history is written by creative individuals, to be taken or left, to open up a paranoid, pessimistic space from which history might be critically considered as well as skeptical insight into how history is described. There are things to be learned, but it’s not about the resuscitation of facts, rather an issue of developing an informed skepticism, especially applicable towards the medium of documentary film making. As a gesture of disgust, blasting a hole into the outlandishly radical ideas under consideration, Baldwin reveals various truths by which the viewer can develop a critical agency of their own. The material is factual, but certainly not documentary, as it is grounded within a play of gesture and upon the satirical stage of media history.

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