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Missions Impossible

Made for the coffee budget of behemoths like Mission to Marsor The Ninth Gate, Craig Baldwin's conspiratorial harangue Spectres of the Spectrumturns their showbiz concepts upside down: Baldwin's alien world is really earth; his black magic is what we call science.

This guerrilla media-assault on the so-called national entertainment state opens Friday for a limited run at Cinema Village. (Having already played the New York Film Festival and the New York Underground Film Festival as well as being chosen for the forthcoming Whitney Biennial, it's something of a mutant blockbuster.) Baldwin, a San Francisco-based provocateur who's made some of the funniest, most political found-footage collage films of the past decade, believes that sensory overload can only be fought by more of the same. Spectres of the Spectrum is a rapid-fire montage with a constant barrage of information. The movie takes no prisoners and it hits the ground ranting: "Fellow earthlings, there is a spectre haunting the planet."

An appropriately crude transmission announces the paranoid scenario. By 2007, all media have come under the corporate control of the New Electromagnetic Order—a mysterious entity that plans to bulk-erase the brains of all sentient beings. "This is a real story although some of it hasn't happened yet," Baldwin's protagonist, Boo Boo, declares. The narrative, such as it is, consists of crosscutting between the desert-dwelling Boo Boo and her father, Yogi, hunkered down in his bunker. These two rebellious telepaths are not only named for TV cartoon characters but exist as symbolic constructs. Yogi was born the day Sputnik was launched (and Wilhelm Reich died), Boo Boo in 1984, during the Super Bowl that introduced the Macintosh computer.

Fighting sensory overload with more of the same: Spectres of the Spectrum
photo courtesy of Cinema Village
Fighting sensory overload with more of the same: Spectres of the Spectrum

Details

Spectres of the Spectrum
Written and directed by Craig Baldwin
At Cinema Village
March 17 through 23

Mission to Mars
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by Jim Thomas & John Thomas and Graham Yost
A Touchstone Pictures release

The Ninth Gate
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Polanski, Enrique Urbizu, and John Brownjohn from the novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Prez-Reverte
An Artisan Entertainment release

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After two uneven features, the historical comedy O No Coronado! and the documentary Sonic Outlaws, Baldwin has returned to the mode he invented with his 1991 masterpiece, Tribulations 99. Spectres's narrative is less important than its bargain-basement blitz of TV kinescopes, old classroom films, and ancient Hollywood biopics. Reveling in tacky models and primitive diagrams, Baldwin transforms everything into sub-Ed Wood schlock sci-fi even while concocting an outrageously complicated backstory connecting everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Satirizing the didactic TV of Baldwin's childhood, Spectres of the Spectrum is something of an educational movie itself—an eccentric history of modern media. "The telegraph annihilates the social imaginary," an anonymous narrator declares, crediting Samuel Morse's invention with inspiring an upsurge of both utopian fantasizing and spiritualist table-rapping. Repeatedly, Baldwin links new communication technology to occult concerns while grouping their inventors with contemporary "geek hackers." A grand war pits the forces of electromagnetic control against those of electromagnetic liberation. Baldwin champions eccentric individualists Nikola Tesla and Philo T. Farnsworth over corporate moguls Thomas Edison and David Sarnoff. In one of his more provocative asides, he describes Bill Gates as Sarnoff's second coming, a businessman who transformed the Internet into a marketing tool as Sarnoff did with broadcasting.

I suspect Baldwin views himself as battling Gates for control of the image archive. In any case, Boo Boo is compelled to travel back to 1957 to retrieve a secret message her grandmother encoded in a telecast of Science in Action. Time is reversible mainly through the miracle of found footage. Although she blasts her trailer back 50 years, the trip is mediated by television. Her return triggers the solar power surge that is, in some respects, a metaphor for Baldwin's movie. "It has never been my intention to kiss the ass of the audience," he told Release Print, setting himself in opposition "to the commercial technique, where you test-market a film and conform [it] to the expectations of the audience. It seems backward to me."

Well before it ends, Spectres of the Spectrum has overloaded its own circuits. But this ultimately numbing demonstration of information psychosis is humanized by the filmmaker's own obsessions. (To name one, he keeps bringing on Korla Pandit—the turbaned master of the Hammond organ, at once sinister hypnotist and benign spirit of the cathode-ray tube.) Caveat emptor: Spectres of the Spectrum is a crank call that borders on genius.


Among its many interesting factoids, Spectres of the Spectrum reveals that Nikola Tesla believed he was receiving signals from Mars. Too bad he didn't transmit them to Brian De Palma.

Mission to Mars is a movie to warm John McCain's heart—a rescue saga full of a touchy-feely esprit that's predicated on equal parts Buck Rogers bravado and backyard barbecue, the whole burnt burger drenched in Ennio Morricone's elegiac western-style score. Despite one unmistakable De Palma gag—a visual joke evoking the Challenger explosion—the project is scarcely more personal than Mission: Impossible. Who would have imagined the director would show so little interest in the Tinkertoy surveillance tractors used to explore the Martian terrain? Nor does he have much fun with sociological extrapolation. To judge from the fashions, music, and slang, the year 2020 is in the grip of a powerful '90s revival.

Suavely shot by De Palma's frequent collaborator Stephen H. Burum, Mission to Mars has its sensuous aspect. The weightless camera moves under, over, sideways, down. Everything is aestheticized. (Even the—here extremely—red planet might be the site of Constantin Brancusi's greatest project.) De Palma almost never cuts when he can use a slow dolly to close-up. The performances are less limber. Don Cheadle, Tim Robbins, and, most anxiously, Gary Sinise rush around pretending to be soldiers—although no one is as awful as Armin Mueller-Stahl as their blustering CO.

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