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San Francisco cult auteurs keep the outsider fires burning

Legendary San Francisco champions of DIY cinema as the ultimate form of mind-blowing, budget-busting, kick-assing cultural resistance, Craig Baldwin and Jon Moritsugu have cranked out two of the most formidable oeuvres in contemporary underground film. Baldwin's hyper-informational, found-footage quasi-histories and Moritsugu's willfully deranged punk-rock satires collectively sustain enough outsider firepower to keep the embattled frontiers of independent film thankfully lawless. (Both have retros at Anthology next week—Baldwin's from March 19 through 21, Moritsugu's from March 17 through 23.)

"I'm trying to put something on the screen that not only turns me on, but is something that I've really never seen before," says Moritsugu, whose 16mm narratives include the convulsively enunciated story of a girl band sponsored by the American Beef Institute (My Degeneration, 1989), a fractured gang-war flick with deadpan freak-outs and more raw meat (Mod Fuck Explosion, 1993), a tripartite tale of three delusional dummkopfs (Fame Whore, 1997), and a fuzzed-out Hi-8 spoof of artsy aging hipsters (Scumrock, 2002, getting a week-long run at Anthology). All are fueled by spastically trashed mise-en-scènes, guitar-revving soundtracks, cartoony capers, and demented dialogue. Like the early works of John Waters, Moritsugu's movies are clearly crafted to fit minuscule funding, but lack the Hollywood-wannabe emptiness of most indies. "I personally don't like that kind of sanitized, polished footage that you see a lot," Moritsugu explains. "I'd rather listen to a scratchy old vinyl record than a really cold CD. I'd rather see gritty, real grainy, cool-looking footage up on a screen, whether it's film grain or video grain, than something really slick that I can just see on TV." Nevertheless, he did weather his own foray into television, with notorious results. Ordered to censor the language in his dysfunctional Asian American family story Terminal USA (1993) by its PBS funders for broadcast, Moritsugu went overboard, bleeping random words and digitally fuzzing out otherwise irrelevant bits of the image.

No pretense to realism: Sonic Outlaws
photo: Anthology Film Archives
No pretense to realism: Sonic Outlaws

Trippy fact-fiction remixes, Baldwin's movies play with history by plundering the celluloid dumpsters of decades past, and embracing seemingly outré frameworks for understanding existence and power: Spectres of the Spectrum (1999) grooves on fringe science; Sonic Outlaws (1995) documents copyright fighters Negativland via Baldwin's own poaching from The Wizard of Oz; and Tribulation 99 (1992) links alien invasion to American meddling in Latin America. Each took years to make; Baldwin begins from massive accumulations of ideas and footage around a central topic, then whittles down his materials into episodic collages of sound and image. "My movies are very much like pulp serials," Baldwin notes, "because there's cheap special effects, starts and stops, graphic interludes, and no pretense to realism." But Baldwin's low-fi sci-fi is not mere entertainment; its very existence creates concrete changes in the world. "My movies and Moritsugu's movies hold a lesson," he says. "They blast out a hole in terms of a possible cinema universe. It could be a terror blast or whatever. But they do open up a space."

 
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