By Stephanie Zacharek
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Manic and irrepressible, an exuberant crank and a tireless activist, San Francisco film artist Craig Baldwin uses a seemingly inexhaustible trove of cheesy found footage and his own haphazardly shot dramatizations to rewire American history, reconfigure old conspiracy theories, and rail against the machine.
Mock Up on Mu, shown once last fall in the New York Film Festival's avant-garde sidebar and opening for a week's run at Anthology, is Baldwin's wiggiest bargain-basement extravaganza since his 1991 masterpiece Tribulation 99. Like that apocalyptic "hidden history" of alien invasion in Latin America, Mock Up on Mu is a modern American myth fashioned from all manner of cultural detritus, notably the prehistory of the sci-fi religion Scientology. (With typical bravado, Baldwin claims to have been inspired by the lawyer's letter he received after citing L. Ron Hubbard's stint as a U.S. intelligence agent in his 1999 conspiratorial harangue, Spectres of the Spectrum.)
Baldwin's fantastic but "not untrue saga" references a particular cabal that came together in mid-'40s Pasadena—and also fascinated avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger, who explicitly drew on it in his 1954 Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Pioneer rocket scientist and would-be warlock Jack Parsons, a follower of the notorious magus Aleister Crowley, found his own protégé in the young science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, as well as a "scarlet" consort in the proto beatnik artist Marjorie Cameron. Initiated into Parsons's occult sex magic rites, Hubbard ran off with a chunk of his mentor's money as well as his mistress, and went on to found his own enormously successful religion. Parsons married Cameron; he suffered a spectacular death when his garage-laboratory exploded in 1952, while she became the godmother of New Age spiritualism.
Mock Up on Mu reconstructs this triangle after a fashion, using an assemblage of NASA footage, World's Fair promotional films, vintage home movies, trailers for cheap sci-fi horror films, and excerpts from Hollywood productions ranging from '30s Flash Gordon serials to Hitchcock's North by Northwest. (The soundtrack is nearly as busy, composed of movie-theme shards and bits of old radio shows, with over-dubbed comic-strip dialogue delivered as a nearly nonstop rant.)
Nearly two hours long, the movie opens a decade hence on the Empire of the Moon, also known as Mu—a play on both the name of a 19th-century lost continent, as well as the Scientologist term for a misunderstood word. (The movie's operative principle could be summed up as "Huh?") "Mock-up" is Scientologist slang for ideological hocus pocus, and in Mock Up's tawdry society of the spectacle, the moon is the site for such a cosmic scam—an "off-planet rehabilitation program"—whose administrator is a theme-park building religious prophet referred to throughout as "Elron," as though he were Superman's uncle or a Tolkien elf-king.
Elron (Damon Packard) recruits Cameron, or Agent C (Michelle Silva), to seduce first a Las Vegas–based Howard Hughes–inspired defense contractor named Lockheed Martin (Stoney Burke) and then Jack Parsons (Kalman Spelletich). Although neither Jack nor Agent C seems to remember that they were formerly married, he does realize that she is a spy and turns her against Elron's scheme—which has something to do with using a Mu-Vegas space shuttle as the cover for an interplanetary weapon system.
A mock-up in which an Operating Thetan, who happens to own a movie studio, bests an oppressive state and goes back to the summer of 1944 to take the role of an aristocratic, stylishly mutilated German officer in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, sounds like prime Baldwin material. But nothing in Valkyrie, directed by big-budget pulp-meister Bryan Singer as if under Cruise-control, can compare to the eeky-geeky sequence in which Agent C journeys into an underworld populated by an assortment of '50s drive-in dinosaurs and monsters, as well as the "Great Beast" Aleister Crowley, apparently exiled by the almighty Elron. The past becomes interchangeable with the future. Agent C's subterranean adventure serves to trigger her repressed memories and transform Mock Up on Mu into a kind of apocalyptic western—played out in ghost towns and desert landscapes, against an Ennio Morricone score.
Mu's mix of original and found footage is dense and almost seamless, particularly in that all the actors are dubbed or re-dubbed and that the major characters have a number of avatars. Elron is frequently portrayed by Flash Gordon's nemesis, Ming the Merciless; Jack intermittently takes the form of the Cold War B-movie sci-fi star Richard Carlson; and Agent C is variously identified with a number of '50s starlets as well as Cameron herself (via clips from Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome or the 1960 indie Night Tide, wherein she played a "sea witch" opposite Dennis Hopper's confused sailor). Baldwin's narrative is not easy to follow—the tone is simultaneously hysterical and uninflected—but, as with any religion or conspiracy theory, his method is characterized by a logic beyond logic. However opaque the context, Baldwin's liberated film fragments generate their own charge.
The ending is unexpectedly triumphant. Not only are Agent C and Jack romantically reunited, but Crowley leads his underground army of "mutations and warlocks" against the eco-exploiting warmongers. Baldwin's politics seem to have migrated from the paranoid Third Worldist New Leftism of Tribulations 99 to an oddly hopeful anti-globalism. His aesthetic remains the same. This mocking "mock-up" is a mixture of conscious and unconscious primitivism—as though Ed Wood Jr. had attempted to film a script by Thomas Pynchon about a script Pynchon secretly wrote to be adapted by Wood.
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