Missions Impossible


Made for the coffee budget of behemoths like Mission to Mars or The Ninth Gate, Craig Baldwin’s conspiratorial harangue Spectres of the Spectrum turns 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.

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.

Despite an ending that out-Spielbergs the master, Mission to Mars mainly coarsens 2001 in its mix of cosmic consciousness and “naturalistic” product placement (Dr. Pepper bloblets and multicolored M&M’s floating around the cockpit). As in the Kubrick trip, the middle voyage is best. Halfway through, De Palma literally explodes his narrative to orchestrate a superb deep-space float-opera replete with runaway modules, high-tech lassos, dramatic self-sacrifice, and, in the most surprising maneuver, a montage-driven modicum of actual suspense.

Barely releasable hokum, stuffed with cheesy blah-blah, Roman Polanski’s tongue-in-cheek occult thriller The Ninth Gate stars a solemn and dapper Johnny Depp as a rare-book hustler hired to track down a 17th-century satanic tome for billionaire collector Frank Langella.

Depp’s leisurely quest leads through a posh, stodgy landscape of libraries, lecture halls, and back-alley biblio troves atingle with hissed warnings: “Some books are dangerous!” The path is strewn with red herrings and dead bodies; eventually, Depp realizes that he’s picked up witchy Emmanuelle Seigner as his guardian angel. Uninspired yet incongruously jaunty, The Ninth Gate never quite becomes unwatchable. Indeed, one could take perverse pleasure in a contemporary exercise in supernaturalism whose most impressive special effect is the satanic tattoo on Lena Olin’s backside.

If Mission to Mars manages an astonishing 30 minutes, The Ninth Gate barely provides 30 seconds. For confessional pathos, it’s a toss-up between the scene in which an elderly French baroness in a motorized wheelchair brandishes her stump and tells Depp that her “orgy days are over” and the desultory black mass (seemingly in Swedish) that Langella disrupts with heartfelt cries of “mumbo-jumbo.”

Rear Window redux: It’s come to my attention that, in writing on Rear Window and its career as a cinema-studies text (January 25, 2000), I failed to cite Robert Stam and Roberta Pearson’s 1982 essay “Rear Window: Reflexivity and the Critique of Voyeurism.” Regrettable in itself, the omission is additionally embarrassing in that I inadvertently paraphrased several insights originating in that influential analysis.