by Brian Darr
If there’s a filmmaker who more exemplifies the cliché of “living and breathing cinema” than Craig Baldwin, it’s hard to imagine who it might be. The Oakland-born cineaste’s conspiratorial works like Tribulation 99 and Mock Up On Mu are radically collaborative both with the image-makers of the past (infused as they are by clips from industrial films, science-fiction touchstones, and all manner of other reclaimed reels), and with current kindred filmmakers like Bill Daniel and Sylvia Schedelbauer, who have played large roles in their creation.
If there’s a line between these festival-fêted films and Fall and Spring seasons of weekly screenings he’s been curating for Mission moviegoers under the aegis of Other Cinema since 1984, it may be in many ways an illusory one. His regular programs of pointedly-political and formally-forward film and video works from moving image artists past and present are carefully-curated expeditions into theme (psycho-geography, incredibly strange religion, “optronica”, etc.) and variations that put the viewer into a state of enriching sensory overload, not so entirely different from the experience of watching an example from his filmographic oeuvre. Baldwin pours his passion, intellect and soul into these activities, as well as teaching, and running an archive out of the Artists’ Television Access basement. He even crafted the Other Cinema logo from locks of his own hair.
Friday night, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival imports a sampling of Baldwin’s enthusiasm and expertise to a Castro Theatre audience perhaps ten times Other Cinema’s maximum capacity. The Mission district denizen has been selected, as Guy Maddin, Alexander Payne, Terry Zwigoff and others have before him, to present the festival’s annual “filmmaker’s pick”, a selection of a film from the festival line-up that resonates with a modern movie director’s own engagement with silent-era cinema. He’s zeroed in on Vasili Zhuravlyov’s Cosmic Voyage, a science fiction film prophesizing a gloriously art deco Soviet space program in 1946, made just ten years prior at a time when many Soviet cinemas were still yet to be wired for sound.
I spoke with Baldwin at his literally underground studio / archive on Valencia Street last week, interrupting his work preparing the last shows of his Other Cinema season, which concludes this Saturday with his biannual “New Experimental Works” show. As soon as I arrived he began telling me about two other upcoming projects commanding his attention, a June 13 “multisensory adventure inspired Homer’s epic The Odyssey“ and a July performance in Oakland he was particularly excited to discuss:
Craig Baldwin: John Davis, an experimental musician and filmmaker who also happens to be on the board of San Francisco Cinematheque, is organizing a lot of fantastic events in the East Bay. He got it in his head to get money from the Kala Institute to produce the printing part of an LP / DVD box set—the very smallest part of this project—to invite eight artists together, four filmmakers and four audio / sound artists. I’m one of them. That’s prime number, ground zero. It’s called “Gravity Spells,” which is right up my alley, because my biggest enemy is gravity! If you notice during the time we spend together here, something will fall down and break. Why? Is it my fault? No, it’s not. It’s fucking demons. Gravity demons. I have a personal gravity grudge against those assholes. So I’m making a film to expurge them, expunge them, and exorcise them. The woman I’m working with happens to be the head of the experimental music program at Mills College—Maggi Payne.
Brian Darr: Sounds great! I’ll definitely be going to some of those Oakland events. In the meantime, there’s this Castro Theatre gig. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you at a theatre that size before…
Baldwin: I have nothing but sympathy and love of the retro or revival cinema, but that’s not what Other Cinema’s doing, which is more contemporary, analytical, deconstructive, transgressive… However, we would certainly show Cosmic Voyage in a second here.
Darr: It’s an obscure film…
Baldwin: To its credit! That’s what Other Cinema means! It means something you can’t see otherwise!
Darr: What made you pick it out of all the Silent Film Festival programs to present?
Baldwin: I identify with Cosmic Voyage. I appreciate it. I understand it. I’ve taught not only avant-garde film and film history but Soviet film. Very sympathetically. The thing about Cosmic Voyage is it’s an anomaly: a silent film made in 1936. That almost justifies it as an oddity that should be in its own glass case. To me that makes it worth watching. But not only was it wrong format, wrong time, but it’s a kid’s film, so it’s even more loopy.
So it’s science fiction, which we love, and Soviet film, which we love. Silent film, which tends to be more experimental because it’s not enslaved to dialogue. And then, because it’s a kid’s film it’s absolutely implausible or fantastic. There’s nothing but adventure; there’s no romantic bullshit. A cinematic set, done in the cheapest of modes. No budget, again, which is dear to us. You look at it, all the money went into the models.
Darr: And it’s beautiful…
Baldwin: It’s “beautiful” because it has a primitive quality. That’s a loaded term. You might want to be careful with that word. If it’s beautiful, if it succeeds, it’s because it’s not pretentious. Don’t you see, it succeeds because it’s filled with idealism and hope. It celebrates the imagination, thrill and delirium of possibility.
Darr: Does it connect with other Soviet films of the era?
Baldwin: There’s no doubt about it. No-one has to lie about this. It absolutely inherits that tradition of Soviet montage, which I also happen to love. As a story with an arc it’s complete, and the principal reason, I must say, is because it’s cut so tightly. There are hardly any shots that are more than ten seconds. It’s just boom boom boom. And gets off the synch-sound thing, which we don’t need, especially kids don’t need. Why they want to go to a science fiction film is because of the spectacle and the fantasy and the imagination.
Darr: Does the lack of spoken dialogue increase its appeal?
Baldwin: I hate synch-sound anyway! I always shoot M.O.S.! That’s a personal note. It liberated them, and so they could do anything they want. The thing is really liberatory, truly, freed, delirious, a moment when things can be done. What drove that I can’t tell you.
Darr: I’ve noticed a number of your films borrow from monster movies, disaster movies, space movies, etc. to make political points.
Baldwin: It’s true. Not just me. My generation or subculture generally is interested in the exploitation movie, the genre movie, or trash, for a lot of reasons. Because of the freedom of it! A thrill-or joy-ride is wonderful. That’s cinema. We love that because—not to justify it too much or it’d seem over-determined—it’s an attack on consensus reality. The world doesn’t work that way but in a film we can do this. It’s fantasy.
Brian Darr has been a cinephile for over fifteen years, a vegetarian for over twenty-five, and a San Francisco native all his life. In 2005 he founded the blog Hell On Frisco Bay to document his perceptions of the Bay Area film screening scene.
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Copresented by MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS, Craig Baldwin will introduce Vasili Zhuravlyov’s Cosmic Voyage (1936) when it plays Friday, May 30, 10:00 PM at the Castro Theatre. Musical accompaniment will be by the Silent Movie Music Company (Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius) and the English translation of the Russian intertitles will be read by Frank Buxton.
As noted by the Silent Film Festival in their program capsule: “The Soviet Union was serious about its science fiction, bringing in rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky as a technical consultant on Cosmic Voyage. Tsiolkovsky designed miniatures for this big budget project that enjoyed the full backing of the Communist Youth League. A trip to the moon, what better way to inspire the youth of a nation! Set in 1946 (a mere 10 years away!), Cosmic Voyage portrays the Soviet space program fractured by warring factions—those who want to play it safe and those who are eager to go to the moon. Professor Sedikh (of the pro-moon-trip faction) is considered too old to lead the first manned moon flight, but he and his assistant Marina elude the naysayers and blast off on their mission, aided by a boy scout (Andryusha) and a fluffy Cat. Cosmic Voyage is a wonderful adventure with hilarious subplots and remarkably sound science. In fact, the film is visionary in its relevance to real-life developments in space exploration. Cosmic Voyage had a brief release in early 1936 before Soviet censors took it out of release. Scenes of cosmonauts hopping across the low-gravity lunar surface didn’t fit with their ideal of socialist realism.”
[Editor's Note: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has offered an indispensible guide on "Where to Dine" in the Castro and Mission neighborhoods.]