SFIFF: Explosive stuff!

Pub date April 23, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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SFIFF The pop detritus of today is the archaeological evidence of tomorrow, to be pieced together by future generations — should there be any — who will no doubt want to know what the hell we were thinking. Their conclusions may be bizarre. But will their conjecture be any stranger than our present-tense realities?

Inventing tomorrow’s conspiracy theories today is Mock Up on Mu, the latest pseudodocumentary, sci-fi historical dig, Situationist prank, and thinly veiled fight-the-power rant by San Francisco’s collage king, Craig Baldwin. In the mode of his prior cult faves Tribulation 99 (1992), O No Coronado! (1992) and Spectres of the Spectrum (1999) — albeit with a higher percentage of new staged sequences mixed into the ingeniously assembled archival errata — it again grinds fact and fiction into a tasty genre-defying pulp. For many, Mu‘s world premiere is the most eagerly awaited event in the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival’s goody-laden schedule.

It’s 2019 AD on the Empire of Mu — the Moon — where L. Ron Hubbard (Damon Packard) is building theme parks, selling crater-naming rights, and beaming corporate logos back to "that prison planet called Earth." Having been banished from our planet, he must dispatch "Agent C," a.k.a. Marjorie Cameron (Michelle Silva), back to the blue ball to engage in some espionage involving the seductions of both Ra-worshiping rocket scientist Jack Parsons (Kal Spelletich) and sleazy defense contractor Lockheed Martin (Stoney Burke). Realizing "Commodore" Hubbard’s purposes may be more nefarious than professed, she finds the truth is out there … way out there. It’s naked and shameless, in fact. Those hippies were right: free love will save us all.

As ever, there is a certain investigative method behind the Oakland-born Baldwin’s jigsaw madness. The real Parsons was the founder of the pre-NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an avid occultist. He started a private boat dealership with none other than Hubbard, before Hubbard absconded with some money and Parsons’ girlfriend (whom he married). Soon thereafter, Hubbard wrote the original Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in 1950, which in turn led to that gift to mankind we call Scientology. As for Parsons, he went on to marry painter, author, and psychic Cameron, who, like him (as well as Hubbard) was an early American devotee of Aleister Crowley and a participant in sex magick rituals.

Thus you don’t need six degrees, let alone Kevin Bacon, to connect Wernher von Braun, Kenneth Anger, and Tom Cruise. History is fun! As is Mu, with its antic use of everything from old propagandistic footage to clips spanning eras of cinematic sci-fi: Georges Melies’ 1902 Trip to the Moon, the original Flash Gordon serial and 1936’s H.G. Wells–based Things to Come, drive-in trash (it’s always cheering to see 1962’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die), and Star Trek. The resulting fair-use frolic nonetheless reveals a serious side or three while exploring the dense and slightly demented history of military and aerospace business in sunny California.

Baldwin recently took a break from his numerous other roles — programmer at Other Cinema; teacher at SF Art Institute, California College of the Arts, and Artists Television Access — to sound off on Mu.

SFBG I hate to ask such a blunt question, but what is this movie about?

CRAIG BALDWIN My "Mu-vie" is about how utopian visions of technology and space exploration became compromised by the military in the late 20th century. And [about] how the lives of [technological and space travel] pioneers afford a rich trace of California regional history after World War II: the complex crossing of alternative tech research, personal belief systems, lifestyles, artistic practices, newly organized and newly imported religions, and spiritual institutions. Plus that era brought an explosion of the formerly marginalized sci-fi genre, of which Mu is of course the very latest iteration!

Mu is also about the cult of film, especially experimental film. I’m trying to work though a new model of historiography or storytelling that I am calling collage-narrative. It’s a humble stab at opening up a new space in film practice that is not only of interest to historians but also to aesthetes. And, my dear, I don’t have to tell you that these groups are certainly not mutually exclusive!

SFBG Your father worked for a rocket manufacturer. Has that made you more interested in Cold War and military-industrial complex themes?

CB Yes, my dad worked for Aerojet. He was born the same year as Parsons! And I was born the year Parsons died. I am his reincarnation. But the point is something like 30 percent of Californians were involved in the aerospace biz at its height.

SFBG How much real Scientology material is in Mu?

CB [The film] remains at the level of Swiftian allegory or satire, spinning off of their Genesis story and [acting as] a meta-gloss on Hubbard’s own autobiography.

SFBG I wish Unarius had become the growth religious cult of our time. They’ve certainly made better movies. But regarding yours, the real life connections between Parsons, Hubbard, Crowley, "Mother of the New Age movement" Cameron, occultism, and scientific and military work are stranger than fiction.

CB Everyone has been very influenced by the New Age, uh, belief systems. But more than anything, I identify with postwar bohemians, beats, and hippies. Those days when rocket scientists and sci-fi pulpmeisters and occult conjurers and proto-Wicca ritual carnal orgiastic pagans intermingled may be long gone — though Kenneth Anger is still around.

SFBG Mu uses a lot of excerpts from mainstream and low budget entertainment. But where does the less familiar material — educational, promotional, and so forth — come from? You must spend infinite hours looking for the perfect clip.

CB It comes from my usual source: My basement archive of 2,500 industrial films. I do spend time in there, but could hardly claim to find the perfect clip. Au contraire. I call it "availabilism" — making what I do have work for me, through editing and audio techniques, overwriting it all into an associational stew hopefully akin to the half-memory, half-fantasy, sublinguistic colloid of thought itself.

SFBG What reaction does your work get from students? They presumably grok the pop culture stuff, but do they get the political undercurrents?

CB People can be responsive to the pop-cult clips, or the regional history, or the antiwar sentiments. But methinks [Mock Up on Mu] will be a touchstone for legions of occult or subcult partisans ravenous for these almost mythic tales of the roots of alternative religions.

SFBG Sir, your Thetan level must be off the charts.

MOCK UP ON MU Mon/28, 9:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; April 30, 8:55 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

>SFBG goes to SFIFF 51: our deluxe guide