Is America catching up to Craig Baldwin? Back in 1991, the San Francisco filmmaker took the underground cinema by storm with his collage narrative Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, which repurposed footage from industrial films, educational films, cartoons, and low-budget sci-fi movies to present an alternate history of the 20th century in which humanity is secretly controlled by space aliens operating from a subterranean base at the south pole. A quarter century later, right-wing conspiracy theories circle the republic like hungry sharks: the Sandy Hook shootings were faked, Barack Obama was a secret Muslim, Hilary Clinton and other prominent Democrats ran a human trafficking operation from a Washington pizza parlor. Baldwin intended his movie as a satire of U.S. imperialism, and the history of right-wing conspiracy theories reaches much farther back than Tribulation 99. But when the veteran filmmaker, guest of honor at this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival, appears tonight at the Logan for a retrospective screening of the movie, he’ll get a chance to comment on how he figures in a modern media environment where the line between fact and dark fantasy has begun to disappear.
Born in 1952, Baldwin has a long history of subverting the mainstream narrative: his early short Stolen Movie (1976) was composed of Super-8 footage he shot off the screens of commercial movie houses, and Wild Gunman (1978), which screens with Tribulation 99, explodes the western-hero stereotypes that gave birth to the Marlboro Man. At San Francisco State University in the early 80s, Baldwin studied under experimental filmmaker Bruce Conner and learned how to create mental associations between radically different images. As a boy, Baldwin had been interested in filmmaking and liked to splice together footage from the Super-8 films, condensed from Hollywood releases, that you could buy at camera stores before the age of video. During the 80s and 90s he amassed an archive of some 2,500 celluloid films, most of them procured from schools, libraries, and other institutions that were dumping their 16-millimeter collections in favor of VHS. These have become the raw materials for a series of screen provocations, including the vast SF conspiracy of Tribulation 99.
“THIS FILM IS NOT FICTION,” an opening title shouts. “IT IS THE SHOCKING TRUTH ABOUT THE COMING APOCALYPSE AND THE EVENTS THAT HAVE LED UP TO IT.” Baldwin rolls out a verse from the Book of Revelations to predict the final conflict with Satan, then launches into a tense voice-over narrative, illustrated by an array of collected footage, that exposes the secret history of planet earth. Until the year 1000, our sun was orbited by a tenth planet called Quetzacoatl, but it was destroyed by thermonuclear war; some inhabitants managed to escape in flying saucers, landed on earth, and took refuge in “the hollow interior of our planet,” building cities out of their own excrement. Over the centuries these alien invaders constructed vast cave networks around the globe and gained access to human sewage and water-supply systems. When the U.S. began underground testing of nuclear weapons in 1949, the secret colonizers mounted a counter-assault, using mind control to bend humans to their will and creating human duplicates to infiltrate the population aboveground.
Baldwin was heavily influenced by Chariots of the Gods (1970), a West German documentary (based on a speculative archaeological book by Erich von Daniken) arguing that visitors from another planet had influenced ancient human history. But in Tribulation 99 this idea becomes a vehicle for political commentary, as the CIA’s long, documented history of intervention in Latin American nations is revealed finally as a four-decade battle between humans and aliens. Founded by President Truman (to combat the alien threat), the Agency engineers the coup d’etat against Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz (secretly a human replicant), concocts a series of increasingly surreal plots against Cuban president Fidel Castro (who else but an alien could have survived them all?), and engineers the 1973 coup against Chilean president Salvador Allende (who’s been plotting to alter the earth’s axis of rotation). Meanwhile the aliens counter-strike, sending the android Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate President Kennedy (what human could have squeezed off the three quick rifle shots that killed him?) and infiltrating the headquarters of the Democratic Party (a scheme the CIA tries to foil with the Watergate break-in). Baldwin is an avowed lefty, but weirdly enough, the defenders of humanity here are all right-wingers. As he explains in a commentary track, he hoped that if the story were “read backward, so to speak, through a mirror, the truth would emerge.”
Whether or not Tribulation 99 can be read backward, it never stops moving forward, its 99 chapter headings introducing a cascade of film clips (about 30 per minute, the filmmaker estimates). Archival footage of world leaders mixes with scientific and ethnographic imagery from educational films and clips from a multitude of horror and sci-fi items (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Blacula). Occasionally Baldwin will hit the jackpot with some low-rent political drama that actually corresponds to the story he’s telling (Executive Action, a speculative feature about the JFK assassination; the TV movie Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North). But as critic Tim Maloney points out in his Senses of Cinema essay on Baldwin, the disparate images the filmmaker splices together are often linked in their own right by visual rhymes or metaphorical associations, generating a momentum of their own quite apart from the narrative.
Elsewhere in the essay, Maloney quotes Baldwin as saying, “My project is to liquidate distinctions between official and unofficial history.” I don’t want to present his words out of context—presenting things out of context is his job—so please note that he was talking specifically about using pop-culture effluvia to tell stories rooted in historical fact. But his words take on a chilling dimension in a moment when news, the first draft of history, is competing with fake news, and U.S. history itself seems to be splitting into two giant counter-narratives. The battlefield has long since moved on from Baldwin’s repurposing of 16-millimeter film: a recent story in the Atlantic explains how state-of-the-art computer programs can alter video images, seamlessly transposing one person’s head onto another’s body, and reports that such technology may soon be commonly available, allowing anyone to post fraudulent yet utterly convincing images. That might turn out to be Tribulation 100, and one too many if you ask me. v