Spectres of the Spectrum Directed by Craig Baldwin
What is film storytelling made of? The short answer, of course, is pictures. But those pictures are chosen by somebody (or a group of somebodies). And behind every choice lies a set of assumptions?cultural, racial, sociological, financial. Which is a long way of saying that most of the time, when you go to the movies or watch television, you're eating the sausage, not thinking about how it was made.
Two fascinating new films, both opening next Friday, are all about what goes in the sausage: Treasure Island, a revisionist 1940s wartime espionage drama shot and acted in the style of the time, and Spectres of the Spectrum, the latest deconstructionist collage feature by Craig Baldwin (Sonic Outlaws). Neither qualifies as entertainment, exactly; though they have their share of hilarious and engrossing moments, they're self-conscious works that are meant to engage us mostly on the intellectual level?to make us question exactly what we're looking at when we watch, say, an old movie or a tv news broadcast, and understand that images can conceal more than they reveal.
Treasure Island isn't entirely successful as a stand-alone, feature-length drama, but I don't think it was ever supposed to succeed on those terms. Writer-producer-director Scott King has bigger pop culture fish to fry. Based on an obscure 1950s paperback titled The Man Who Never Was?about a similar scheme by British agents to dump a soldier's body in the Mediterranean in order to fool the Nazis into making wrong moves?Treasure Island evokes the austere, macho, obsessive vibe of a Jap-hating wartime B-actioner. It's ostensibly a melodrama set at a San Francisco code-breaking and espionage facility called Treasure Island, where tough-talking Americans come up with devious schemes designed to fool the Japanese military into making self-destructive moves against the Allies. The two main characters, Frank the linguist (Lance Baker) and Sam the mathematician (Nick Offerman), have acquired the body of a dead American soldier, which they intend to dump in the Pacific along with a letter supposedly written by the dead man to his girl back home.
The letter contains specific troop instructions (comprehensible despite supposedly authentic censorship lines drawn through key words). The Treasure Island gang spends much of the film composing the letter, along with other documents designed to impart an illusion of authenticity to the charade. The heroes' quest parallels the director's: King is after fetishistic authenticity, too, and he wants to break down and understand old codes of filmmaking.
Treasure Island is shot in black-and-white with a vintage 1936 Mitchell camera. The musical score is retro and the sound seems slightly muzzy, as if you're hearing it on monaural speakers in a single-screen palace theater before the invention of multiplexes and Dolby. To set the mood, Treasure Island is preceded by a snippet of a World War II action serial and a succession of short newsreels?everything from an account of a dog show to a rah-rah military propaganda piece titled Japs, You're Next! (Like the rest of Treasure Island, all this short stuff was fabricated in the present day.)
King's performers do their damnedest to act in the clipped, hard, slightly opaque style that was popular between 1928 and the early 50s. At first, Treasure Island seems of a piece with Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid or the many other features that have tried to mimic and deconstruct older styles of moviemaking. But it soon becomes clear that King and his collaborators are up to something much deeper and weirder. Frank reads a decoded letter from a G.I. graphically describing how dead Japanese soldiers are genitally mutilated for trophies. Hard-"R" curse words like "fuck" and "cock" invade the otherwise old-timey, hardboiled dialogue. The casual racial slurs against Asians are impossible to dismiss as sops to period accuracy once you find out that one of Frank's two wives (yes, the guy's a bigamist) is a native-born Japanese woman named Yo-Ji (Suzy Nakamura) who's hiding in Chinatown to avoid deportation to an internment camp. The characters' sex lives are depicted with a frankness that rivals Catherine Breillat's recent Romance. Throughout, vintage moviemaking techniques and contemporary political thought on America's psyche during World War II collide in fascinating ways. Treasure Island feels overdetermined and overthought in places, and it's probably too long?it seems to run out of ideas about two-thirds of the way through?but it's spookily effective anyway. The images linger in the mind, expanding like soft bullets, contaminating memories of other movies about the war, old and new.
Spectres is as rigorous in its way, but even more odd, heady and scattered. Over the years, the San Francisco-based Baldwin has evolved an amazingly unique and supple (and for some people, off-putting) style. He stirs together quick-cut found footage, video images, animation, stills and present-day invented images to pick apart and criticize how the media are shaped by their masters?governments and, increasingly, global megacorporations. The effect is alternately funny, infuriating, confusing and transcendent. It's like being invited into a conspiracy-obsessed filmmaker's subconscious, where fragments of the media's past and present whirl like debris swept up in a psychic funnel cloud.
Like so much of Baldwin's work, Spectres draws heavily on the lurid histrionics of cheapo sci-fi and the laid-back sunny optimism of 1950s television?think Atomic Cafe as remade by Oliver Stone. The narrative?which begins with an announcer declaring, "Fellow earthlings, there is a spectre haunting the planet!"?concerns a telepathic father-daughter team attempting to unite media outlaws against a government-corporate cabal that's bent on controlling the "magnetosphere" (an all-encompassing comic book term for radio, tv, movies, music, etc.). Voiceover melodrama about underground resistance and telepathic power gradually gives way to an informative diatribe on how every form of media (including the Internet) has ultimately fallen under the control of the usual fatcat suspects. Just as the creator of tv, Philo Farnsworth, was crushed by corporate forces who made billions off his invention, the scraggly pioneers who civilized the Net are being pushed out by AOL, Microsoft and their ilk.
As is the case with much of Baldwin's work, the whole package might be unbearable if not for its free-associative, prankish style, which pairs voiceover and images in ironic and surprising ways. The section on corporate domination of the Internet, for example, features a voiceover rant about how the Net's much-ballyhooed "interactivity" has come to mean the chance to buy things from all over the world with a credit card and visit virtual malls. One of the images is of a car commercial from the 1950s, with a family on a hilltop watching the descent of a miraculous animated meteor that, upon impact, becomes an affordable family sedan. In the same section, the character of Bill Gates is introduced in voiceover, and the screen shows not Gates, but Twiki, the squat, ugly robot from the 1970s Buck Rogers tv show. I'll be damned if they don't have the same haircut.
Mission To Mars Directed by Brian De Palma I'm trying very hard not to be a curmudgeon in this job. Few spectacles are more likely to make me roll my eyes than the sight of some boomer film critic whining about how audiences are turning into a coarse, punkish band of MTV-suckled idiots. But once in a while I have to wonder if the doomsayers might have a point. How else to explain the indifferent-to-hostile critical reception of Mission to Mars?a film that, despite typically flat and comic-bookish characterizations, overexplanatory dialogue and a misguided third act, is De Palma's most inventive, graceful and passionate film since Casualties of War?
De Palma's first hard science-fiction movie, written by Jim and John Thomas with Graham Yost, is a rescue adventure with mythic overtones. Set in 2020, it starts with a clunky, badly written expository sequence that introduces the various astronaut heroes and heroines. It's all done in a single take, a "Look at me, ma" directing device that De Palma helped legitimize and that really ought to be retired. But things pick up after that. Don Cheadle's Luke Graham leads an exploratory expedition to Mars that becomes a disaster when a mysterious force swallows up his crew and cuts off contact with Earth; the rest of the team, which includes a widowed pilot named Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) and the husband-wife astronaut team of Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen), hops in an emergency rescue vehicle and streaks toward the Red Planet to find out what happened.
Viewers who are expecting a hardcore sci-fi action adventure will be mortified to learn that Mission to Mars is a fairly gentle, optimistic film about human evolution and alien intelligence. Though its unabashed sense of wonder suggests Close Encounters, and the sleek gadgetry and lonely widescreen compositions evoke Kubrick's 2001, the film it most resembles is James Cameron's The Abyss, which was partly about the desire to meet alien life and mostly about the pains and pleasures of human relationships, particularly marriage.
De Palma and his writers pepper the story with references to love, courtship, marriage and loss. In a corny but gutsy trope, the film likens the desire to discover and bond with the perfect mate with the desire to discover and communicate with a higher intelligence. The introverted, sad-eyed Jim is haunted by the death of his wife, whom he adored. Woody and Terri love each other so dearly that we have to wonder if they place their own love for each other over the success of the rescue mission. For Luke, going to Mars meant leaving his wife and son behind.
Somehow, these emotional, humanistic ideas intertwine nicely with the main story. De Palma enlarges greeting-card sentiments to a cosmic scale. When the characters talk about home, they could be talking about their own homes or about Earth in general. When they talk about the unknown and the unknowable, they could be talking about the possibility of alien life or the mortal abyss that swallowed up Jim's wife (and will swallow up other astronauts as the tale progresses).
The middle section of the film, which covers the journey to Mars and the beginnings of the rescue, is one of the finest hours of suspense filmmaking I've seen, purely in terms of technique. De Palma seizes the directing possibilities in his sci-fi setting, letting the literal existence of infinite space, infinite time and zero gravity expand his own horizons. His camera has always seemed to move in defiance of physics; yet in this setting, the most baroque motions seem perfectly natural. He revisits the wheelhouse jogging sequence in 2001?a sequence shot, as any Kubrick fan knows, on an immense, rotating set?and raises it to a dazzling new level of sophistication: when it ends, it's impossible to tell which of the characters you've just seen moving through the frame are standing upright and which are suspended upside-down. De Palma brings the love-and-marriage themes home by staging a couple of major sequences in ways that suggest musical numbers?a zero gravity dance sequence set, inexplicably and delightfully, to Van Halen, and a desperate escape to Mars by four astronauts in spacesuits (they're tethered to each other by oxygen-circulating umbilical cords, and they cling to each other like dancers in a conga line).
I'm not claiming Mission of Mars is a masterpiece. Parts of it are just plain bad. Like The Abyss, it's too blunt and coarse in some ways, it spells out its themes verbally when the images were articulating them just fine, and it loses its footing when it attempts to visualize the unknowable and uncanny. In the latter regard, De Palma should have lifted another page from Kubrick, who pushed the sound-and-light show aspects of 2001 about as far as they could go without resolving the tale's central mystery of where the monolith came from and what its purpose was. He left enough ellipses in the final sequence to frustrate and tantalize audiences. De Palma tries to wrap up the cosmic mystery with a little pink bow, and when we are permitted to enter the source of the cosmic disturbance, what we see is disappointing (not just because the ideas have been done before, but also because the special effects are pretty bad).
Still, seeing this movie clarified De Palma's artistry for me, in ways I never could have anticipated. For one thing, I now understand that while it makes sense to compare him to Alfred Hitchcock (God knows De Palma asked for it), the major American filmmaker he most resembles in tone, style and thematic concerns is Kubrick. Hitchcock was genuinely interested in characterization; he started with stock thriller characters and systematically deepened them, so that they became, in his best films, idiosyncratic, bigger-than-life human beings. De Palma's characters have never risen to that level because I don't think he's really interested in character. He's been making films for more than 30 years, but he's never given us a character with the depth and detail of Jimmy Stewart's characters in Hitchcock's films; he can barely be bothered to give us the equivalent of the Leopold and Loeb characters in one of Hitchcock's coldest and most mechanical films, Rope. As was the case with Kubrick, De Palma's characters exist to support his themes and embody certain basic melodrama concepts like "The Hero" or "The Girl" or "The Bad Guy" or "The Mentor."
Perhaps this is because De Palma, like Kubrick, is examining grand themes like "The Common Ground of Good and Evil" and "Voyeurism" and "What War Does to Men." With a few exceptions, he works panoramically, not intimately; his films are dioramas, train sets, marionette shows, ant farms. This director likes his characters flat and abstract, but when the story and themes awaken his visual genius and sense of play, they come alive anyway. The limited characters in this film bloom because the story has made De Palma come alive. He's in love with gadgets, in love with filmmaking and in love with love; when he looked at the rough cut, I bet even he was surprised by his own capacity for feeling.