Boxcar Willies

A showcase of culture-jamming films will artfully give you the creeps.

Local film stalwart and C.E.O. of Cinemad Mike Plante has wrangled West Coast experimental film legend Craig Baldwin into bringing his touring show into our town. It looks like the event, S.O.S. Boxcar, is not to be missed.

The first things you'll see as you approach the Hazmat Gallery this Saturday are Bill Daniels' film installations. Daniels will be using multiple projectors and film loops to turn the outside of Hazmat into a giant cinema screen, creating odd collages of images out in the open air. If all goes well, he might be projecting some of his films against passing freight trains later in the evening, which is an effect I've seen before and was tremendously impressed by.

While you could spend the whole evening staring at the outside of the building, your best bet would be to eventually work your way inside, where, for a small fee, you'll get to see not only Craig Baldwin's latest feature, but also his spoken word/video piece Press Play to Agitate.

Press Play includes clips from a number of recent films and videos in and around the "culture-jamming" scene. Culture jamming is the art of sampling (often semi-legally) and re-editing news broadcasts, infomercials, commercials, network "roundtable" shows and surveillance footage to undermine the authority of the large media conglomerates. The culture jammers have been trying, for the last dozen years or so (and longer if you count the zinesters of the '60s and the low-power broadcasters of the early days of radio), to take back the airwaves for the people. Barring that, they at least want to make fun of the pablum that passes for information in our media-saturated, centrally controlled living rooms. Part conspiracy-theory mongering, part high-level satire, Press to Play should do what Baldwin does best: make us suspicious.

The big event, though, is Spectres of the Spectrum, a beautifully edited semi-narrative film by Baldwin.

Following up on the paranoiac themes of his earlier work, Spectres is set in the year 2007 when only a single media conglomerate controls the airwaves. This New Electronic Order (NEO) is preparing to disrupt the earth's magnetic field and cut us off from the universe. Only elderly media hacker Yogi and his young daughter Boo Boo can save the world.

There is little, however, in the way of standard storytelling here. Baldwin uses collage, stock footage and voice-over narration to present the story of the pioneers of electricity, the origins of the U.S. rocket program and the agglutination of American media into a single machine. Thus, we're treated to actual science and history mixed in with weird science-fantasy as Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin and myriad other historical figures appear in clips from documentaries, docudramas and Hollywood movies.

These are layered on top of old TV science shows, cheesy psychedelic effects and original footage of Boo Boo scavenging in the irradiated wastes of the American Southwest for the equipment needed to send her back in time to avert the coming tragedy.

Spectres is thus a bit hard to classify. It's certainly a work of fiction, but it ties its sci-fi story into actual U.S. history. Yogi, the über-hacker, is supposed to be the son of Jack Parsons, who was the actual founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which essentially invented the U.S. rocket program. Parsons was also an occultist weirdo who worked "black magic" and dealt with such shady characters as L. Ron Hubbard and Aleister Crowley.

The story also connects the characters to the important people in the history of media agglomeration, especially David Sarnoff, the evil genius who popularized broadcasting. The story of how Sarnoff, a founder of NBC, destroyed his competitors, including Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of what we now know as television, is presented through documentary footage and is historically accurate as well as intensely compelling.

There are also science lessons on the nature of the earth's magnetosphere and the effects of radiation, electricity and technological miniaturization that bubble off the screen in campy clips from old television shows and cinema newsreels. What's most amazing about Spectres is how much information it packs into its 90 minutes without ever becoming stuffy or preachy or "educational" in the bad sense. Plus it has a time-traveling Airstream trailer that's represented by one of the goofiest special effects you'll ever see.

Spectres is basically a PBS history-of-science special for the hyper-intelligent, paranoid and attention deficit disordered geeks of the world. It's also wildly entertaining, and since you can see it and lots of other eye candy for only $5, it's also your best bet for fun this Saturday night.

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