Saturday, May 03, 2008

Tribulation 99 (1992)

After watching Joe Dante's The Movie Orgy it put me in the mood to finally watch my DVD of Craig Baldwin's found-footage film Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America. Made from a huge number of clips from 1950s monster movies and newsreel footage, the movie operates as a crackpot underground 'documentary' of the conflict between the American government and the alien Quetzals, refugees from an alien planet come to Earth (hiding underground, flying spacecraft in and out of a hole at the South Pole) to secretly conquer the planet, illustrated using clips from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Kennedy assassination, and so on.

That's a fun enough premise for a movie, but Baldwin's real point is to offer a subtle, subversive history lesson about American military and political involvement in Latin America since the end of World War II, told in the manner of a sarcastic, almost Eisensteinian montage; the CIA overthrow of President Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954 is justified by his being an alien doppelganger, accompanied by a clip from It Came from Outer Space with a man turning into a one-eyed monster and a Mothra sound effect to heighten the effect. Fidel Castro's survival in the face of multiple assassination plots is explained by his being a super-powered android ("You can't kill something that isn't alive!" the narrator whispers conspiratorially), matched with footage of a bearded man from some Biblical epic and the Mission: Impossible theme song.

The effect of the movie is to turn the meaning of the movie clips it presents inside-out. Most of the monsters seen in clips from movies like Black Scorpion or The Deadly Mantis were originally made to express and capitalize on American Cold War fears, nuclear mass destruction and paranoia of enemies barely understood. By matching these clips with their real-life counterparts, Baldwin manages to express and subvert American mainstream thoughts and feelings from this era. Discussing the left-wing President of Grenada, Maurice Bishop, and matching him with footage from Blacula, leading into the 1983 U.S. invasion, makes a simple point about how our politicians and media manage to frighten us into agreement and complicity in their various power games.

Once you get past the basic joke of the movie, its pleasure lies in absorbing the complex montages and clashes of iconography, and it resembles what would probably go on in Oliver Stone's head if he was less interested in mainstream filmmaking. It's a thoroughly one-sided film, meant to channel Craig Baldwin's dissent in a particularly entertaining, subversive manner that a more straight-forward film couldn't manage.

Also on this DVD are two earlier, shorter films: Wild Gunman, a mash-up of Marlboro ads and arcade games, and RocketKitKongoKit, a similar 'alternate history' of neo-colonialism in central Africa that doesn't have the same oomph as Tribulation 99 but ends on a more ominous note.



christian said...

Jeff, funny you bring up TRIBULATION 99 as it's the exact same thing that Dante did with THE MOVIE ORGY, except Baldwin has a more radical vision.

And Craig is one of my friends and mentors. In fact, I'll be doing a screening at his Other Cinema in the fall in San Francisco.

Good call.

Now put me on your blogroll as you're on mine!

Jeff McMahon said...

Yeah, Dante's also more interested in being entertaining than Baldwin, but the basic idea of using cultural byproducts as a tool for critique is the same, yeah.

And - sorry!

christian said...

I've always said that Baldwin is the most accessible of today's genuine underground filmmakers. His new film MOCK UP ON MU merges scientology with rocket science and just premiered at the SFIF. I recorded a voice-over scene for MOCK UP, but I don't know if I made the final cut...