Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Review of Sonic Outlaws

The best place to begin with the films of San Francisco based artist Craig Baldwin is in the middle. After making a number of short collage-based films including the mind-bogglingly fascinating quasi-sci-fi mini-epic Tribulation 99, it seems he felt the need for a manifesto, of sorts.

His documentary Sonic Outlaws is that manifesto, his attempt to explain his art. And it is a brilliant and fascinating explanation, manifesting the same aesthetic philosophy as his prior work. It is as mind-bogglingly rich as any of his films before, and after.

Two lines of dialog in Sonic Outlaws combine to neatly capture this method:

“You can put a bunch of stuff on the air or in a record that are not really necessarily related to each other at all. Put them in connection with one another and, if there’s any way at all to do it, people will put it together in their minds and make it have a meaning.”

“… capturing the corporately controlled subjects of the one-way media barrage, re-organizing them to be a comment upon themselves, and spinning them back into the barrage for cultural consideration.”

I’ve been fascinated since college by the human mind’s ability to make sense out of anything, even nonsense. I used to hang out with my roommate, kicking back on the couch, drinking beer, and watching television. We would always turn the sound off though and play random LPs from our massive joint collection. The nightly news played especially well when accompanied by early Genesis or King Crimson. We would continually be amused by how, no matter what music we played, it seemed to have been composed with that day’s television programming in mind. Kind of made the entire Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon synchronicity seem all the nuttier.

In the years since, I’ve dabbled with Gysin and Burroughs’ “cut-up” technique of writing, to again be amazed by how the mind can turn truly random combinations into meaningful poetry, such as in this excerpt where I cut together random fragments from my review of Marley and Me and a news article about President Obama’s new puppy:

“The President did with happy, puppy times. Ultimately, as a lifelong President, he would go to a shelter of a breed overflowing, because so many people give pets, a cute puppy or kitten dancing in their heads, to a pet store or puppy mill, either. It’s a gray conscious response to these tough economic forgiving.”

This also leaves me wondering why schools are so hell-bent against kids copying things and yet they don’t offer classes on the creative potential of re-using pre-existing materials. But I seriously digress…

Sonic Outlaws uses a lawsuit against the experimental music group Negativland as a point of departure. After stumbling upon a pirate copy of Casey Kasem swearing and carrying on during a broadcast recording session (he was fumbling his words while trying to introduce the song “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” by U2 and getting frustrated), the group got an idea, creatively juxtapose bits and pieces of the tape with fragments of U2 songs. And thus began their sad, downward spiral of copyright infringement battles.

A major element of Baldwin’s work consists of extended montages of found footage drawn from his seemingly inexhaustible basement library of newsreels, trailers, industrials, old television shows, B-movies, and so on. And Sonic Outlaws is ripe with such extended virtuoso sequences.

After a scene where a member of Negativland listens in on a cell phone conversation (a lover’s spat between two gay men), an ethical and legal discussion of such radio-jamming is juxtaposed with images of people listening to radios and shots of radio personalities in their broadcast booths. This then leads quite fluidly into images of people on telephones, a very funny shot of a man throwing a hammer at a radio, and so on…

Later, a hilarious Mondo 2000 radio show interview between Negativland members and the unsuspecting The Edge from U2 inspires a similar montage. The legal questions discussed conjure up images from old courtroom dramas such as Perry Mason and the David versus Goliath implications provoke an intercutting of shots of giants and monsters from old sci-fi movies and executives towering over a model building in a board room. The Edge calls it “the most surreal interview I’ve ever had in my life.” Baldwin’s treatment turns the surreal into the inspired.

And that’s just the beginning. The film is like a snowball rolling down a hill. It gains speed and energy as it accumulates more and more illustrations of its thesis.

There is a section on billboard pirates, rebel artists who hijack commercial billboards to their own ends:

“…forget about the rest. Invest in Greed. Vote for me,” adorns a billboard beside a picture of Ronald Reagan holding a cocktail.

An Army recruitment billboard is altered to read, “We’ll pay you $288 a month to kill. Today’s Army wants to join you.”

And Sonic Outlaws continues to gain momentum by considering copyright infringement issues in relation to artists like Andy Warhol (Campbell Soup cans), the Mellotron (used to musically manipulate taped recording of symphony orchestras), and Daffy Duck’s rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Legal battles over Too Live Crew’s parody of Roy Orbinson’s “Pretty Woman” (“Big hairy woman, you need to shave that stuff…”), a Mad Magazine issue with Irving Berlin song lyric parodies, and some mad fool who thought he could get away with cartoons showing Mickey and Minnie Mouse having sex are all drawn into the vortex as well.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, we get glimpses into the history of Dadaist art, Marshall McCluhan, William S. Burroughs, a kid making a cut-and-paste animated film, children copying and stretching Sunday comics using Silly Putty, and a group called Barbie’s Liberation Organization which surgically altered talking Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls, swapping their voices, and placing them back on store shelves.

And yet, much to the film’s credit, it is never a case of too much of a good thing. Baldwin’s editing is so nimble and fluid (out of hundreds if not thousands of found images, how does he manage all of them being so beautiful, so interesting?) that he pulls it off. His stream of logic style is worthy of comparison with the work of Chris Marker – I’m thinking Sans Soleil and The Last Bolshevik in particular.

Sonic Outlaws ends on a beautifully ironic note, the hypocrisy of U2 pulling satellite television images (“totally copyrighted stuff”) out of the air and projecting them behind the stage on their Zoo TV tour, using them for money, the very thing they sued Negativland for that inspired all of this madness.

I guess if you’re big enough you can get away with anything. All others beware.

For more information about Craig Baldwin and Sonic Outlaws, visit his website at

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