Craig Baldwin’s Mock Up on Mu is a visionary parable of technology that’s every bit as grand as Metropolis; but where Fritz Lang’s sci-fi epic came close to bankrupting Germany’s largest film studio, Baldwin’s is the product of resourceful scavenging. His found footage fusion converts the mythic matter of Hollywood cheapies and institutional films (the latter replete with what Baldwin’s fellow archivist Rick Prelinger calls “capitalist realism”) into unfettered storytelling energy.
The free mixing of media intended for entertainment and scientific instruction is very much at the heart of Baldwin’s mock up of the improbable convergence of three California visionaries in the 1940s: Jack Parsons, rocket scientist by day and dark magus by night; his wife Marjorie Cameron, artist and mother of the New Age movement; and L. Ron Hubbard, self-deigned sci-fi messiah.
Their shadowy shared history, which figures as a kind of Gnostic back-story of Baldwin’s fiction, goes something like this: Parsons took Hubbard on as sorcerer’s apprentice when the latter was still a fledgling author. Hubbard acted as scribe when Parson attempted to call up the whore of Babylon in an elaborate sex magick ritual. When Cameron turned up a little later, it was quickly decided that she was in fact the wished-for Scarlet Woman (a role she enacted in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome). Soon Hubbard would swindle Parsons out of thousands of dollars before realizing a grander profit motive in the New Age realm via Dianetics.
With its swirl of esoteric spiritualism, the technological sublime, bohemianism, pulp fiction and government contracts, the Parsons-Hubbard-Cameron triangle stands as a paradigmatic Southern California story, the kind that makes surrealists out of nonfiction writers (I’ve always found it supremely fitting that the first pull quote on my paperback of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz comes from Neuromancer author William Gibson). In Baldwin’s elaboration, Hubbard is conspiring to build a capitalist amusement park on the “mu” (our moon) but needs a Las Vegas rocket launch site for transport. He shuttles a brainwashed Cameron back to Earth (“That sad suppressive implant station…with their bothersome taxes and psychiatrists”) to blackmail a contract from Lockheed Martin (perhaps taking a page from the Supreme Court, Baldwin imagines the corporate entity as an individual). She’s also assigned to locate Parsons, who’s gone underground after faking his death but continues to conduct experiments in solar power.
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Mock Up on Mu is a minefield of facts. As with Baldwin’s earlier films, raw data is loosed from any authoritative discourse and flies by too quickly to assimilate in any one viewing. What’s new here is the dramatization of Baldwin’s fictive frame, with a cast of artists and bohemians lampooning the powers that be in the style of counterculture street theater.
Baldwin appropriates narrative editing conventions (e.g. eyeline match, shot reverse shot) to fabricate scenes from disparate sources. Cameron and Parson’s mystery drive through the desert is refracted with images of various movie lovers, and Lockheed Martin’s rendezvous with Parson unfolds as a prism of men in uniform carrying important briefcases.
Though patently shot on the cheap, Baldwin’s original footage achieves a dioramic intensity ensconced in all this Pax Americana detritus. The cracked montage makes human figures weirdly interchangeable, no matter the radical individualism espoused by each of the characters.
Given the union of form and content, Mock Up on Mu may well be the ultimate cult movie. Of the many correspondences drawn across its contrasting cultural landscape, perhaps the most surprising is the one between Hubbard’s theory of “sticky figments” (floating particles left by an earlier civilization attach themselves to susceptible modern minds) and Baldwin’s own materialist art process. Hubbardʼs promise to leave his disciples “clear” (“Regrets are rinsed, sick fantasies flushed, bad movies erased”) stands in stark contrast to Baldwinʼs anxious flow.The open source form of the film is plainly on the side of Parsons and Cameron, both of whom envision liberty as a free energy supply.
Baldwin derives great satisfaction from this Good vs. Evil showdown, but you don’t get out of the movie scot free. “Stories can be a most effective way of manipulating people,” Hubbard tells Cameron before setting his conspiracy in motion. Much like Orson Welles’s F for Fake, Baldwin’s form makes this illusionism manifest while delighting in it all the same. The apparently endless recovery of the archive makes it clear that the eventual triumph may well turn out to be a ruse given another turn around the bend—but there is still meaning in the means. As the critic Frank Kermode wrote, “The desires of interpreters are good because without them the world and the text are tacitly declared to be impossible; perhaps they are, but we must live as if the case were otherwise.”
Max Goldberg is a regular contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian and SF360.com.
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