“Refuse is the Archive of Our Times”: The Metaphorical and Expressionistic Use of Found-Footage in the Documentary Films of Adam Curtis and Craig Baldwin
“Cinema is fascinated by itself as a lost object as much as it (and we) are fascinated by the real as a lost referent.” Jean Baudrillard (47)
The use of found, archival and stock footage in films is a practice that began with the compilation documentary, pioneered in 1927 by Esfir Schub. The compilation documentary, often amassed from a mélange of newsreel clips, became commonplace in the 1930s and in numerous instances used footage outside of its original context in order to serve evidentiary functions for a documentary film. Over time however, documentary filmmakers encountered problems where no footage could be used to literally and realistically express concepts and ideas. As the film essay became a dominant form of documentary, the use of footage to serve metaphorical and expressive functions became commonplace. These moments began appearing in films with higher frequency and announce several important changes to documentary form and our cultural understanding of representations of history itself. Increasingly, found-footage in documentary is utilized for its expressionistic and metaphorical properties as a means to explore history and historiography through the prism of media and documentary cinema.
It would be difficult to find documentary filmmakers who employ found footage to serve metaphorical and expressionistic functions as frequently and with such distinction as Craig Baldwin and Adam Curtis. When discussing Curtis and Baldwin, the use of the word documentary necessitates some defense. As documentaries increasingly move away from the principles of “Clarity, Simplicity, Transparency” (Arthur, 2003, p. 58) as suggested by critic Paul Arthur, aspects of the essay film have become dominant components of contemporary documentary. Many have already characterized Curtis as an essay filmmaker and Baldwin as an anti-documentary filmmaker—yet both still maintain a distinct “documentary-ness” despite bending the proverbial rules. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Baldwin and Curtis are engaged in a highly subjective form of documentary which mirrors the film essay. They employ a diverse array of media with a focus on the social and cultural power of both fictive and documentary images. They have devised several coding and metaphoric strategies which I will discuss in detail as they pertain to each film.
Before exploring the implications of metaphoric and expressionistic footage in documentary, I will first give examples of how it has been employed in the past. In Jay Leyda’s study of the compilation documentary Films Beget Films he alludes to avant-garde artist and documentary filmmaker Hans Richter, who describes a dilemma he had while compiling footage for a documentary:
I had to film the subject of the functioning of a stock-exchange. For this an exact record in chronological sequence of all stages of its functioning, no matter how well observed, is not sufficient…The task given this sort of documentary film is to portray a concept. Even what is invisible must be made visible…In this effort to give body to the invisible world of imagination, thought and ideas, the essay film can employ an incomparably greater reservoir of expressive means than can the pure documentary film . (Leyda 31)
Richter illuminates the moments in documentary films where concepts, ideas and even historical realities are insufficiently represented with literal footage or re-creation. These are moments when footage can be employed to serve expressionistic functions and turn abstract concepts into vivid visual metaphors which no “literal” footage can adequately represent. This non-literal use can be used for irony, because unembroidered images do not exist or are not available, and to set mood or tone. In some instances, the purpose of utilizing specific images is simply inexplicable.
Leyda points out ironic use of expressionistic footage in Esfir Schub’s seminal compilation documentary The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) :
A crowd of elegant idlers are dancing [a mazurka on the awinged deck of a yacht]
The dancing tires some of them. They drink wine.
Title: ‘It made me sweat.’
And again they dance.
A peasant, exhausted by his work, ploughs a furrow (Leyda 39)
Here, footage is employed in montage to express ironic distinctions between the pleasant sweat of dancing the mazurka and the sweat of a laborer, toiling in the fields. The ironic effect created by Schub is done solely in the editing process through juxtaposing images, rather than finding footage that is inherently ironic. The hyperbolic effect of this juxtaposition is achieved solely through editing as opposed to something inherent in the images themselves. Her metaphoric construction benefits her ideological agenda; to expose the disparity between rich and poor; the “hard work” of leisure and the hard work of labor. Ultimately the meanings of these images are transmogrified into the contextual parameters set by the filmmaker, in a kind of editorial comment by Schub.
The Berlin workers’ film society of 1928 employed this technique when harsh censorship bans prohibited the use of contemporary news reels to show during their meetings. They were faced with the difficult task of creating footage where none was available. Ingeniously, the projectionists utilized old UFA newsreels which weren’t prohibited and edited them to resemble the news of the day, effectively constructing the news through history. The reels were so effective that according to Siegfried Kracauer, they “stirred Berlin audiences to clamorous demonstrations.” (Leyda 29) Here, footage has been transformed to fit a reality because under the circumstances, no literal footage could be used.
Radical Metaphor in the works of Craig Baldwin and Adam Curtis
In all of the above examples, footage is used for documentary purposes to fill in for events which for various reasons aren’t available in their literal documentary form. In essence, this footage serves a metaphorical purpose. Critic James Peterson alludes to this use of found footage when he writes:
In a film metaphor an object or event is represented by an image of something that shares some of its features. A classic example…comes near the end of Strike (1925): during the ruthless attack on the workers, Eisenstein cuts to an image of a bull being slaughtered. In such a metaphor…the vehicle – the bull – stands for the tenor – the workers. Understanding this metaphor is quite easy because the narrative sequence specifies quite precisely what is happening, and the bull’s slaughter enriches our understanding of what is happening to the workers. We can call this kind of metaphor, in which the vehicle is brought in to help flesh out our notion of the tenor, a canonic metaphor. (Peterson 58)
This form of metaphor is common and employed often, but the radical metaphor, also discussed by Peterson has some small but important differences. The canonical metaphor shows us both the actual subject (in this case the workers—the tenor) and the metaphorical stand-in (the bull being slaughtered—the vehicle), whereas radical metaphors give us only the metaphoric image, while the actual subject is only suggested. In other words, we are given the vehicle—while the tenor is only implicit. Adam Curtis and Craig Baldwin frequently employ metaphors that have no visible tenor.
Adam Curtis’ use of radical metaphor is done most often in the service of creating a specific emotional atmosphere. Sometimes, he uses footage to metaphorically support the suppositions of his literal documentary footage. Curtis is as likely to use narrative films, popular music, television commercials and TV programming as he is historical footage. The end result is a documentary comprised of all the materials of culture—many ignored by traditional documentary films. Errol Morris astutely remarks about Curtis’ work that “Here stock-footage becomes expressionistic – never literal – an excursion into a dream – or, if you prefer – nightmare.” (Morris) Though I disagree with Morris’ definition of the images as “stock” footage , his characterization of their non-literal use gets to the heart of why Curtis is not a compilation filmmaker. When asked in an interview with GreenCine how he came to use found footage in his first film Pandora’s Box, his answer is purely practical. Curtis had great difficulty attempting to create images to support his complex thesis linking science and politics: “it was just a disaster until I suddenly realized you just throw anything in you like. It is out of desperation.”(Eaves 1) Curtis’ convenient discovery has led to a practice which has come to define his films and is integral to their success with audiences. Curtis’ documentaries deal in ideas and their often catastrophic immutability and attraction through history. Because Curtis must fabricate the links between various pieces of historical footage, it becomes necessary that he uses radical metaphor to solidify their relationships.
In Century of the Self (2002, BBC) Curtis tells the story of Edward Bernays, inventor of public relations and nephew of Sigmund Freud, and how his ideas became powerful tools in advertising and politics. Bernays impact on advertising and mass media necessitates an investigation into the commercials and advertising he helped create. In this situation, Curtis unifies form and content by editing his film like a commercial. When discussing the attempts of the tobacco industry to induce women to smoke (then a decidedly unladylike thing to do) Bernays linked cigarette smoking to the penis, in order to make women believe that they would become more powerful and by extension more free if they took up smoking. When describing Bernays linking of unconscious desires to mass produced goods we are given numerous metaphorical examples linking products to sex and prosperity.
The Power of Nightmares (2004, BBC) explores how politicians who once offered positive visions of the future now promise to protect us from nightmares of terrorism and political unrest. Curtis capitalizes on images and music that create a paranoid atmosphere and then contrasts the mood with images that suddenly caricature and rupture these sentiments. The opening of each episode features a montage of lights flickering off, dark and empty rooms, and silhouetted figures at a rally carrying flags, all contributing to a sense of intense fear. Suddenly an orientalized caricature of an Arab appears followed by a shot of a man in a horror film running down a hall and shutting a door, followed by the iconic scene from Nosferatu of the vampire opening the door to drink Huttor’s blood. The trope of the bloodthirsty Arab terrorists pervades the film, but is placed in contexts that completely undermine the images. Instead, the viewer finds themselves alarmed not by the might of Al Quaida, but rather at the small group of people are amassing unprecedented power by exaggerating this danger.
The Trap (2007, BBC) details how game theory, once used by the American military to predict the response of the Soviet powers to nuclear attack, has been filtered into economic and foreign policy. Curtis is interested in seeing how ideas and theories play out in real world scenarios. He supports this investigation with footage employed in a wide variety of ways, but most often to create an emotional or intellectual atmosphere that reflect one colossally overlooked truth: human beings aren’t mechanical—their behaviors and actions cannot be calculated because they are inherently unpredictable. More than any of his previous films, the montage technique is rife with radical metaphor and highly ambiguous images. In the opening of the film large red titles appear: “Human beings will always betray you” and “You can only trust the numbers” over an automaton-like voice counting down from 10 with images of hordes of angry crowds, a manikin arms touching a carpet, the nervous and jagged images of the inside of a hospital. These grotesque images are suddenly interrupted by the naively optimistic sounds of Brian Eno’s “On Some Far Away Beach” with a montage of speeches by Tony Blair and George Bush announcing a new age of liberation and freedom for the world. But these speeches seem absurd when framed between Curtis’ montages of a chaotic world, where freedom, it is implied, often means chaos.
Experimental filmmaker and documentarian Craig Baldwin uniquely employs all of the techniques discussed in regard to the metaphorical and expressive use of found footage. He utilizes footage to create irony, when no footage exists and to set mood or tone. Baldwin’s documentaries often mix history with narrative fiction, conspiracy theories, lies, and predictions for the future. He is a unique artist in the film world because he seems to be discussed amongst both documentary scholars and avant-garde film scholars. As Peterson says, “In the avant-garde compilation, metaphors are not just commentary or enrichment, as in Strike, rather, they are the very fabric of the discourse.” (Peterson 58) While these designations by Peterson are identical to Baldwin’s form, his use of the documentary discourse makes him a more problematic figure.
His film ¡O No Coronado! (1992) is a historically accurate look at the life of a lesser known Spanish Conquistador, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, whose attempt to discover the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola resulted in brutal genocide and the “discovery” of much of what is now the South Western United States. However no footage exists to portray these events, which are depicted through the appropriation of a variety of old films and television, from “The Lone Ranger” to Swashbuckler films of the 1930s and 40s. This use of footage is discussed heavily in Paul Arthur’s “The Status of Found Footage”:
Rather than reaffirming the transparency of visual depiction in historical memory, this common form of dissonance raises the specter of evidentiary blockage or partiality. Documentarists who would never dream of restaging an event with actors do not hesitate in creating collages which amount to metaphoric fabrications of reality. The guarantees of authenticity ostensibly secured by archival footage are largely a myth. In consequence, the binary opposition of unalloyed illustration--as the province of conventional documentary-- and figurative reshaping is hardly as solid as it initially seemed. (Arthur, 1999, p. 66)
Arthur’s characterization of “metaphorical fabrications of reality” and the problematic relationship to documentary are significant attributes of Baldwin’s films. These metaphoric fabrications are also identical to Peterson’s radical metaphor, in which the vehicle (the appropriated images of The Lone Ranger) is implicitly representative of a visually non-existent tenor, in this case Francisco Coronado.
In Craig Baldwin’s most conventional documentary, Sonic Outlaws (1995), footage from The Wizard of Oz is used to frame the film. Baldwin says, “My use of ‘Don’t mind the person behind the curtain,’ …was just a formal device to suggest that I want to expose the powers-that-be behind the media machine. It’s one metaphor in Sonic Outlaws out of five-quadrillion.” (MacDonald 176) In this particular instance, the vehicle is a phrase which when placed into new circumstances has a radically different meaning. This kind of radical metaphor could also be called “aberrant decoding” a term coined by Umberto Eco and defined by William Wees as “situations in which the receiver of a message fails (intentionally or not) to interpret the message according to the set of rules governing signification ("codes") used by the sender of the message.” (Wees, 2002, p. 3) Much of Baldwin’s own purported love of détournement resembles this process, where the intentionality of footage is confronted by its own historical biases.
Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1991) is an even more problematic film, integrating the history of American intervention into Latin American Communist politics during the Nixon, Reagan and Bush Sr. era with paranoid conspiracy theories. These theories surround an Alien race called Quetzals, who encourage South American communist regimes by creating an army of androids to ascend to powerful political positions in order to overthrow the United States and eliminate the underground nuclear testing which threaten their subterranean world. His conspiracy tract is depicted with appropriated Science-Fiction and ephemeral classroom films. The film was described by critic Michael Zryd as a “meta-historical critique of how American historical narratives are structured by apocalypse and conspiracy…” (Zryd 54) The metaphorical use of footage extends beyond moments—the entire film is predicated on linking alien invasion and atomic mutation films to the pervasive American fear of Communist world domination. In many ways P. Adams Sitney’s description of the “Menippean satire” is the best categorical representation of this particular film. Sitney writes:
All the ideas proposed in a Menippean satire are subject to irony; the very concept of a philosophical resolution becomes an occasion for parody. Fantasy and realism alternate or even coincide, more often than not with a concatenation of styles and perspectives. The Menippea frequently incorporates other genres and films-within-films. (Sitney 411)
The heterogeneous inclusion of materials is a formal exercise in reality distortion. This particular work by Baldwin also points to the non-diegetic suggestion of the psychology of modern man—specifically represented by the paranoid-schizophrenic narrator; a man whose 99 rants manifest the symptoms of an individual who has come to integrate fictive narratives and historical truths to form a delusional master narrative about the benevolence of American imperialism in foreign policy. Much of the conspiracy theories interjected into Baldwin’s history come from actual outsider literature, which Baldwin calls “maniac literature.”
Another critical entry point into this work is to consider the purpose of Baldwin’s blending of ignored historical truths about the CIA with patent distortions so obvious that they are easily separated from the authentic materials. In this situation, the viewer is invited to separate information in the film into categories of truth and misinformation the same way an enlightened spectator does while watching news and documentary histories. Baldwin’s documentary is deeply skeptical of didactic media because of its historical misuse for propaganda—his strategy in Tribulation 99 is to openly acknowledge the propagandistic elements and create a space where viewers become active in the process of separating fact from fiction. In many ways Tribulation 99 is a didactic film, as it forces the viewer to use their own media literacy to get to the truth. This process also mirrors the way many individuals, who live in societies where the government repressively controls the media, must separate state propaganda from actual news.
To explain the unreasonable overthrow of Salvador Allende funded by the United States Government, Baldwin’s paranoid narrator explains that “ president so-called ‘Salvador Allende’ proceeds to disrupt the economy, ferment chaos and alter the earth’s polar axis.” These suppositions about Chile are half true and half unbelievable. The narrator takes truths about the Chilean economy, in severe decline from 1970-1973 and mix it with false rationale for the US support of the coup to overthrow him, namely the attempt to alter the earth’s axis and make it uninhabitable by humans. Baldwin gives a similar treatment to the iconic Grenadian revolutionary Maurice Bishop by positing that he was helped by a Quetzal team of psychic vampires to assume power in Grenada—illustrated by using scenes from Blacula and a number of ephemeral b-horror films. In these metaphors, revolutionary figures in Latin America are demonized not for the possible economic or political turmoil they inflict upon their countries, but rather because they are literally supernaturally evil figures.
Continuing the pseudo-documentary style inaugurated by Tribulation 99, Specters of the Spectrum unifies the history of media from Nicola Tesla to the Internet with a post-apocalyptic narrative about the danger of concentrated media in the 20th Century. The film begins in the future after a single corporation has complete control over the media and all copyright. This history of media from the phonograph to television is told in a long montage which includes footage shot by Baldwin. A character from the film is traveling away from Earth and picking up radio waves and television dispatches as they radiate through space. These dispatches are a collected history of media, telling of the strange parallel lives of the inventor of electric television Philo T. Farnsworth and the inventor of radio, Nikola Tesla, both men whose scientific ingenuity and inventions were undermined, questioned and eventually stolen from them by corporate entities. Through this extended documentary segment, Baldwin tells the compelling history of media innovation and the inevitable cooptation of these ideas by corporate enterprise that quickly eliminate any public control. The segment reminds contemporary viewers that the early days of radio were much like the internet is today—unregulated and highly democratized. Through this historical investigation, we are invited to make parallels between the corporate media control of the past and the impending new regulation of the internet many telecommunications companies are trying to secure now.
The metaphoric use of footage for documentary purposes is a process which mirrors the avant-garde’s employment of the same technique. The difference between the two is that the relationship between concept and representation is exactly the opposite. While avant-garde artists respond to footage by constructing (or discovering) its alternate meaning or conceptual potential, the documentary filmmaker already has a conceptual framework and seeks to find footage to reflect those ideas. It is easy to see how Adam Curtis writes an essay and raids the BBC archive to find footage to reflect his talking points. Craig Baldwin however seems to occupy both the space of the avant-gardist and the documentarian. He uses footage to represent his narratives but also in order to explore its hidden implications.
Documentary Film as Editorial and Film Essay
Earlier in this essay, Hans Richter referred to the film essay as a valuable form because of its greater potential to illustrate the “invisible world of imagination, thought and ideas.” Richter draws distinctions between the documentary and the film essay principally because of expressive use of footage and what could be characterized as highly subjective narrative elements. Since Richter’s distinction was made, a number of new techniques have become deeply entrenched in documentary forms which are as, if not more, radical than these innovations. Re-creation, the non-neutral or disinterested “bull in china shop approach of Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore” (Tovey) seem to create a union between the film essay and the documentary. Critic Paul Arthur describes the film essay as “a meeting ground for documentary, avant-garde, and art film impulses.” (Arthur, 2003, p.62) In my formulation, there are two distinguishing factors between traditional documentary and the essay film; editorializing and the use of fiction media in the form of television shows and films. Curtis and Baldwin greatly benefit from these two elements, because, as Arthur notes, “the essay offers a range of politically charged visions uniquely able to blend abstract ideas with concrete realities, the general case with specific notations of human experience.” (Arthur, 2003, p. 58)
Alexander Pudovkin referred to the use of archival/stock/found-footage in documentaries as “The Global Film.” He remarks that, “Such a documentary film is not merely informational. It differs from the newsreel in the same way that an editorial or article in a newspaper differs from the news item in the next column.” (Leyda 37) Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis directly reports history, like the news item, but he interprets it through image and sound like an editorial writer. Paul Arthur explains the return to the found-footage documentary from the pervasive “verite” style dominating the 1960s in his essay “The Status of Found Footage” by explaining that:
The widespread post-sixties' appetite for found footage coincides with two interdependent initiatives: the desire to reformulate tropes of historical narrative, and the micro-political critique of historical exclusion or distortion conducted on the terrain of mass cultural representation by disenfranchised groups as a precondition for self-determination. (Arthur, 1999, p. 60)
Arthur’s invocation of reformulating the tropes of historical narrative appears throughout the work of Adam Curtis and Craig Baldwin, who recycle media as a way of finding the nexus between history as it is experienced and history as it has come to be understood through media. Arthur’s quote also gets to the root of found-footage filmmaker Craig Baldwin’s own purported mission to “liquidate the distinctions between official and unofficial history,” (Yeo 24) particularly by showing news footage which is, through our present vantage point, completely false and often alarmist in nature. However news footage is not the material used most often by Baldwin or Curtis to create metaphor. Instead, they find ephemeral films and television shows which do not have literal resonance outside of the historical conditions in which they were created. In some ways, they are like media archeologists, pointing to the historical significance of forgotten mass cultural narratives. They utilize strategies like radical metaphor and aberrant decoding in order to achieve these ends.
Curtis’ invocation of non-documentary footage is a way of dissociating viewers from the belief that they are watching an objective documentary. In an interview, Curtis says his use of images is integral to conveying a message about the way his work should be watched:
In a way, the pictures have a sense of disassociation. They stop people thinking, "Oh he's trying to Agit-Prop us." Instead, I'm having fun with this argument. I show quite clearly in the way I use pictures that this is an argument. I don't pretend that this is the voice of God, that this is an authorial thing. What I'm saying is, look, the world is very complicated and this is my argument, based on an assembly of facts which are not untrue, but this is my argument, and the way I use pictures shows that and it's almost like they know what they're going to get and they can argue with it. (Eaves 1)
Like any talented editorial writer, Curtis forms arguments by drawing connections between facts. The thesis to the film he is discussing, The Power of Nightmares is factually unverifiable, because it is conceptual and highly subjective. The film asserts that the rise of Neoconservativism and Islamic Fundamentalism are parallel and that both ideologies have benefited from manufacturing nightmares about the world without the protection and empowerment of their repressive political agendas. While his thesis is highly subjective, Curtis compiles three hours of interviews, news footage, and well researched facts to prove his argument. But the inclusion and exclusion of facts is not done in the spirit of creating an objective look—it is done to best serve his argument.
The Mass-Media Documentary
Baldwin and Curtis are engaged in a form of mass-media documentary which seeks to illuminate the power of fiction media on the world at large. The distinction between these two filmmakers is that while Curtis uses non-documentary media to accent his documentary footage, Baldwin is as concerned with his “fiction” footage as he is with documentary footage. This form of documentary is closely related to documentaries which seek to give viewers a deeper understanding of how media, specifically marketing and advertising, functions. The Persuaders (2004) and Merchants of Cool (2001) produced by Frontline PBS were revealing looks into the minds of the “creators of popular culture” and are good examples of this documentary form. These documentaries seek to educate individuals about the way desire is manufactured within them. It is ironic that while the cliché of a media saturated world is repeated endlessly, teaching media literacy is rarely undertaken by public educators to help students deal with the ubiquitous manipulation and propaganda of advertising and marketing. This is precisely the roles undertaken by Baldwin and Curtis.
Another fascinating entry point into the work of Craig Baldwin and Adam Curtis is to consider the “passive reception” model of media discussed at length in Bertolt Brecht’s essay “The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication” and in Jean Baudrillard’s “Requiem for the Media.” In these essays the current “distribution only” model of both television and radio are critiqued for their unilateral nature and non-adherence to an actual model for reciprocal communication. Baudrillard condemns “the media as the institution of an irreversible model of communication without a response.” (Baudrillard 84) However Curtis and Baldwin are engaged in just that—a lucid response aimed at the media (both fiction and non-fiction) and at promoting greater media literacy in the world. The possibility of appropriating the materials of media to produce such a response changes non-reciprocal media practices—which may account for why the traditional media has been so aggressive towards this practice. In the case of Adam Curtis, he is unable to secure North American distribution because of the control over the materials he uses. Umberto Eco conceived of this practice when he described “groups of communications guerillas who would restore a critical dimension to passive reception” (Eco, 1986, p. 142) of radio and television.
The profound cultural influence that fiction media has on society warrants serious documentary investigation. Though there are numerous examples of fiction films and television shows entering public consciousness and even helping form government policy, recently the television show 24 has had deep significance to the American Congress and was invoked by Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo (to loud applause) as evidence for supporting the torture of suspected terrorists. (Kovacs)
Craig Baldwin’s work is in a dialogue with documentary form. He employs the shibboleths of the documentary, which are utilized to subvert and challenge the authoritative position that documentaries have in our society. Critic William Wees points out that:
Baldwin creates a distinctive form of pseudo-documentary that parodies the voice-over narration and compilation montage of conventional documentary films. While purporting to document the elaborate conspiracies between governments, multi-national corporations and (in Tribulation 99) extraterrestrials, his films are funny, satiric, anarchic and astute critiques of the visual and verbal rhetoric of the mass media. Baldwin not only steals images from the media, he appropriates modes of discourse used by the media to authenticate their information and envelop themselves in an aura of omniscience. (Wees, 1993, p. 23)
In a bold unification of form and content, many of Baldwin’s documentaries assume the same roll as the media he critiques; they are full of blatant misinformation, lies, and mischaracterizations but sprinkled with facts that are distorted into unbelievable arguments. Baldwin’s meticulously researched pseudo-documentaries formulate alternative histories from their union of the media, politics and culture of a period of time. In many ways, Baldwin espouses the ideas and practices of Walter Benjamin’s “Arcades Project” in which “‘the garbage heap’ of 19th century commodities” (Wees, 1993, p. 52) is put onto display. Baldwin literally scavenges garbage cans for footage because, in his own words “refuse is the archive of our times.” (Yeo 24) Baldwin’s serious studies of media and history together are rivaled only by film and media theorists. He is one of the only documentary filmmakers to acknowledge that generations of children won’t get their history of World War II from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich or even The Sorrow and the Pity but from Saving Private Ryan and The Great Escape. Baldwin characterizes his work and its relationship to history and documentary:
The narration of history is really what my films are about, because it's all narrative; it all has to be told a certain way, and obviously there's a lot of stuff that's left out. So I'm trying to open up a space where ideas about history can be generated, to create a sort of a theory in which we can kind of see this process, where you can see how certain kinds of meanings become attached to certain kinds of images, and how that can be undercut. (Attell)
In other words, Baldwin finds the strange territory between the mass cultural narratives of cinema history and integrates them with “actual history” as he envisions it. However Baldwin’s contributions to documentary are multifarious. It is important to remember that in his critique of media, he adopts the discursive methods of media in order to exemplify its failings. Baldwin calls his works “pseudo-psuedo-documentary,” which highlights the strange mixture of fact and fiction, history and its representations.
Like a conventional documentary filmmaker, Curtis’ works are meticulously researched and backed up by interviews, news footage and other objective fact based support. His inclusion of a variety of non-fiction films is used in several ways. First, he uses films and television shows to invoke a specific period of time discussed by the documentary, second, to construct mood or tone, often in ways that aren’t immediately comprehensible and third, to unite the content and form of his investigations.
In the documentary Pandora’s Box (1992, BBC), Curtis explores the intersection of politics and science. In a segment exploring the insecticide DDT, Curtis shows how the rise of the product also paralleled a dramatic increase in films featuring gigantic and monstrous insects. Was the success of DDT (and the refusal by many to recognize its harmful effects on human mammary organs and various wildlife) attributable to the preponderance of narratives about insect invasion? The answer does not matter much to Curtis, but the link is irrefutable. While these films reflect fears of genetic mutation by nuclear material, they also conveniently provide a narrative of man using science and technology to overcome the insect world. In this example, Curtis has linked historical fact with historical fiction media.
While critical suspicions over the inherent authenticity of documentary films has long been a point of contention in their academic study, the recent politicization of documentaries has made these reservations a widespread reality . There are positive and negative components of these developments. On the positive side, individuals are increasingly aware of how facts, statistics and arguments can be distorted easily in visual media. Their awareness forces them to get information from multiple sources rather than be victim to the false information of a single entity. The negative side is easily observed by the way misinformation is used to create more debate where none once existed for political purposes. The works of Adam Curtis and Craig Baldwin are interesting exercises in both acknowledging the fallibility of documentary while still making important claims. Perhaps the most striking aspects of these two oeuvres is their initiation of many viewers towards a more detailed picture of how media operates and how media should be seen in relation to truth.
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Zryd, Michael. “Found Footage Film as Metahistory: Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99,” The Moving Image 3.2 (2003) 54
A Research Site Devoted to the Past and Future of Found Footage Film and Video
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