Essential SF Q&A: Craig Baldwin

By Pam Grady

Craig Baldwin isn’t just Essential SF, he is Essential Mission district. From his vantage point at Other Cinema’s Valencia Street headquarters, he witnesses the gentrifying city, while remaining committed to his own vision, embodied by his collage films, such as Tribulation 99 and Sonic Outlaws, and by his commitment to avant garde and experimental film through other Other Cinema. While change sweeps the city and the Bay Area at warp speed, Baldwin abides, proof that art can sometimes triumph over commerce.

San Francisco Film Society: Let’s start at the beginning. Was it specifically people like Bruce Conner that brought you to the Bay Area and to SF State?

Craig Baldwin: Well, no. The point is that it wasn’t just Bruce Conner. Bruce Conner was part of a larger scene, of course, and it was probably the larger Bay Area tradition of, you could, say experimental film. I wasn’t thinking about Bruce Conner, specifically. I had gone to school in Santa Barbara, but they didn’t have a film school there. And I’d gone to Davis, and they didn’t really have a film school there, but I had taken film classes at both places. Basically, it was to live in a more metropolitan, cosmopolitan area that had more of an active film scene. Ultimately, I studied a little bit with Bruce Conner, but more importantly, it was the much larger breadth of the film culture.

SFFS: You have a pretty singular style. What was the key, to you, to developing that? Did you have an ‘aha’ moment?

CB: An ‘aha’ moment? This is anecdotal, but it’s true. There would’ve been another moment if had not been for this one, because all the conditions were on the ground: a history of free-thinking, a sense of experimentation, a flourishing culture of creativity, blah, blah, blah. All of these things turned out to be more or less true, especially coming from the suburbs of Sacramento—that is Carmichael, California. Sure, there were plenty opportunities for me to take advantage of the resources on the ground—I’ll get to that in a second—and express myself, but because of roommates and friends and things like that, again this is anecdotally, I ended up working in a porn theater.

Now porn theaters hardly exist anymore, they’re kind of a vanishing breed. That kind of sums up my whole aesthetic, anyway, which is surfing the wave of obsolescence. Everything is thrown away, so I try to more or less pick up, scavenge, make use of. So what I’m saying is that even in the porn theater, this is 16mm now, kind of the lowest kind of register in the exhibition world, I could see that film was being treated rather shabbily, just being thrown around, whole sections being torn up, not necessarily maliciously, but just in the course of running projectors basically 12 hours a day, day in, day out. Film would fall on the ground.

I ended up living in the projection booth of the Art Theater, which is now, by the way, the office of San Francisco CInematheque. As I became close to the material, I guess you could say that was ‘aha.’ It was demystified. You could see it was just a ribbon of celluloid, which is translucent emulsion through which light passes. Film itself, it wasn’t something that was beyond human ken. It wasn’t something that you had to have a lot of money to buy or have foundation support. It was something that was right next to us, all around us. You could handle it and you could make use of it.

If there had to be any one and there wasn’t any one—like I say, it was more the larger intermingling of a lot of different forces and ideas in my life, but certainly that was the point where I said, ‘Jesus Christ, is that what it comes down to? Using this material right here and ready to project.’  So that was it. I said, ‘Well, yeah, if these guys can do it, whatever the porn makers, so can I.’ That really drew me to not just film itself, but especially found film, that is to say once used film or appropriated film or film from the archive and so on and so forth. And also outsider film, which I later became associated with Other Cinema, so the idea of marginal or outsider or peripheral or de classé film.

SFFS: What made you stay in the Bay Area?

CB: Well, Jesus Christ, that’s kind of a softball lob there. It’s easy to say. Of course, there are a lot of terrible things that could be said about it. [Laughs]…It is because there is a shred of oppositional culture, a shred of critical thinking, a shred of communal support for artists and audiences for experimental work. Yeah, that’s what’s kept me here, for sure. Plus, I can scrape by, in my own way, either selling films, as I do now, putting films on, distributing films, publishing films, and making films, of course, too. That’s not so much a source of revenue, but there’s an audience for it, for sure. So all of those things, and I’m not saying anything you probably couldn’t have heard from another person, but in my case, being already kind of marginalized, self-marginalization—Cinema Pauvre is what I call it…Impoverished Cinema, just like Art Pauvre. After the war, say, in Rome, artists who were going to be making a full torso or nude in sculptures, weren’t going to be using the marble out of the quarries of Milan. No, no, no, they weren’t going to be doing that. That’s absurd. What they started to do was use the gravel and the rebar and the brick and the mortar and the common rock that became the material for all the new housing projects to house all the displaced people. That’s Art Pauvre or, more correctly, Arte Povera. It certainly made a huge difference in my mind and it’s certainly a major player now. What I’m saying is, by the same token, Cinema Pauvre was always my aesthetic, use the materials that are available to you and work from where you are and make art that’s responsible to your times. That’s what I’ve been able to do in the Bay Area…I crave an urban experience, but the East Coast is probably too daunting. I am a California boy. I share the sensibility of the West Coast. It’s dear to me. I understand it and San Francisco is still barely viable, and so I’m digging in.

SFFS: What, to you, is an Essential SF moment in terms of cinema?

CB: It would be the relationship between artist and audience, that is to say, it’s not like an LA thing where the filmmaker is distant and remote and surrounded by the production company and hacks and bodyguards, for that matter. Here, the filmmakers come from amongst us. The other day we had a show of new experimental works. There might have been 12 filmmakers in the audience. We introduced them and they all just came out of the audience. All of the filmmakers were there in the room and little did people know that there was a filmmaker sitting right next to them. There’s the realization that filmmakers are human beings and there’s immediate rapport and a leveling and an exchange between artist and audience. It breaks down those barriers, also, between life and art.

Having a life that’s creative and bringing art into your life as a regular part of it, in fact, a guiding principle, is something that you do still see here. It’s much less a professional kind of thing than a vision that one can be committed to. So that, to me, is essential idea of this—I won’t use the word ‘democracy,’ although that works OK, but I would say there’s generosity and there’s sharing and giving and the enthusiasm you see in our audiences, on the one hand, and also the creativity and the willingness to explore the streets and, especially the lower depths, that you do see, especially in experimental and underground filmmakers in San Francisco, is, to me, what’s really, truly characteristic of the Bay Area.

Essential SF is the San Francisco Film Society's ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions. This year's inductees—filmmaker and curator Craig Baldwin, longtime film distributor California Newsreel, Mill Valley Film Festival Director of Programming Zoë Elton, journalist Michael Fox and filmmakers Jenni Olson and Jennifer Phang—will be honored at this annual celebration. A key event in the Film Society's year-round appreciation of local talent, this tribute shines a light on the region's most unique and creative personalities and their invaluable contributions to the film world.