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The Moving Image 3.2 (2003) 40-61

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Found Footage Film as Discursive Metahistory:
Craig Baldwin's Tribulation 99

Michael Zryd


A philosophical premise that's been around for a long, long time: if you want to know what's going on in a culture look at the things that everybody takes for granted, and put a lot of emphasis on that rather than what they want to show you.
Bruce Conner [End Page 40]

The found footage film is a specific subgenre of experimental (or avant-garde) cinema that integrates previously shot film material into new productions. 1 The etymology of the phrase suggests its devotion to uncovering "hidden meanings" in film material. "Footage" is an already archaic British imperial (and now American imperial) measure of film length, evoking a bulk of industrial product—waste, junk—within which treasures can be "found." Found footage is different from archival footage: the archive is an official institution that separates historical record from the outtake; 2 much of the material used in experimental found footage films is not archived but from private collections, commercial stock shot agencies, junk stores, and garbage bins, or has literally been found in the street. Found footage filmmakers play at the margins, whether with the obscurity of the ephemeral 3 footage itself [End Page 41] (filmmaker Nathanial Dorsky likes to call it "lost" footage) 4 or with the countercultural meanings excavated 5 from culturally iconic footage. Found footage filmmaking is a metahistorical form commenting on the cultural discourses and narrative patterns behind history. Whether picking through the detritus of the mass mediascape or refinding (through image processing and optical printing) the new in the familiar, the found footage artist critically investigates the history behind the image, discursively embedded within its history of production, circulation, and consumption.

Craig Baldwin's Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies under America (USA, 1991) is one of the most complex North American found footage films produced in recent decades, and one that functions as a limit case of the experimental found footage film's relation to history. While some have asserted that Baldwin's practice is "obscure" 6 or "cut off from the historical real" (Russell 1999, 269), I argue that the film less represents history than analyzes the historical discourses and political forces that motivate historical events. A committed leftist satire directed at American foreign policy and media culture, Tribulation 99 shows how found footage collage, through metaphor and irony, can offer highly condensed metahistorical analysis and complex political critique.

Tribulation 99 uses an astonishingly heterogeneous collection of images. Composed entirely of found footage (with a few rephotographed still images and documents), the film culls its images both from ostensibly legitimate institutional sources of knowledge production (e.g., government documentaries and documents, newsreels, instructional and science films) and from unofficial sources not typically accorded legitimate status (e.g., B movies, science fiction, exploitation films, propaganda, advertising). At forty-eight minutes, and with its extremely rapid montage (some images appear on the screen for just a few frames), Tribulation 99 is extraordinary in its density and length. 7

While Tribulation 99 emerges from the experimental found footage film tradition, it also functions as science fiction narrative and historical documentary. 8 The film begins as the former: a whispered, conspiratorial voice-over describes an interplanetary invasion of menacing aliens named Quetzals who burrow underground, vowing the destruction of the United States, when they are threatened by World War II American nuclear tests. This fictional narrative quickly gains a nonfiction and historical dimension, however, when Baldwin superimposes a history of U.S. involvement in post-World War II Latin America onto the science fiction narrative, proposing that U.S. foreign policy was motivated by a need to respond to the threat of alien invasion. As the film progresses, Baldwin's allegory becomes clear: Quetzals stand in for communists, as the film suggests that American political policy was motivated by a racist, paranoid, and apocalyptic fear more appropriate as a response to a threat from reptilian space invaders than to the [End Page 42...


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