Craig Baldwin's Spectres of the Spectrum is an interesting experiment, taking a slew of disparate film clips and combining them into a feature length cinematic collage. Yes, I do mean "interesting" in the politely dismissive sense. I respect the ambition, effort, and creativity that must have gone into crafting something like this, but Spectres of the Spectrum isn't a movie I can honestly say I enjoyed. Piecemealed together from an incomprehensibly large archive of media, including vintage educational films, ancient science TV shows, Fleischer's animated Superman, various car advertisements, an excerpt from Gremlins, and audio lifted from The Outer Limits, among countless others, Spectres of the Spectrum is an amalgam of science fiction and science fact. Set in the near future in a post-apocalyptic alternate world, the movie follows the quest of Yogi and his daughter Boo-Boo to restore some sort of order to a world ravaged by electromagnetic energy. Mankind has been devastated, largely devolved into mindless, mutated zombies. Boo-Boo believes her mother has hidden the solution to this chaos in a television broadcast from decades past, so she ventures into a shiny metal trailer and vanishes into the timestream. Along with the occasional battle with corporate flying saucers or assaults on the family compound by a mole man arm, it's revealed how real-life scientific advancements like alternating current and broadcast television led to the devastation of Yogi and Boo-Boo's homeworld.
The film's narration is dense, and both the dialogue and the visual assault of so much footage are overwhelming.
This is not a movie that is likely to be appreciated or even fully understood with a single viewing, and in order to glean much from it at all, some familiarity with the moderately recent history of science (particularly as it relates to energy and communication) is a near-necessity. I'm geeky enough to have read several articles on orgone energy and could write a capsule of the life of Nikolai Tesla straight off the top of my head, but without a baseline of that sort of knowledge, I think I would've been entirely lost. Despite the fact that the barrage of information is so unrelenting, I have to admit to getting bored with the film fairly quickly. With a leaner runtime, I think I would have been considerably more enthusiastic about the project, but Spectres of the Spectrum couldn't maintain my interest for its almost interminable 90 minutes. I think it would've been one thing if that data onslaught had gelled into something greater, but it seems rather scatterbrained, bouncing from one mini-story to the next without a strong sense of how either necessarily relates to each other or the overall story. As I watched Spectres of the Spectrum, I found myself wishing that Baldwin had dispensed with the science fiction angle entirely. I was much more fascinated with the retelling of the life of Philo Farnsworth through an assortment of different film clips, for example, than I was with genetically-passed, star-shattering epileptic mind powers from the future. I dunno. Spectres of the Spectrum, at least from the handful of notices I've skimmed through, seems to be rather widely liked, but it's just too much for too long for my tastes. Intrigued viewers are encouraged to track down this DVD, but something this inaccessible is difficult to recommend as a blind buy.
Video: The full-frame video can't, or at least shouldn't, be rated the same way you'd tackle some sort of nine-figure Hollywood blockbuster. The movie is culled from numerous different sources, all of which vary wildly in quality. The bulk of it is soft, scratchy, murky, and speckled, but that's part of the charm. It's supposed to look old and battered, not spit-polished to a glossy sheen. Although the footage used in the movie not surprisingly doesn't approach reference quality, the material seems to be authored well enough on DVD, free of any mosquito noise, compression artifacts, or any other digital nasties.
Audio: Spectres of the Spectrum sports a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack encoded at a bitrate of 160Kbps.
Again, the quality varies depending on the source, and quite a bit of it sounds strained and scratchy, frequently with a pervasive hiss buzzing underneath. The film's voiceovers have a rather sibilant quality, sounding like a source halfway between AM and FM talk radio in fidelity compressed to a warbly mp3. Probably the best that can be expected from a no-budget video collage. There are no dubs, subtitles, or closed captions.
Supplements: Writer/director/producer Craig Baldwin contributes an audio commentary. It's a heavily moderated discussion, one that plays more like an extended interview than a typical commentary track. It covers some of the expected ground, running from the project's conception to completion, noting everything from the necessary research that was performed to splicing together all of this found footage on a flatbed. This isn't just another issue of Tales of Production, though: Baldwin compares and contrasts Spectres of the Spectrum with his earlier film Tribulation 99, differentiates his films' model of history approach with the traditional documentary, comments on how he uses this sort of kitschy assortment of film clips as a stage for a play that makes some very serious arguments, and even comments about more current issues like FCC de-regulation. The track is sporadically scene-specific, but the commentary's emphasis seems to be more general rather than chained to whatever's on screen at any given time. Baldwin does take the opportunity to comment on the origin of certain clips and how they tie into the overall theme of the film. I enjoyed hearing Baldwin speak -- he's clearly an intelligent, talented, driven filmmaker -- and he recognizes that the movie does make a lot of demands on the audience. I think I do have a greater appreciation for the movie having listened to this track, and it's rare for a commentary to have that sort of effect on me.
The eight minute "Behind the Spectrum" isn't the usual behind the scenes featurette. In the same vein as the film itself, "Behind the Spectrum" is rather artful, documenting the filming of Spectres...' original footage.
There are no interviews, descriptive voiceovers, or upbeat acoustic guitar, making this fairly unique for this sort of DVD feature. A fairly dull clip from Science in Action, the inspiration for the film, is also provided and runs right at two and a half minutes in length. Plugs for Other Cinema's upcoming Experiments in Terror and The Subject is Sex are offered, along with Other Cinema's mission statement and a nod to their website. Rounding out the extras are a set of cast/crew bios.
Spectres of the Spectrum is packaged in a keepcase and includes a sizeable foldout with a couple of stills, a list of the disc's sixteen chapter stops, and a review by Gregory Avery. The disc also features a set of static 4x3 menus.
Conclusion: Better appreciated as a concept than a film, Spectres of the Spectrum is the sort of cinematic experiment that's certain to polarize viewers. This by design isn't a commercially accessible film, and even though I thought being a bit of a science geek would put me squarely in the target audience for this DVD, I found it overwhelming and overlong. I'm sure there's an audience out there somewhere for Spectres of the Spectrum, but I'm clearly not part of it, and I'd have a hard time recommending to my nebulous readership that they spend $26.95 to find out that they aren't either. Probably best suited for a rental, if you can stumble upon a copy.