Art, like that famous Supreme Court statement on pornography, is in the eye of the beholder. Some people see a few squiggly lines of an uneven canvas and call it a masterpiece. Others view the glorified doodling and wonder what all the aesthetic hubbub is about. It's all a matter of perspective. People get out of art what they put into it, be that understanding, appreciation or confusion. At the same time, no two individuals see things the same way. One man looks at the Mona Lisa and finds her hideous. Another weeps at the wonderful work of Leonardo Da Vinci. So when one approaches a subject as potentially explosive as American political problems from the last 100 years, the way in which it is explored is very important. A documentary can be definitive, if sometimes twisted toward a particular agenda. A fictional film gets lambasted for taking liberties. But what if one decided to take an arty, fanciful approach, to mix reality with trailer park truisms to create a kind of self-commenting critique. That's exactly what filmmaker Craig Baldwin did with his 1991 mash-up movie Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America. Through a strange, subversive cinematic strategy, this director has designed a film that's both foolish and frightening, dumb and direct. And what it has to say is unsettling indeed.
Billed as a pseudo-pseudo-documentary, Tribulation 99 could easily be subtitled Capitalist Chariots of the Gods. Using the idea that aliens visited the Earth thousands of years ago, and set up shop to infiltrate and influence world events, the fractured narrative offered suggests a corrupt US government battling these unseen forces inside a Latin America setting. Seems the aliens find those South of the Equator less formidable, and control their activities in order to draw out America's problematic foreign policy. Genocide, coups, assassinations and wars are all blamed on the manner in which the West treats the third world nations under the influence of those sinister spaceman. Most of the movie is malarkey, made up stories supported by clips from old serials and bad b-movies. But for every bit of irony, a little fact manages to sneak in. While extraterrestrials may not be responsible for the issues between countries, something about the way the US handles its affairs seems misguided, mean-spirited and menacing.
Part cinematic experiment, part cutting edge political commentary, Craig Baldwin's Tribulation 99 utilizes age old theories about ancient astronauts, alien abduction, CIA scuttlebutt and rumored black ops incidents to craft a stinging indictment of the US foreign policy in Latin America. At first, the whole thing seems like a glorified goof. Over scenes lifted from a bootleg copy of This Island Earth, Baldwin's narrator announces the existence of mirror planet directly across from ours, a doomed world named Quezocoatl. Right before it dies, a group of extraterrestrials make a beeline for our neck of the galaxy, and its not long before these underground dwelling E.T.s are messing with the make-up of mankind. Eventually, Baldwin spins the tale into an all encompassing look at secrets, lies, espionage and myth. In essence, the influence of the spacemen has caused uprisings in certain areas of the world, and how the United States responded to said – both figuratively and fancifully – becomes the backbone of the presentation. Along the way, we learn the role extraterrestrials played in the assassination of JFK, the revolution in Chile and the rebel resistance in El Salvador. In addition, the US is indicted for its attempts on the life of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, blamed for the rise in nuclear proliferation, and scorned for ignoring the obvious link between foreign influence, the cosmos and killer bees.
If it all seems like a fervent fever dream, it more or less is. At first, Baldwin's approach avoids easy understanding. As large black and white title cards introduce the next segment of discussion, clips of old films, stock footage of military tests, sequences from routine newscasts, charts, graphs, maps and statistical reports are used to illustrate and explain the premise. As the narrator drones on with his crackpot theories, we feel lost and disconnected. Then the clever juxtaposition of images starts to kick in. The parallels between the old sci-fi films and the present government experiments do a dandy 'art imitating life' two-step, while the more outrageous ideas are buffered by the baffling realities actually encouraged. Indeed, Baldwin's big revelation appears to be that, deep inside even the most mind-boggling and unbelievable prophecy, that wrapped up inside portents of evil and declarations of doomsday, there is a kernel of terrifying truth that cannot be ignored. Similarly, the director argues that the disgraceful steps we've take to shore up our support in foreign countries borders on the unbelievable. Like that meaningful motto used by the Disinformation Company – "Everything You Know Is Wrong" – Baldwin believes the truth has been buried inside dirty tricks, misleading explanations, and outright fabrications. By creating some of his own, he eliminates the Establishment middleman and exposes the strategy for the rest of the world to ponder.
Sometimes, it all seems very surreal. Baldwin is not beyond taking everything to unbelievably ludicrous levels. There are moments when you feel you are watching the first full length feature film based on The Weekly World News. But at certain points in Tribulation 99's deeply compacted conceit, the collage aesthetic supports revelations that even the most noted world scholar might skip over. All the connections between vilified Latin America leaders – Manuel Noriega, Augusto Pinochet – to American officials and Presidents is frightening, as are the outlined efforts to overthrown legitimately elected regional governments. The use of specific iconography – the masked wrestler or luchadore, the set piece sequences from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers – send certain signals to our brain, making logic leaps that the movie dare not divulge. Indeed, part of Baldwin's genius rests in his use of such recognizable elements. Instead of proving every aspect outright, he can utilize our collective consciousness to build in believability and support subject matter that we'd otherwise reject outright. As the apocalyptic predictions of the ending come scurrying across the screen, one pauses to wonder if Baldwin picked the right locale for his end of the world diatribe. Latin America has now taken a blatant back seat to the Middle East, and threats from our South seem silly when compared to those who wage against the war on terror. Tribulation 99 may require a sequel, as a result. The threat remains the same – it's the surroundings that may need resetting.
Other Cinema, responsible for many outsider efforts making their first appearance on DVD, delivers a nice, colorful 1.33:1 full screen transfer of this film. The image is loaded with stock footage, much of it mired by grain, dirt, editing breaks and moments of washed out monochrome. Since these are issues with the original elements, not Other's digital remastering, such production problems are perfectly acceptable. In fact, they add an element of archeology to the piece, reminding us of the past and how significant a role it plays in the present.
There is really nothing special offered here – Other gives us a Dolby Digital Stereo mix that's flat, tinny and occasionally overmodulated. Again, much of this comes from the material being utilized, so it's hard to fault the DVD itself. And since the narration is always easy to understand, the lack of aural flawlessness is forgiven.
Along with two additional Baldwin short films – Rocketkitkongokit (which takes the same montage approach to the US/German involvement in Africa) and Wild Gunman (which appropriates an old 16mm video game to comment on imperialism and colonialism), we are treated to a full length audio commentary with Baldwin. Rather superficial at first - it can't be easy discussing a movie with as many edits and images as this one – the director finally finds his footing, and gives us some interesting insights into why he made the film, his approach to the topic, and the artistic elements of editing. Entertaining, if a little lacking at times, the bonus features here do a good job of fleshing out our understanding of Baldwin, his influences and his style of collage cinema.
In the end, what you get out of Tribulation 99 will be exactly what you bring to it. If you are open minded and willing to accept some pretty bizarre ideas, realizing that just beneath the seemingly stupefying surface lie significant nuggets of truth, then by all means, give this movie a try. If, on the other hand, you prefer your propaganda to be straightforward and focused, if you don't like an aesthetically unique approach to your political prostelytizing, if you just can't handle a sledgehammer smashing of every right wing conspiracy theory on the planet, then you should turn over to Fox News and get your daily talking points. Though it can be trying at times, this avant-garde goof deserves a Recommended rating. Many will find it fathomless. Others will groove right along with its insightful instigation. Yet one lingering question remains – is it art? At least to this critic, it looks like it. Naturally, such a statement is destined to be different for every possible Tribulation 99 viewer. That's the aggravation over such determinations. That's the beauty of the medium.
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