" I’ve got a government job to abuse "
— John Travolta, Face/Off

MRQE Top Critic

Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace

Does the original trilogy justice in terms of heart, action, and fun —Marty Mapes (review...)

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If you’re like me and often find yourself awake in the middle of the night twiddling the radio dial, you know the guilty pleasure of late night talk radio... or what I like to call ‘paranoid radio’. I don’t need to tell you that the Earth is hollow and that flying saucers emanate from a portal in the middle of Antarctica; that the blood sucking El Chupacabra roams Puerto Rico; that Bigfoot and Moth Man are real.

You already know that cattle are being mutilated right here, right now (though if by Saucer Men or Black Helicopters is debatable). We’re all being gassed with mind-controlling chemicals via jet contrails. The world (as we know it) will end in 2012. The Illuminati have already mapped out your life and Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. Of this much we can be certain.

Coming in on approximately the same wave length as paranoid radio (but with an ironic spin) is Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99. This could be the newsreel to show before a midnight movie.

Real or Pseudo?

Lizardmen from the hollow Earth invade America
Lizardmen from the hollow Earth invade America

Tribulation 99 is billed as a pseudo-pseudo-documentary, but I think that makes the false assumption that the things Tribulation 99 is mocking are not real docs. That’s like saying Chariots of the Gods, Erich von Daniken’s risible classic about alien interaction with ancient civilizations, isn’t a real book. Sure it’s got more in common with H.P. Lovecraft than Edward Gibbon, but it’s still a book.

And it’s not entirely fair to call Tribulation 99 a pseudo-documentary (with just one “pseudo”) because it does a great job of demonstrating — documenting, if you will — the paranoid grand-conspiracy mindset. The fact that Baldwin has used actual people and real events along with all the fake stuff simply adds zest to an already surreal scenario. And when real stuff starts becoming as fantastic as the fanciful... well, what the heck, maybe the Earth might be hollow after all.

Fake Right Go Left

Baldwin draws on his collection of ephemeral film, video flotsam, and found footage, so that old travelogues butt up next to low-grade science fiction, mixed in with junior high hygiene/civil defense films. All are expertly filtered to make a wacky kind of sense.

Tribulation 99 takes the form and tone of an apocalyptic expose. It starts from the junction of paranormal mythos and right-wing fear mongering and goes off from there. A narrator guides us from one jump cut to the next in a torrent of images making historical references and forging continuous links in a bizarre chain of events... pretty much like a ‘real’ conspiracy theory. And therein lies the beauty of the film. It is elaborately and exhaustively insane.

But it’s not all random silliness. There is a method to Baldwin’s madness. “Fake right, go left” is what he says in the commentary track and that sums up his M.O. When right-wing operative E. Howard Hunt is smoothly integrated into the war with the subterranean lizard-men, you know Baldwin is grinding his ax. When the narrator deadpans that, in retribution for conspiring with the underground space aliens, Nicaragua’s oil refineries are set ablaze by divine lightning (instead of blaming the U.S.-backed gunboats that actually did the shooting ) that “fact” becomes another historical “proof” for the next wild association and Baldwin’s ax gets a little sharper.

I have to ask myself why this film doesn’t have a wider audience. Could it be that the media centers of our fair land have already been taken over by mutant human-reptile hybrids bent on world domination, and the truth is being kept from us right now? Look at the evidence! Look to the stars! Look beneath our feet! As Kevin McCarthy says in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re Next, YOU’RE NEXT!...” Fade to black.

DVD Extras

By itself, Tribulation 99 is a smart work of art and worth the price of admission, but included on this DVD are two earlier films by Baldwin: Wild Gunman (1978) and Rocketkitkongokit (1986). Both of these are also found footage collages.

Wild Gunman is a pretty straightforward slam on American culture as marketing playground... “smoking is cowboy-tough” and “shooting people is fun.”

Rocketkitkongokit tells the story of post-war German rocket scientists building a missile test site in the Congo in the 1970s. It is an interesting bridge to Tribulation 99 in that it starts factually, but somewhere along the line jumps the tracks into wild fantasy and ultimately atomic Armageddon. The jaw-dropping part of that story is that the basic premise of a launch site in the Congo manned by ex-Nazi rocket scientists is true! (Even stranger, though not touched on in the movie is that the site was later moved to Libya.) In that light, Baldwin’s work is pretty tame. Life is weirder than art.

The two extra films by Baldwin really are a bonus not just for the added entertainment (and edification) but are an interesting look into how his work has developed over the years.

Unfortunately, the commentary track on Tribulation 99 isn’t that good. My theory is that the visuals are so densely packed that trying to comment on them with out a freeze frame is impossible. On the other hand, I suspect a frame by frame narrative by Baldwin would be a real treat. We here in the hinterlands will just have to wait for him to take his act on the road.

Picture and Sound

The picture is rough and grainy... but at least it’s somewhat justified as being part of the effect.

How to Use this DVD

Watch Tribulation 99 first, then go back to view the two earlier works. Only if you are still up for it, watch Tribulation 99 with the commentary on.

The notes included with the DVD are useful, but I also recommend a Google on Craig Baldwin and his work.