An underground sensation in more ways than one, Craig Baldwin’s rhapsodic 1991 satire Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America sets a high bar for today’s agitated postmodern cinematic pronouncement-makers.
To begin with, for such a fierce deconstruction, it is highly constructive. Baldwin, a San Francisco filmmaker who grew up in Sacramento, here synthesizes musty genre schlock, scraps of newsreel or industrial propaganda and who knows what else into a pervy, archly paranoid, brilliantly critical alternate take on postwar American history. His specialty is Reagan-era colonialist aggression. “I tried to do justice to the breadth of the imagination of the CIA,” the director wryly observes in his DVD commentary. “I just had to do the research and stage it through found footage.” So, yes, there’s also that cheeky tone, distinguishing the movie not just from the hordes of humorless, deservedly obscure experimental collage films to which it bears some genetic similarity, but also from the hordes of humorless, deservedly ineffectual liberal harangues that plague the nonfiction moviemaking discourse today.
As elaborated in a gravelly, half-whispered drone by its unseen wackjob narrator (Sean Kilkoyne), Tribulation 99’s storyline is essentially a unified field theory of pre-9/11 American conspiracies. Or at least as unified as can be a single narrative of twitchy cold warriors, wolfen third-world iconoclasts, marauding killer bees and robots, B-movie monsters, and alien refugees from a doomed planet who long ago burrowed into the Earth below Latin America, only to be provoked to war by underground nuclear testing.
Arguably the hawkish, fear-mongering worldview that Baldwin burlesques remains insidiously alive and well; with the apocalypse it foretold more or less underway, Tribulation 99’s relentlessness seems easy to forgive. On the other hand, here is a critique of imperialism wrought from the insatiable appropriation and repurposing of subordinate cultural material. Cult classic, eh? Maybe that’s just what they want us to think.