Monday, May 15, 2006

Fifth Element Review

Digital Vertigo - Spinning out while watching “The Fifth Element”

Review of “The Fifth Element” by Luc Besson, Columbia Pictures 1997.

By David Cox, published in "Satellite Dispatch" web site and "Real Time" magazine 1997

Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element” seems to be made on location which the French call “Future Prox”- near future. This place is very much a part of the popular French imagination via the comic book industry, in comics such as Rank Xerox, and Mobius legendary “Metal Hurlant” (Heavy Metal) magazine. Mobius’ style, much referred to in the work of Ridley Scott, (Alien, Blade Runner) is more often than not toned down in its baroque complexity - countless layers of elevated streets to cities, unfathomable scale of buildings and technology, multilayered cities teeming with people like ants.

Not so in “The Fifth Element”. Digital effects have enabled the producers to unplug all the stops in this unbelievably dense film - which investigates the themes of good versus evil and a battle of cosmic proportions for possession of four stones representing the elements - fire, earth, water and wind. The fifth element turns out to be life, represented by film’s central “La Femme Nikita” style cyberbabe. The film has its toungue placed firmly in its cheek, which is a blessing because playing this film straight would have certainly never worked. In parts, the camp appears a bit forced, and having the ordinarily superb Gary Oldman do a fake Southern drawl, was definitely a bad move in my book.The camp is in the same league as Batman returns - aggressive, sudden, bright in yer face and digitally enhanced.

What I enjoy most about the film is its design sensibility. There is a very Eurocentric aesthetic of joyful and meticulous embrace of old with the new - that particularly late 20th Century postmodern design feel first really investigated in “Max Headroom - 20 minutes into the Future” (one of William Gibson’s favourite films) and “Blade Runner”. The idea of deliberately confusing historical periods and making different design principles forecully, madly co-exsist. In 1982 the “Blade Runner” look was chic deco/modernist 1940s.

In “Blade Runner” Los Angeles was shown as Dark Manhattan - not sparse, bright, foggy and spread out as LA actually is, but towering and dark, like Gotham City. It was the Radiant City of the 1930s film “The Shape of Things to Come” immersed in abolute filth and moral decay. “The Fifth Element” looks like New York and importantly sounds like New York. The sound department has perfected the NYPD cop car
sirens effect of reverberating off buildings brilliantly. And digital sound lets them do that - position sound in 3D real estate to reproduce the sonic ambience of *already familiar* places - like NYC 1997.

In the aforementioned British “Max Headroom” pilot the aesthetic was similarly post apocalyptic, but infintely faster paced and the design aesthetic refreshingly campy and self depricating. In “The Fifth Element” the look is accelerated techno/rave, mixed with 18th Century dandyism - a kind of New Romantic look for the 1990s.

The costumes look like they were created in Paris fashion houses just last week. Some of the outfits and sets borrow strongly from David Lynch’s “Dune” - especially the use of neo classical elements in spacecraft interior design. The opera house aboard the paradise luxury liner was shot on location. One character actually introduces it to us as an exact replica of the Paris Opera - the joke being of course that being a location is is probably one of the few scenes in the film not filmed in an elaborate set.

Computers in can be safely said, enable film makers to visually create anything which can be imagined. Effects such as lighting, texture mapping and 3D design enable anything at all to be made and animated. Cities are no problem - the way cities are appear - big blocks covered with detail - is easily reproduced in a computer . Cars can be made to float and fly - in fact it is probably easier to show a car flying in a computer than it is to show it convincingly rolling along the ground. And the Fifth Element immerses us - drowns us in a city which has sped up to a rate which baffles us as 1990s New York would baffle our great grandparents. Camera moves can be mimicked with breath taking accuracy, and the camera motion of real cameras filming real events can be used to guide virtual cameras in exactly the same way.

I’ve got freinds who are into digital special effects in a big way who have seen this move five times
already. I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of audiovisual assault yet (and at $10.50 a time it sure adds up) but when the video comes out, the rewind and pause button will be put to damn good use. You see, my SPFX friend tells me earnestly, it costs *money* to pay Californians to animate computer generated cars, cities and spacecraft. A lot of money. In some ways, thinking about this films alleged 70 million dollar production costs makes me wince - one wonders if films can be made in America any more unless they can guarantee box office success.

William Gibson and Robert Longo were simply forbidden by the Hollywood system from spending anything less than 40 million on “Johnny Mnemonic”, when all they wanted was about 10 million to do a kind of latter day “Alphaville”. In that film, Jean Luc Godard had his main character drive around the present day (early 1960s) Paris as if it were some future city in some future time. In other words, why bother going to the trouble of showing the city, when the themes are all that matter? But try swinging that idea past the suits in La La Land. Block buster or nothing. No in betweens. Mass market or no market. And what a pity it is, really. When better films come often from an imperative to well, make better films...

And.... I’m still trying to imagine what the spinnoff products of this film will be if any - its central characters are cartoon like enough to be made into plastic figures, but the whole mindset of the film is so campy and knowing - in the tradition of “Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure” and “Robocop” that a chic Euro audience seems the films more likely merchendise destination.

Toys R Us inventory might apply automatically to Jurrassic Park type blockbusters, but the “Fifth Element” seems to belong to a different catagory altogether. On one level it is a good old chase/cliffhanger film a la “Total Recall” but like that film’s almost baroque intertwining themes of identity, responsibility and paranoia, the “Fifth Element” seems to belong more to the “anything goes” aesthetic of Mobius comics, the 1968 Batman TV series and Ren ‘n’ Stimpy. This is a film made by and for the contemporary 20 to 35 year old market, who know about techno music, know about computers, know about cyberpunk, love “Blade Runner”, 32 and 64 bit games platforms and japanese anime. Its fast and frenetic, like contemporary media capitalism. It celebrates the heady pace of the postmodern media zietgiest.

Digital cinema, like the one upon a time costly and rare sound film is rapidly becoming a normal, commonplace thing. The beachhead digital effects “siliwood” films like “Terminator 2”, “Jurrassic Park”, “True Lies” etc have laid the ground for films like the “Fifth Element” which draw fully upon the technical and aesthetic precedents of earlier cyberpunk cinema as cultural reference points. Fifteen years after its release, the commercially unsuccesful “Blade Runner” is far away enough in time from us now to itself to be a historical marker, just as once “Citizen Kane” was considered a masterpiece twenty years after its completion. Blade Runner is definitely the masthead filmic cultural hub around which “The Fifth Element” swings, but the whole film is basically a game for people in my age bracket (34 years old) of “spot the sci fi blockbuster reference”.

The future New York of the film appears fleetingly, through mainly chase sequences, where we the viewer see through the eyes of people being chased. The now familiar motif of flying cars enable chases to happen in full surround sound 3 dimensions - cars can hover, or dive directly up or down. Traffic resembles that in “Back to the Future Part 2” where “Jetsons” style, hover cars (even styled to resemble 30s deco ideas of future cars) keep to their aerial lanes. Traffic in 300 years has become a kind of of bloodstream - a 3D circulatory system. Indeed one of the filmÕs most impressive sequences is that where a whole human figure is assembled from a dna sample extracted from a creature which has has crash landed on the moon. A kind of medical operating table extends tiny arms to literally build up a figure from nothing, rapidly adding flesh to a skeleton like dicing beef in reverse. The sections which constitute the figure are slices, resembling those which were scanned of the condemned man and later posted on the internet and released on cd-rom as the ghoulish but groundbreaking “Visible Human” project.

Humanity, this sequence seems to propose has by means of computers totally lost its physical origins and bearings. But instead of being a hindrance, in 300 years from now people have reversed this ethical technical dillemma to manufacture its population from both sythetic materials and pure information. People know how to construct clones as if making Mcburgers. As jurassic era dinosaurs are in contemporary Hollywood, future real characters are made to order. The physicality of the body is an extension of the city state whose technology has made this high speed fast food frankenstien monster a possibility. The rapid flow of floating cars (and in one scene a floating chinese junk selling food) is just like the rapid pace of dextrous robot fingers which construct a human from information and artificial tissue alone. The flying cars like corpuscles flying around the body. The city and body are one. Hence the central character can leap off a building and crash into a car and nothing goes wrong - its just the body floating through another body and melding with other bodies.

I wished in many ways the film had stopped being a chase movie long enough to ponder this fascinating place. Having set the scene, the film forces the viewer only to speed through it. I’d be interested to know if the script changed much during the production, and what role storyboards played. If “Fifth Element” is techno hardcore, I want the ambient mix.

Offering the viewer a kind of a la cart theme park ride through the future, “The Fifth Element” reminded me an awful lot of the Paul Verhoeven megamovie “Total Recall”. Like that film, the action often tended to get in the way of the story. Just as soon as you were starting to get into the yarn, someone pulls out a gun a blasts everything in site. Then inevitably a huge chase ensues, and so we’re back to theme park ride land again. You sometimes want the ride to stop long enough to enjoy the view.

Check out the “Fifth Element” but be sure to laugh with the movie at its own often very stupid jokes, in order to better enjoy the spectacle of a future which is all too familiar as our own postmodern, accelerated, full on techno hardcore urban digital speedfreak Xstatic western capitalist media driven cybercity of right here, right now.

David Cox, June 1997.

Media Meltdown


Media Meltdown

Published in 21C Magazine in 1997

Deep within the South American jangles Che Guevara's toxic DNA has been

captured by aliens sponsored by US covert operations. Their plan; wholesale

destruction of the cow orate media structures. Their director-in-charge of

operations: Craig Baldwin.

by David Cox

FILMMAKER, TEACHER, SHOWMAN, anti-copyright activist, Craig Baldwin

is a hunter-gatherer of Images, sounds and ideas. Embracing and celebrating

satire and camp, his collage-essay films convey the sheer joy involved in the'-r

construction: the exhumation of post~war educational and training films from

their once rock-solid cultural contexts Imo feature-length satirical ammunition.

in the cult classic Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1992),

Baldwin treats decades of CIA involvement in Central America as mock sci-fi,

while Sonic Outlaws (1995) exposes the standover tactics of major recording

publishers in policing theft ever tenuous grasp on media copyright.

A Champion of film and video activism, Baldwin has helped transform San

Francisco's Mission District into a dynamic cultural hub for the genre.- Collage is

the contemporary art," states Baldwin. "It is the most definitive. Yet it runs

absolutely against copyright laws. There are certain assumptions about the

usage of other people's material in order to make money from it. Collage artists

take a tiny little bit of something from your piece and put it together with a lot

of other pieces too and make a distinct whole. we’re not trying to steal your

audience. The copyright laws need to be updated in order to deal with fibs new

art form. People of my generation know what is going on with collage in the

different mediums: film, music, CD-ROMs." But if collage is a contemporary art,

it has been around since Modernist artists such as Kurt Schwitters and Pablo

Picasso- What makes it current is perhaps best explained by Greil Marcus -

"When it works, all collage is a shock."

A LIFELONG DENIZEN OF the Bay Area subcultural underground, Baldwin, 45,

once lived in a projectionist booth above a porn cinema. It was in these unlikely

surrounds that he had Us cultural epiphany. From the scraps of film left lying

around, Baldwin made Flick Skin, a Super-8 film. The formal qualities of the

film surface - with its patched-together, hand processed `(-rated film material

- were made obvious to the viewer, to highlight the mechanics of film as a

process in the service of an unjust economic system. So began a career concerned

with the politics of the Image, one in which humor and wit guided the choice of

Imagery into a carefully reworked mosaic. In Baldwin's hands, the Image is no

longer what it initially represented, yet somehow it reveals a truer identity.

Found footage is unmasked as an impostor, and made to perform roles for which it

was never intended. As Guy Debord declared, any image can be made to invoke

another meaning from the one it was intended to, even the opposite.

In keeping with his "grab the footage and run" philosophy, Baldwin's Stolen

Movie was constructed by literally charging in to mainstream cinemas and

stealing images off the screen by filming them on a super 8 camera, then rapidly exiting through the rear

door with the booty. Part guerrilla theatre, part performance art, this brand of media pranksterism was an

act of deliberate provocation and the result of a politics of the everyday.

Baldwin also acknowledges a debt to the Beatnik poets, some of whom, with

their post-war utopianism, helped identify the "peace and love counterculture"

as fundamentally positioned "outside" the mainstream- Embracing nomadism for

a while, Baldwin hitchhiked and "hopped freights," in his own words, "as a

cultural response to the middle-class lifestyle."

ONE OF THE biggest supporters of Baldwin `s work is the famous pyschotronic,

Z-grade film magazine Film Threat, which caters to splatter- and exploitation-

film aficionados. The Z-graders tend to be like-minded, entrepreneurial

hobbyists who are similarly forced to resourcefulness- There is an easy exchange

of ideas between them and the more politically motivated junk-film cutup frill

of "cinema povera. By dredging the depths of America's media past, Baldwin develops an

archeology of American ideology. The best place to exhume the corpses, it turns

out, is the world of ephemeral films. These are the forgotten trailers,

commercials, sponsored films and educational films that still transmit forgotten

signals from the Cold War and the Space Race. Now cast adrift from their

former contexts, these filmstrips still manage to reveal the disarming

forcefulness of America's once official culture, with its ubiquitously familiar,

authoritarian and paternalistic voice-overs.

In an era of ubiquitous digitization and Imagc manipulation, the use of the

relatively arcane film object as a field for artistic endeavor is rare- Cut,

manipulated, edited, blown up, shrunk down, stretch printed, scratched and

drawn on, the physicality of film is at the very core of found footage's aesthetic

appeal, the key to what makes appropriating and making fun of it so much,

well,, fun.

Despite a desperate artistic attempt to avoid the uniformity that shapes

capitalist culture in America, the culture-jammer look has been appropriated by

slacker punk bands like Nirvana, who used found footage in their film clips (e.g.

the sperm close-ups m Come as You Are") and by such mainstream directors as

Oliver Stone. The quick montages in Stone's JFK could well have been inspired by

a Baldwin movie - the use of rapidly intercut Super-8 with 16mm, and

intimately intermixing real with reconstructed footage. Nevertheless, while it

is the aesthetics of appropriation that Hollywood adopts rather than any

political form of media activism, Baldwin admits that he "got lucky" with

Tribulation's timing: "Oliver Stone released JFK a few months after mine- In a

lot of ways, my film was helped by Oliver Stone, because there was a lot of

interest in JEK - which is actually a very small part in my picture. But it is the

same kind of conspiratohal thinking, which quite obviously won't go away. It is

here to stay."

Even the themes of Baldwin's Tribulation 99 - paranoia, conspiracy and

government cover-up - are increasingly the subject of sanitized mainstream

media forms which use these as thematic settings for otherwise conventional

storytelling. Witiness the X-Files and Dark Skies or Independence Day.

Baldwin, in his own words, is trying to "negotiate an alternative pathway

toward some kind of understanding of American culture and cinema." Cinema

Povera means also a deliberate and consistent turning away from the offerings of

the mainstream, looking instead at the scraps of the past, or the work of

filmmakers themselves trying to negotiate a way out.

With its dryly narrated, whispering soundtrack told through 90 per cent "found"

footage, Baldwin's Tribulation 99 lets the audience in on a Notional Enquirer-

type conspiracy, in which invading aliens called Quetzals have come to take

over the minds of US decision makers in a battle for control of both Central

America and the Earth's core. Watching the film, you will recognise bits of

Earth vs tire Flying Saucers, Dr No, various Mexican B-grade movies, Tire

Creature From tire Block Lagoon and War of the Worlds. There are strange out-

takes from 1960s documentaries on plutonium waste-disposal and magnetism-

There are video clips from news coverage of the invasion of Grenada. Viewing

this wealth cf material, one imagines, generates the feelings that went into its

creation - ecstatic delirium mixed with moral panic and political outrage.

"It was curious the way that certain ideas were between the official, political
history and the very unofficial paranoiac version of things. There were often

these weird alignments. Sometimes it was easier to believe the UFO stuff than it
was to believe the CIA story that was used to justify our intervention in some

country. So I lined them up, superimposed them in a way. I tore out bits of paper
and taped them together. The material organized itseffi I took real, political

material and retrofitting with the fantastic, wacko literature."

"I was continuing my projects against US intervention in Latin Ametica," says


"My other films have been a criticism of US foreign policy. what came

to a head here was the whole Iran-Contra Affair, Oliver North's trial, it was

the whole milieu - the center of the times. I wanted to make a statement that

was critical of the CIA and our meddling in foreign countries, and it seemed to be

a new use of this creative material, these paranoiac rants.

"I saw the CIA as being truly a conspiracy. I wanted to make a black comedy

instead of a Noam Chomsky kind of thing which is fine and great, but I dicin t

want to duplicate. Instead of making that kind of attack, I wanted to make one

that was satirical - one that would lacerate, tear apart, shred the CIA by

burlesquing them, by using these great materials."

IN 1995, BALDWIN RALLIED to the defense of fellow cultural samplers, the

satirical sound-collage band Negativland, who had fallen foul of the copyright

laws for appropriating a U2 song. The case was perhaps inevitable. For the best

part of a decade, bands had been lifting riffs from popular songs, and the record

companies set out to make an example of them.

Sonic Outlaws is Baldwin's political statement on the collaging and sampling

culture. More formal in structure than the typical Baldwin film, [[?]Soiiic

Outlaws is essentially a documentary constructed from interviews with numerous

proponents of culture jamming - media pranksters, artists and political groups

who take what's out there on the shelves of malnstream USA for artistic and

political ends. Negafiviand are interviewed at length about a battle between

their "anti-corporate" record company, SST, and Island, U2's label. Island sued

Negativiand for appropriating 20 seconds of the U2 song "I Still Maven't Found

What I'm Looking For" and using the letter "U" and the numeral "2" (next to

each other, just like the Lockheed spy plane's ID number upon which the Irish

band's name is based) on the cover of the record release~ The venom with which

Island's lawyers attacked Negativiand over the album, and the about-face SST

demonstrated to Negativiand, outraged many across the country-

"That happened to be a journalistic incident. It didn't have to be, but it became

closer to home because I could identify with it. At the same time, 2 Live Crew

was busted for their parody- They won their case because it had to do more with

parody, it wasn't so much a collage, it was a reuse of the same melody. It was

under protection from tffis clause in the copyright law called Fair Use.

For Baldwin, Negativland encapsulated the sheer scale of the problem - the

economically led protectionism of the global media industry does not

acknowledge the validity of borrowing or adapting sounds for use in collage

satire and parody. In the eyes of the mainstream, there is no such thing as a

"non-commercial" use- The accountants don't want to fathom collage. Copying can

only mean bootlegging. Ironlcaliy, U2's album Pop (1997) appropriates music

from underground culture, indicating both the mainstreaming of the samplmg

genre, the dilution of the political gesture, and the legal muscle available to

such uberpop groups.

Nevertheless, the SST/Island/Negativland incident served to galvunize the

resolve of Negativland, Baldwin and the whole cultrire-jammer community-

NothIng is quite as affirming as corporate pressure applied to an activist.

Craig Baldwin's found footage work is thus an extension of a whole culture: a

culture of community and collaboration; of people gathering in scenes, unified,

like the Beatniks and Yippies of the past; of deliberate self exile from the

mainstream, and active opposition to it- ~bs is the avant-garde everyone

thought had bitten the dust with modetnism. Instead, it lies dormant in the

heart of political unrest.

"OH, THAT'‘S STRONG!" BALDWIlN YELLS, as a certain image flickers on the

screen at ATA's basement. Notes are quickly taken in a pad, with a dimming

flasklight for illumination- The shot might find its way into his next work,

"Specters of the Spectrum."

Baldwin interprets everything- His cultural archeology combs the contemporary

urban landscape as careftilly as it does the detrihis of the industrial era - the

training film, the advertisement- Watching films with Baldwin is a unique

experience~ The most boring, turgid, insipid or blatantly tragic films become a

source of immense fun and wonder in his hands. The sheer vibrancy of images

from forgotren times which show flying saucers, monsters, strangeness is itseif a

fascinating entertainment.

Baldwin now has a modest studio. It amounts to a dark basement with shelving

filled with film cans, reel-to-reel winders, thousands of press clippings and

photos, stickers, flyers, a tinny radio. The Baldwin work space is seldom idle~

From the earliest hours to the latest, Baldwin does the rounds, methodkally

organizing notes, text, correspondence with other film programmers and

filinmakers. This flurry of relenfless activity makes the process of making found-

footage films a natural extension of a lived, everyday aesthetic of foraging,

collating, sifting, researching and playing with images, text, sound and

selection- This is a culture of ancient movie projectors and bit5 of editing

equipment which are lovingly maintained, of dark and damp basements with

dim lights and leaking earthquake-damaged roofing. It is a culture of canned

foods and cheap takeaway food. It is a world of moving images nil sounds which

are invoked, like ghosts from the grave of cultural history. This is nothing they

teach you in film school~ This is alchemy.

In an increasingly electronicaliy-mediated urban world, media archeology is the

most appropriate kind of search for truth among the ruins. Rick Prelinger on the

East Coast, whose ephemeral flims have been released on CD-ROM and find use

in mainstream television, finds himself an invaluable source of material for an

ever-widening group who are starting to realize the importance of media

arJbves~ Prelinger and Baldwin are colleagues and Baldwin's next film

will examine the battle for control of the electromagnetic spectrum over the decades.

By using the device of a Time Machine `scope' the flkn will literally frame early ephemeral

films in the context of a story about the history of media itself.

Like Prelinger's archive, Baldwin's collection is valuable not only as a

repository of films whose subject matter has been filtered into his own work, but

as a kind of snapshot of the flImic variation on the great American collage

tradition which includes Joseph Comeli, William Burroughs, Robert Nelson,

Jasper Johns end Robert Rauschenberg.

A cultural and economic climate of uncertainty and doubt has inftised the US

media with an urgency and a liveliness borne directly from familiarity with

decades of non-stop piped images and sounds. Culture-Jarnming is thus a form of

popular revolt - artists manipulatIng images as emblems of America's official

culture~ It is the equivalent in many ways of burning an effigy of US cultural

hegemony both at home and giobally.

Have a look at Craig Baldwin's OTHER CINEMA web site.

Copyright David Cox 1997. This article may be freely distributed on the condition this banner be included.

Speed Ramping

This essay is here.

Site Unseen

Site unseen is here. at CTHEORY.

Archifesto: Towards a Digital Urbanism of Radical Difference

Download the .pdf from here.