Lynne Sachs’ latest, Tip of My Tongue, dips into 50 YEARS of collective memory—With an archival assist from Craig Baldwin
On a splashy block of Valencia Street, I am standing on a patch of sidewalk that’s covered by a metal plate, and I am stomping on it, as instructed.
It’s an unusual way of saying “hello,” but I am expecting the unusual today. I’m here at Artists’ Television Access to talk about media archaeology with Craig Baldwin, who spends a large part of his time in the archive and studio housed underneath this sidewalk. He’s assured me he will hear my stomp.
I am doing some archeology of my own. I once lived a block from here. I edited a small film in the space. I’ve walked and biked every meter of this area over my too-many-years in the Mission. Now, this spot is at the corner of fauxhemia and parkletville, where you can buy vintage clothing at Sotheby’s prices, or spend a week’s salary on a one-inch square of the best chocolate you’ve ever tasted. Though I am here to find something very real, I imagine that to everyone else passing through these streets in the year 2017, it is the essence of ephemeral.
“People are getting the sense this place may not be here in a certain period of time. It’ll just be an erased memory,” says Baldwin, who sure enough promptly answered my knock at the floor.
The sentence begins with his trademark showmanship—a rapid-fire delivery of carefully chosen words that, like a carnival barker’s, promises something strange and new. Something that will no doubt bring a combination of revelation and punk-rock revulsion. It’s the kind of thing Baldwin has been doing for decades with the curation of his Other Cinema series at ATA. Here premiered Bill Morrison and Sam Green originals, mixed with the archive’s best recontextualized propaganda, kooky educationals and offbeat corporate creations. But as Baldwin’s sentence continues, it’s with an eerily quiet tone I’ve never heard from him before as the words “erased memory” leave his mouth.
“Memory” is what’s been stored here for about 30 years, below the sidewalk, in the form of nearly 4,000 canisters of almost-abandoned oddities of other eras. Over time, colleges and universities have dispatched interns to help Baldwin capture in catalogue form the contents. But somehow, what seems necessary is a straight download of Baldwin’s own brain. (Which as a maker of his own film pieces—Tribulation 99, Spectres of the Spectrum, Mock-Up on Mu, Sonic Outlaws, and more—you could say he’s accomplished already.)
A new film, Masochism of the Margins, has emerged about the story of this particular place and its sui generis denizen, but that is a story for another day. I’m here at the request of another media miner, Lynne Sachs, who’s suggested I speak to the curator of all things almost forgotten who helped her finish her own memory project, Tip of My Tongue, which screens this month at the Mill Valley Film Festival (October 10 and 11) and next in a program presented by San Francisco Cinematheque (November 3; see below for more details).
“I just think she’s a very generous personality,” says Baldwin of Sachs. “She always respects the people around her, never thinks of the world in a hierarchical way.”
“History,” as in that thing that keeps repeating itself despite our best intentions, is something Lynne Sachs has had a long relationship with as a filmmaker. Some of her stories go way, way back—to the very creation-myth beginning in 1997’s A Biography of Lilith. Others hit on the fairly recent past of 1930’s Memphis (an African American Baptist Minister’s world in 1989’s Sermons and Sacred Pictures) or late 1960’s Maryland (where Catholic activists burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War, as recorded and reflected upon in 2001’s Investigation of a Flame).
But the past Sachs had long been recording finally caught up with her as she turned 50. “History” was no longer a category of experiences involving other people, in other times, wearing other costumes, feeling other things. She realized it was something she’d lived.
Sachs has always taken an innovative approach to her subjects, gently offering the most world-turning observation in first-person voiceover, with expertly impressionistic camerawork, in often uniquely collaborative frameworks. (“They call it ‘The American War,’” I remember her observing when touring Vietnam in a project with her sister, Dana, in 1994’s Which Way is East?). So perhaps it’s no surprise that when she decided to enlist her camera in capturing 50 years of world events, it would be in a whole new way.
She invited a dozen New Yorkers, born in various points across the globe, to spend a weekend reliving all those things that happened—both the headline news kind and the personal pasts that accompanied it—with storytelling, theatrical expression, visual rendition, and at least one bath. The result rolls through Tonight’s Top Stories, but puts a very individual spin on each: early rocket launches as seen on TV, an exciting elementary school classroom visit from the makers of new orange super-drink Tang, Watergate as Dad’s favorite serial.
Which is where Baldwin came in. Sachs edited the unwieldy event into a time capsule of sorts, then sent it to the other side of the country, to a colleague who owns a good portion of history there below the sidewalk. “She turned 50,” says Baldwin, “and she had enough sense to create more perspectives on the 50 years than her own.”
“It’s self-conscious,” he says, and I can tell he means that in the best of ways. “It’s also coming from her poetry, which she wrote for every year of her life. But in a lot of cases, she talks about the issues of the day. And it’s the same with the people she invited in.”
Baldwin and Sachs had collaborated on a previous journey through the archives, 1991’s The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts, which took women from being the “observed” to being the “observers” and matched remembrance and writing with all manner of B-roll to powerful, multiphonic effect. It dealt with an issue of its day, and ours: women’s bodies and the world’s control of them.
In the case of Tip of My Tongue, Baldwin listened to what Sachs had woven together and found footage he felt rose to the occasion. The result has that media-collaging Baldwin stamp on it, with notes of humor, irony, sarcasm, even as the dialogue and event itself hold to one of the fundamentals of Sachs’ entire career: a bold sincerity.
Her guests speak, and Sachs listens, she says, as they are “building an inverted history of deep breaths, illness we don’t understand, assaults, the death of a princess, the struggle of a president, a lost envelope, terror. Some stories we have told over and over. Some we have never put into words.”
In the compilation, there is something truer than “facts” can deliver. Truth of the kind usually only fiction helps us find. But there is also something truer than facts in Baldwin’s archives, which have added rich dimension to Sachs’ project. She had sent me to those archives and to Craig Baldwin as a way of helping me think through her film and its process. So, just a few minutes into our conversation, I accept his offer to take a tour of the actual reels.
As Baldwin walks me over creaky floorboards that seem to be balanced on only dust motes, as he makes sure the de-humidifier is still working to ward off the threat of water damaging the encased films, as he poses for my cellphone picture with his century of cinema, a lifetime’s project that has, against all odds, persisted, it is clear that he is a not only a keeper of our collective memory but has taken no small part in cinema history itself. And it reminds me that what is not disappeared and displaced—those things that do remain—do so because of the people who will them to.
Mill Valley Film Festival screenings: Tues., Oct 10, 9:00 pm, The Cinearts Sequoia (Sequoia 1 and Sequoia 2), 25 Throckmorton Ave Mill Valley; Wed., Oct. 11, 9:00 pm, The Cinemark Century Larkspur, 500 Larkspur Landing Circle, Larkspur. SF Cinematheque screening: Fri., Nov. 3, 7:30 pm, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Howard and Third Sts., San Francisco.