Sonic Outlaws Movie Review
NegativLand published the album "U2" and, included on this album, was a song that used media sampling (when audio or video or images are lifted from one piece of media to be reassembled into another, totally new piece of media) to take the lyrics of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and incorporate them with a bizarre background of Casey Kasem outtakes in which Kasem swore and repeatedly bashed the song (i.e. "It's dumb and they're British and I have to read this shit about some fucking dog that died and who fucking cares?"). Nary a week had passed with the album in stores when a 117-page lawsuit hit NegativLand, taking the small San Francisco band for all that it was worth. Baldwin, determined not to let this fade softly into the night, created Sonic Outlaws as a way of championing NegativLand and its media sampling contemporaries as Robin Hoods... people who rob from the rich lack of creativity of corporate media and give to the poor of their cultish fans.
As bizarre as such a campaign may sound to the layperson, in Baldwin's native San Francisco and amongst the no-budget arts community, media sampling and Fair Use (title 17 of the U.S. Copyright code, which is supposed to protect media samplers) are big deals... and Craig Baldwin is the Merry Prankster anti-hero of the crusade to protect sampling and its legitimacy as a form of social commentary. And sampling is used in Sonic Outlaws... extensively. Sonic Outlaws is one third cut together footage, one third other forms of images, and one third interviews. Amongst the interviewed are such infamous media samplers as the EBN (the Emergency Broadcasting Network, which re-arranges television signals to illustrate how much the media controls our world), the BLO (Barbie Liberation Organization, which infiltrates stores with doctored G.I. Joes and Barbies with voice chips of the opposite gender in order to insult Mattel's shameless sexism), and the Tape Beatles (who own the trademark on the word and process of plagurism). These anti-heroes of the arts communities, loved by artists and fear by corporations, are heralded in Baldwin's work as the be-all end-all of intelligent artists.
In Sonic Outlaws, such groups lack self-importance and feel, in point of fact, that their work is not art but instead examples of engineering, and therein lies the flaw in Baldwin's thesis. Coming away from the 87 minutes of absolutely brilliant and completely experimental cinema, one feels that they have watched art. They feel that the Tape Beatles, NegativLand, the EBN and the BLO are all artists: brilliant social commentators. Yet one wonders, when such humble subjects do not glorify themselves, why are they being glorified in film? No one doubts or agues their social importance (Fair Use was created, mainly, to protect social commentary), but the artists themselves denounce the title of "artist" and instead use the title of engineer... so why are we getting the impression that the act of making an art-film documenting artists claiming to be engineers is either an exercise in bizarre postmodernism or a form of irony?
Still Sonic Outlaws is an unforgettable piece of work. It is brilliant, informative, and the quintessential piece for anyone even considering sampling to watch. If only it didn't mix its messages a little, Baldwin would join the pantheon of directors that have gotten the highest rating from me two films in a row.