Brian Springer Unearths an American Obsession
Why would an audacious underground filmmaker choose the year 2007 to release a highly personal work about the missing memoirs of a nineteenth-century rural anarchist woman and the compulsive diggings of a Korean war veteran obsessed with hidden treasure? Where’s the relation between this allegorical tale and the author’s earlier work with satellite TV? And what’s really buried beneath the tranquil fields of southern Missouri? These are the questions that come to mind upon viewing Brian Springer’s new film, The Disappointment: Or, the Force of Credulity.
Springer is known across the horizons of electronic media art for one good reason: the 1995 documentary Spin. The work is based on 500 hours of raw news feeds, captured with off-the-shelf satellite dishes at a time before the transmissions were encrypted. Springer blew the minds of a generation of media activists by documenting the 1992 US presidential campaign from between the scenes, while the cameras were still rolling during commercial breaks. Live interviews from the sky were new back then, and corporate PR-men were avidly selling advice on how to use them. “This is great, I love these,” confesses Bill Clinton with a puppy-dog grin. “Can we do any more?” he asks his technician between whistle stops on a satellite tour.
Spin pointed to the open window of technological and organizational change at a moment when the scramble for globalized markets left gaping holes in all kinds of security systems. Soon afterwards, activists in disguise like the Yes Men would step through those gaps and create their own public twists on world events, relying on a knowledge of complex networking processes that the corporate powers did not yet fully control. The montage structure of the film allowed Springer to weave an intricate portrait of America’s corrupted democracy just after the first salvos of the Revolution in Military Affairs had exploded in the Persian Gulf, ushering in the “New World Order” that was supposed to replace the outdated certainties of the Cold War. The material from the satellite dishes was seemingly infinite; but closure finally came through a focus on the doctored truths and outright lies of the campaign.
Revelations abound in this unique document, but the most telltale scene is probably the whispered dialogue between Larry King and Bush Senior about their favorite sleeping pills. It was a touchy subject for Bush, after his nightmare episode, deftly censored from the TV broadcasts, of vomiting on the Japanese prime minister while under a sedative. In between rounds of pre-broadcast applause, King explains that his brother has gotten wind of a new tranquilizer coming down the pipe. Bush says “Great” – and that’s all anyone knows about it. As though the much-touted “end of history” in the 1990s had left an unanswered question: What ruffles the chemical haze of the world-makers’ sedated nights? And do phantom spin-doctors whisper their lines to the unlaid ghosts of the American dream?
Tales of Subterranean Gold
The new film takes its name from the earliest American ballad-opera, written in 1767 as a satire on the twin colonial crazes of treasure-hunting and spiritism. The Disappointment was censored before its first performance, due to a climate of popular violence against the theater company. The 2007 version opens with a close-up on a strange syncretic sculpture, at once insect, reptile, amphibian and mammal. A halting, electronic, faintly British-accented female voice reads a database entry on this mysterious artifact. Speaking in the first person, the creature’s electronic voice then explains: “I have been lost for a very long time…”
The hybrid creature introduces us to the Springer family: the mother, Doris; the father, C.W.; and the two sons, Larry and Brian. Their story is a search for a Spanish explorer’s golden treasure and personal diary, supposedly buried in the limestone caves beneath a Missouri farm. But there is another main character: Kate Austin, a friend of Emma Goldman and an unsung heroine of American anarchism, who lived on that same farm in the late nineteenth century. Her personal papers disappeared at her death, leaving an aura of uncertainty around this rare bird, a rural woman anarchist. A satellite image of the Missouri countryside becomes a treasure map. A red dot on the site of the Austin farm connects to three others: the limestone cave, a mysterious hieroglyph carved in a rock, and the spot where the hybrid creature was found in the 1880s, before archaeologists called it a fake and it was “lost by the institutions of history.” With that, all the elements are in place for a plunge into a very personal story, and an excavation of the national unconscious.
Springer works with a marvelously fluid editing technique, layering a wide range of documents into the primary footage of his father and his family in the cave. Amid reflections from Emma Goldman on the willingness of patriots to drop bombs from flying machines and recollections of Ben Franklin’s fears that the craze for treasure-hunting might ruin the country’s fledgling economy, what gradually emerges is the story of an average man, C.W. Springer, who left the United States for one of America’s bloodiest and most thoroughly forgotten wars, the “Korean conflict.” His job was to operate in advance of the front lines, directing the extensive napalm bombing that killed hundreds of thousands and reduced much of the country to violet ash. Upon return from the war he could not speak for weeks; but he gradually came back to life and, as we learn from the distant, almost disbelieving voice of the electronic narrator, he “rose into the middle class, and purchased a home in eastern Kansas.” Years later he would teach the Springer family how to see ghosts, by staring at an image and then brusquely closing your eyes. In the early 1970s, they found that the strongest afterglow was produced by TV news anchors reporting on Vietnam… But then stories about buried treasure led C.W. and his family to Church Hollow in Missouri, the site of the Austin farm. The traumatic memories of Korea faded away into a seemingly endless quest to find the hidden gold.
The film reaches its enigmatic center with re-enactments of the automatic writing seances of Springer’s mother, Doris. She feels that her hand has been mysteriously injured, before realizing that what she can and must do with it is trace out the diaries of a Spanish priest who was killed by Indians in the cave, with the gold of an earlier empire in his possession. This “channeled” diary (the spiritist equivalent of spurious campaign promises?) is described by Springer as “a repressed retelling of her husband’s experience with wartime atrocity.” It becomes the blueprint for an endless, futile and increasingly dangerous quest in the cave, which the movie appears to be trying to exorcise on several levels. But what never does come to the surface are Kate Austin’s vanished writings: a possible blueprint to another political future, outside the nightmare of imperial history from which millions of credulous Americans are now struggling, for the most part unsuccessfully, to wake up in disbelief.
Just years before the country’s independence, a ballad-opera called The Disappointment tried to steer Americans away from their obsession with buried treasure. In 2007, an occupying army tries to secure dinosaur wealth beneath the desert sands of Iraq, while the subprime mortgage debacle thrusts the average man’s home-owning dreams into the gaping maw of financial crisis. Spin pointed the way to a decade of grassroots media activism, which would operate through the technological and organizational holes left open amidst the sudden expansion of the capitalist economy. Today, when that openness has become ancient history, the same filmmaker who looked upward at the stars is peering down into the networks of delusion beneath our feet, and asking what timely stories might emerge from them during the run-up to yet another presidential campaign. There are vital clues here for a future cultural activism that will have to deal not only with advanced technology but also with more obscure human motivations, and with the archaeology of an economic order that threatens to collapse into the myriad holes, blind tunnels and architectures of bluff that comprise its very foundations.
Once again, we are faced with a vast range of material; but the closure of the cave-mouth at the end of the film does not solve the larger conundrums, symbolized throughout by the strange, hybrid body and the electronic voice of the unbelievable narrator. Some viewers undoubtedly won’t be able to make any connection between this homespun historical tale and the technological breakthroughs of Spin, and they’ll leave the theater shaking their heads and waxing nostalgic for the good old days of media activism. But others will recognize a formidable underground vein – the kind that pulses with buried life, and that you can only mine deeply, at your own risk.
The Disappointment: Or, The Force of Credulity (70 minutes). Directed, produced, and written by Brian Springer; distributed by the Video Data Bank, http://www.vdb.org.