The Cold War Revisited in Two Compilation Films

Light Industry screened two compilation films last week. It had been a long time since I had gone to a screening there, despite that it is a five-minute bike ride from my home in Long Island City. But as the couch surfing tour brings me to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I am now only a few hundred feet away from Light Industry’s space on Freeman Street. I really had no excuse to miss this screening.

The first one, The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography, was a video that I saw for the first time on Tuesday. It was more tame than I had expected. It consisted almost entirely of screen tests, where an off-screen producer, apparently from the West, asks the hopeful actors probing questions about their sexual behavior and preferences. The men all nervously respond but understand that they are doing this for a job and submit to his inquisition. The filmmaker posits this was a reflection of Eastern Europe’s subjugation after decades of Soviet rule. But looking at it today, given the recent resurgence of Russia against the West in the Ukraine, I wonder if the off-screen producer from the West represented just another dominating presence behind the former “iron curtain.” Did one new master simply replace the old one?

The second film, Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99, a film I had not seen since an Experimental Film class I took as an undergraduate student at UCSB in 1998, turned out to be another artifact of the Cold War. Unleashed in 1991, Baldwin’s film stitched together footage from an treasure trove of films in his personal archive. Having not seen the film in a very long time, I had not remembered all the references to American activities in Latin America during the Cold War, at the behest of aliens who controlled everything deep beneath the Earth’s surface. The film mentioned all the major milestones of US interfering in Latin American sovereignty: the overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion against Fidel Castro, the assassination of Che Guevara, the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the rise of Augosto Pinochet in Chile, and the cozy relationship between the CIA and Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Looking back at it now, I might want to incorporate this film as a preface to my work on US television and Latin American in the Cold War.

While the two films were likely selected for their appropriation of existing footage to create a political work, it was productive to reflect on the Cold War again. Men and women of a certain age can appreciate how we were consumed by the Cold War, only to forget about it twenty years later with the “end of history” and that whole “war on terror” thing. But, lest we forget that “history repeating itself” axiom, the Cold War always has a chance of making a comeback.

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