A thousand years ago, the hidden planet Quetzalcoatl exploded after a nuclear war, becoming the asteroid belt. A few mutated Quetzals escaped to Earth in their flying saucers, where they hid deep underground until nuclear tests set them free. Emerging from their slumber bent on world domination, the Quetzals triggered "natural disasters" and fomented "Communist revolutions," aiming to conquer the Americas. Luckily, the CIA and its allies saw through the Quetzal plot and foiled their nefarious plans.
Or so we learn from Craig Baldwin's cult hit Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1991), recently released by Other Cinema. Often described as a "pseudo-pseudo-documentary," Tribulation 99 consists entirely of stock footage, cut into 99 vignettes and narrated in an insistent whisper. The images come from newsreels, movies, TV shows, educational films, and cartoons. Godzilla stands in for the Quetzals, James Bond helps fight them off, and CIA mastermind E. Howard Hunt himself makes regular appearances. It's like The X-Files for John Birchers.
Of course, it's all a goof. Kind of. Obviously, Baldwin doesn't think Jacobo Arbenz, Fidel Castro, and Salvador Allende were Quetzal puppets. In fact, you might call him an alien sympathizer, because it's pretty clear he resents the CIA for the Quetzals' failures.
Tribulation 99 is actually a bitter allegorical indictment of U.S. intervention in Central and South America. The so-called "aliens" are Baldwin's real heroes, fighting authoritarian dictators and their CIA handlers. His editing deftly undercuts the film's supposed thesis, using clips from Mission: Impossible to illustrate the CIA's bungled attempts to assassinate Castro and dynamite fishing to illustrate Reagan's aid to the Contras' "struggle against literacy teachers, health clinics, and agricultural cooperatives." And on occasion, an intertitle offers a nugget of bona fide fact, purporting to corroborate the narrator's paranoid fantasy while actually underscoring the cynicism of Cold War politics: "In his first month, U.S. President George Bush delivers 20,000 M-16 assault rifles to the Guatemalan army."
The genius of Tribulation 99 is Baldwin's pitch-perfect evocation of what Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style in American politics." Baldwin doesn't just poke fun at kooky conspiracy theorists, he emulates them, using their peculiar rhetoric to show how America rationalized its Cold War callousness. If an alien conspiracy to conquer the world is crazy, so is, "We destroyed the village in order to save it." Still, one suspects Baldwin nurses a few paranoid fantasies of his own. Perhaps it takes a conspiracy theorist to emulate one.
The DVD also includes two of Baldwin's shorts. RocketKitKongoKit suggests the West orchestrated Joseph Mobutu's coup of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in order to establish a base for missile programs. Wild Gunman is more abstract, collaging Westerns and ads into a parody of rapid-fire consumerism.