The case of James Tilly Matthews is considered the first documented case of paranoid schizophrenia in medical history. Matthews, a London tea broker and political activist, believed that a gang of criminals was tormenting him by means of invisible rays emitted by a machine he called the “Air Loom.” He described these torments in physical terms, giving them such names as “Lobster-cracking,” “Stomach-skinning,” and “Apoplexy-working with the nutmeg grater.” He referred to the criminals as “the Middleman,” “the Glove Woman,” “Sir Archy,” and “Bill, the King.”
Matthews credited the Air Loom Gang with causing various British military disasters and claimed that they, along with other associated gangs all over London, were using their invisible rays to influence the minds of politicians. In his way, James Tilly Matthews was the first conspiracy theorist of the Information Age, and Craig Baldwin’s experimental science-fiction film, Spectres of the Spectrum, plays with the same ideas.
Spectres of the Spectrum tells the story of a young telepathic woman, BooBoo, who lives with her dad, Yogi, in the desert of Nevada after an electromagnetic pulse has crippled much of the human race. The history of their world is told via a mix of new and “found” footage as Baldwin culls much of the storyline from edited clips of old television shows, industrial and educational films, advertisements, Hollywood movies, and cartoons. It’s jarring, yes, but not without its charm. That science short on plate tectonics gets rewritten to document the power of electromagnetic weaponry. Samuel Morse, Benjamin Franklin, and Nikola Tesla are shown struggling against mysterious forces. Characters from 1950s science shows take on new life and emerge as antagonists against the heroes of educational science biopics.
It’s all fun, and at only ninety minutes long Spectres of the Spectrum never overstays its welcome. Best of all, the dialog sounds straight from a script written by Atari Teenage Riot and the listening audience of George Noory’s “Coast to Coast AM.” Some particular gems:
“Screw their see-all satellites. To hell with their helicopters. I’ll walk through walls to trash their hideous science project.”
“Freedom to the imagination. Damn the networks.”
“We’re both telepathic. Yeah. Fucking A.”
In the end, Spectres of the Spectrum becomes a critique of media consumption and the popular mainstream. Conspiracy theories abound calling to mind a new “Air Loom Gang,” this time composed of telecom companies and their military backers. Made in 1999 and set in 2007, there’s a tragic aspect to the film as the past ten years have only seen an increase in media saturation. Baldwin might have intentionally set his film so near in the future because he wanted to see it outstripped by coming events. We are all now submerged deeper within the spectrum, and the film can be viewed either as a quaint oddity (that in some ways presages The Matrix), or as an echo message reflecting back to us the outline of the world as it truly appears.
As one late-night radio host used to say, “Life is like science fiction.”