by Jason Suzuki
Being a newcomer to The Residents can be an overwhelming thing. Stuff like Commercial Album, Eskimo, and Duck Stab/Buster Glen are the usual suspects for a starter kit but from there it's a true choose-your-own-adventure discography. Having been around for over 40 years there is a lot of material to cover which also includes works in other mediums besides music. When hearing a song by a band for the first time, especially an avant-garde act, there is this great air of mystery around them. And when each song sounds different from the last the joy is strengthened. For The Residents even with each album cover the band is able to retain that sense of continuous discovery (see Animal Lover) and the sounds and experiments change from album to album. Moving beyond the superficial layer of who are The Residents you're still stuck with the question of what are The Residents. Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents does not claim to answer that question but it certainly begins to get at something worthwhile on the group, with the help of the likes of Penn Jillette, Les Claypool, Michael Melchiondo (Dean Ween), Matt Groening, and others including members current and former of The Cryptic Corporation.
For fans of the band it wouldn't be interesting to watch a documentary entirely composed of people hailing the genius of the band in question. They know, that's why they're fans. While the film at times does this, never really allowing people to give deep analysis of the music as opposed to the band and the image, there is still quite a bit here to interest those who don't need a primer on the history of The Residents. For an outsider audience who might not know about the eyeballs with the top hats, this film is certainly entertaining and informative, the majority of the film sticking to a chronology of the early years before losing that focus from the 80s onward. Don Hardy Jr. has been allowed some great access to the band and devotes a good amount of the film, or rather more than expected given the talking head nature of the film, on footage from recent performances. The lyrics appear on screen allowing the viewer to form their own analysis of the band and their art when the film won't.
Going from album to album could end up tiresome, but ultimately something more is needed on the group. Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy treated each entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise as its own story. The film ended up being four hours but was extremely engaging throughout. If Hardy's film were to do something like this I'm sure it would allow deeper insights to be formed on the band from their work. There's continuous talk of the mystique of the group, but part of the anonymity, before the costumes became a part of the art, is to allow the music to speak for itself. This longer form approach would lessen the accessibility of the film but The Residents never seemed to worry about that, hence the documentary's title.
The theory of obscurity, which refers to an idea of audience consideration, and the potential to retain purity of expression when fame is not in the mix, is a question brought up regarding The Residents but it seems to go nowhere. Claypool and Melchiondo both claim the influence on their substantially more popular groups, but what if the film were to take if further: Primus and Ween both have Residents influence but how did their levels of fame affect the music when compared to the trajectory The Residents have been on? The Cryptic Corporation was started to help The Residents continue to create without having to worry about financial considerations, but did those things ever come up for the band? The film's persistence to not to attempt to answer questions leaves a little to be desired. The Residents have always left us with more questions than answers, but a pure concert film would have been better if this path was taken.
One of the more interesting observations on the band is of them being a quintessentially American group. The DIY nature of the works and the attitude to learn while you do not before are reasons for this association. It's a sentimental note but after all these years the band deserves some praise, and for that praise to be captured on video. If this film inspires someone to go out and create or more importantly start listening to The Residents (there's more than enough stories of inspiration in the film to go around) then I would call it a success. It's a must see for fans and especially newcomers, it's just slightly disappointing that the film, perhaps wisely, doesn't set out to be the definitive document on the band.
Theory of Obscurity plays Thursday, November 12, 4:00 pm; Sie FilmCenter. Saturday, November 14, 9:00 pm; Sunday, November 15, 6:30 pm; UA Pavilions.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.