×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

SXSW Film Review: ‘Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents’

There's plenty of eye and ear-catching stimulation in this survey of the Residents' 40-year career.

With:
Molly Harvey, Joe Hasselvander, Les Claypool, Matt Groening, Josh Freese, Jim Knipfel, Penn Jillette, Joshua Brody, Roland Sheehan, Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, John Kennedy, Jay Clam, Maggie Swaton, Leigh Barker, Jerry Harrison, Steve Seid, Graeme Whifler, Chris Cutler, Eric Drew Feldman, Ty Roberts, Adam Weller, Rob Crow, Paulie Kraynak, Hein Fokker, Carla Fabrizio, B. Kim Andrews, Chris Combs, Michael Nash, Michael Melchiondo Jr., Gerald Casale, Mark Siegel, Nolan Cook, Gary Panter, Tom Timony, Laurie Amat, Barbara London.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2833768/

Avant-garde geniuses or the world’s longest-running rock novelty act? For those not previously converted or exposed, “Theory of Obscurity” will leave that big question hanging. Its survey of the Residents’ singular 40-year career — marked by anonymity as much as eccentricity — offers plenty of eye- and ear-catching stimulation without really making the case for this large body of work having the depth to match its breadth. Still, fans and newbies alike will be delighted by much of Don Hardy’s documentary, which draws on an expansive archive of surreal expressions from an (alleged) quartet whose creative emphasis was as much visual as sonic from the start. Minor theatrical exposure is possible before a healthy career in niche ancillary.

Their story told by various fans and collaborators — at least some of whom almost certainly are members of the “band” — the Residents themselves have never been identified by name. Their roster and number may well have changed over the years, but their primary image has remained the same: four figures in tuxedos with giant eyeballs as heads. There were rumors over the years that their ranks included some very famous people. But the likelier story told here is that they were spawned by a group of creative misfits from near Shreveport, La., who were drawn to leave the conservative South and head toward the countercultural haven of the San Francisco Bay Area around 1970.

At once attracted to the residue of the high psychedelic era and prankishly skeptical toward hippiedom (let alone the then-current explosion of sensitive singer-songwriters), the emigres soon began pushing the envelope, as glimpsed in humorously chaotic rock/performance-art footage before a nonplussed 1971 audience. They named themselves the Residents when their demo tapes were returned to those generic addressees by Warner Bros., whose signing of Captain Beefheart suggested they were open to rock’s more experimental edge. They weren’t that open, however.

So the Residents formed their own company (the Cryptic Corp.), their own label (Ralph Records), and began releasing albums that slowly began accruing a cult following. There were elements of pop-culture homage and parody, near-impenetrable personal mythology, art-rock, drone, juvenile humor and deliberate annoyance. Building their own home recording and art studio, these reported “failed filmmakers” started production on an absurdist feature called “Vileness Fats” that was abandoned when they realized the low-grade video being used would prevent its ever being widely seen. (Excerpts were eventually made available, however, and still color photographs taken reveal impressive design elements the video barely conveyed.)

By the early 1980s Ralph had a stable of aptly idiosyncratic fellow acts (Tuxedomoon, Fred Frith, Snakefinger), and the Residents’ initially rare live shows became surreal extravaganzas. Their outstandingly odd early videos like “Hello Skinny” — now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art — were MTV staples when that network was young and starved for content. They embraced new technologies, notably expanding the CD-ROM form with 1991’s “Freak Show.” They even created an opera of sorts in “The Mole Show.”

But the chronological narrative grows hazy after a while, in large part because nobody is willing to speak about the Residents in anything but third-person plural. With no one claiming insider status, there’s little insight here into how the work evolved over the decades, let alone what any of it means (a question archly dismissed as irrelevant near the end here). While there are plenty of celebrity admirers on tap (including Penn Jillette, Les Claypool, Matt Groening and Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison) to note how the act inspired and influenced them, there’s scant analysis of what the Residents have achieved as a whole.

Couldn’t a prominent rock and/or art historian have been dug up to address how their voluminous multimedia output adds up to a coherent statement, a significant trailblazing in various forms, or indeed anything beyond an epic goof? Any given few seconds of their musical or visual work arrests attention. But “Theory of Obscurity” really does its subject a disservice by failing to address whether the slippery bigger picture really rewards scrutiny, and how.

That said, there are plenty of such arresting moments here, many (maybe too many) from 2013’s “Wonder of Weird” tour, in which a familiar-voiced lead performer in Santa suit and clown mask delivers ranting monologues about their lore between songs. Those particular black-and-white concert excerpts may be a little over-represented, but other clips from the group’s long history will leave viewers pining to see the relevant musicvideos and such in full.

SXSW Film Review: 'Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, March 7, 2015. (In SXSW Film Festival —24 Beats Per Second.) Running time: 87 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A KTF Films presentation. Produced by Don Hardy, Barton John Bishoff, Josh Keppel. Executive producers, Yoshifumi Okuyama, the Noxious Twins.

Crew: Directed by Don Hardy. Camera (color, HD), Don Hardy, Barton John Bishoff, Josh Keppel; editors, Hardy, Bishoff; music, the Residents; sound, Kevin Ink; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Philip Perkins.

With: Molly Harvey, Joe Hasselvander, Les Claypool, Matt Groening, Josh Freese, Jim Knipfel, Penn Jillette, Joshua Brody, Roland Sheehan, Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, John Kennedy, Jay Clam, Maggie Swaton, Leigh Barker, Jerry Harrison, Steve Seid, Graeme Whifler, Chris Cutler, Eric Drew Feldman, Ty Roberts, Adam Weller, Rob Crow, Paulie Kraynak, Hein Fokker, Carla Fabrizio, B. Kim Andrews, Chris Combs, Michael Nash, Michael Melchiondo Jr., Gerald Casale, Mark Siegel, Nolan Cook, Gary Panter, Tom Timony, Laurie Amat, Barbara London.

More Film

  • Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in

    Film Review: 'Vice'

    From Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, the leaders of right-wing Republican politics have tended to be fire-breathers (or, in the case of Reagan, a saber rattler who could make snake oil taste like honey). But Dick Cheney broke that mold. Speaking in soft terse corporate tones, with the precision squint of someone [...]

  • Armie Hammer and Felicity Jones'On the

    Why Armie Hammer Cooked for the Cast of 'On the Basis of Sex'

    Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to her hometown on Sunday for the New York premiere of “On the Basis of Sex,” a biopic starring Felicity Jones tells the Supreme Court justice’s origin story. The 85-year-old Brooklynite received a standing ovation when she entered the Walter Reade Theater — a testament to the Notorious RBG’s rock-star status. Ginsburg [...]

  • Paul McCartney, Emma Stone Take Aim

    Paul McCartney, Emma Stone Take Aim at Bullying With 'Who Cares' Short

    Paul McCartney and Emma Stone get surreal for a good cause in the short film inspired by McCartney’s new anti-bullying song “Who Cares,” which held its premiere Sunday night at Beverly Hills’ Fine Arts Theater. In the short directed by Brantley Guitierrez (a longtime McCartney tour photographer) and choreographer Ryan Heffington, the music legend and [...]

  • Black Panther Production Design

    Netflix Isn't Killing Movie Theaters, Study Shows

    Netflix isn’t killing movie theaters. At least, that’s the take-away from a new study conducted by EY’s Quantitative Economics and Statistics group, which finds that people who go to movies in theaters more frequently also consume more streaming content. That flies in the face of the “conventional wisdom” of box office sages, who grimly ascribe [...]

  • 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' Weaves Inclusive

    The Secret Power of 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' Is Inclusion

    In a year that gave us films like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” this weekend’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” delivers one more home run for underrepresented groups in media in 2018. An animated film that takes advantage of Sony’s piece of the Marvel pie, “Spider-Verse” not only puts a mixed-race, middle-class teenager in the [...]

  • Jeff BridgesJeff Bridges, who stars in

    Jeff Bridges to Receive Cecil B. DeMille Award at 2019 Golden Globes

    The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has announced that Jeff Bridges will receive the Cecil B. DeMille award at the 76th Golden Globes on Jan. 6, 2019. Bridges has starred in films like “The Big Lebowski,” “Crazy Heart,” “True Grit,” and “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” More Reviews Film Review: 'Vice' Concert Review: Childish Gambino Takes L.A. [...]

  • Charlotte Rampling Euphoria

    Berlin Film Festival: Charlotte Rampling to Receive Honorary Golden Bear

    Oscar-nominated actress Charlotte Rampling, whose career has spanned more than 100 film and television roles, will be honored with a special Golden Bear at the upcoming Berlin Film Festival. The fest will also pay homage to Rampling by screening a selection of her work, including Sidney Lumet’s “The Verdict” (1982), Francois Ozon’s “Swimming Pool” (2003) [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content