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Theory of Obscurity – A Film about The Residents

Distributed by Film Movement
Produced by Barton Bishoff, Don Hardy Jr., and Josh Keppel
Directed by Don Hardy Jr.
DVD , color, 87 min.
High School - General Adult
Music, Art Rock, Video Art, Popular Music, Alternative Music

Reviewed by Vincent J. Novara, Curator, Special Collections in Performing Arts, University of Maryland

Date Entered: 12/19/2017

In 1979, Matt Groening – ten years before changing network TV forever with The Simpsons – issued the following impression of The Residents: “There is no true story of The Residents… any understanding of them must take into account their organized sound and their organized silence. The best this report can do is note the various statements and point out the gaps.” This one quote could serve as a mission statement for Don Hardy’s documentary, Theory of Obscurity – a Film about The Residents. Throughout the film, various interviewees consider the notion that The Residents might not actually exist – the group might just serve as a music and video collective committed to an evolving bewildering concept. Lacking any background personal stories for viewer to relate to renders their history more impersonal, which may be part of the point. Based on some of the anecdotes, it truly becomes unclear if there are formal members, to the point that some of the interviewees might be members. Numerous figures interviewed certainly present themselves as unofficial members who are documented performing in a supporting fashion with what is projected as The Residents: three-to-four trim people of average height in formal wear, hiding their identities with giant eyeball masks adorned with top hats, as well as other curious costumes.

Viewers will enjoy a thorough primer on The Residents: How they work, the motivations for their aesthetic, who embraced that aesthetic, how they financially sustained themselves, who they influenced, and who influenced them. However, the structure of the film is not so clearly organized that it progresses through a predictable narrative. It takes on one topic after another, without much bridging the segments. Not unlike listening in order through The Residents’ discography. Composed of interviews, press clippings and video snippets, and generous performance footage from various sources, the documentary does provide an authoritative overview. And given that this band functions more like an art collective, it is notable, and perhaps fitting, that two curators provide some of the most compelling and informative commentary: Barbara London, Museum of Modern Art curator (where The Resident’s video collection and "Box Set in a Refrigerator" is held); and Steve Seid (video curator from Pacific Film Archive). Other commentators include Penn Jillette, who was also their "spokesman" and narrator for the Mole Show tour in 1982. More experimental rock musicians like Chris Cutler of Henry Cow and Les Claypool of Primus contribute considerably.

The film is loosely framed by a performance in Vienna from 2014. This is where the story starts, following a brief introduction, and Hardy comes back to this performance throughout as a point of reference. Given the retrospective nature of the concert, this proves a sound strategy. But it does remove a layer of objectivity from the documentary, as the sole performance might influence how the film is construed or the argument is presented. Consequently, much like the popular documentaries on Eagles or Rush, this can feel at times like a promotional vehicle. However, the Eagles and Rush documentaries are more a monument to their legacy, whereas this work is more similar to the Fishbone documentary (Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone) in that it is showing an uncompromising band that defies convention and is yet – despite the odds – still active.

The most enlightening interviews are with the eccentric members of The Cryptic Corporation. This is a group of individuals who both supported The Residents and seemed to serve as a kind of an exclusive fan club. They provide the most context of where The Residents came from; especially geographically in terms of their leaving Shreveport, LA, for the more sympathetic San Francisco, CA. It is interesting to consider that for some reason, much of the contributions by members of The Cryptic Corporation are accompanied by vintage industrial or educational film stock.

The performance footage viewed throughout brings out the role of movement in all works by The Residents, which can get lost in the costumes, sounds, and sets. However, any discussion of movement does not appear until 57 minutes into the film, and that segment only reveals that The Residents wanted dancers in the costume for one video, so that they could actually move more convincingly. As the president of Cryptic claims: "What difference does it make who is in them?" And regarding the costumes, Mark Siegel, designer of the eyeballs with top hats, reveals his materials and design methods via primary sources such as mock up sketches and prototypes.

Don Hardy’s Theory of Obscurity succeeds at telling the story of The Residents to the extent that such an exercise is possible. Any library supporting programs in experimental music, film programs, or an art or theatre program that specializes in video, film, or projection installations will serve their patrons well by acquiring this documentary. The extensive bonus features will certainly thrill fans of the group, or the recently converted eager to dive deeper. As an item of documentary filmmaking, Theory of Obscurity meets the challenge of relaying the abstruse history of an inspired creative collective who deliberately set out to remain anonymous.