Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents (2015)

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents (2015) movie poster

director Don Hardy Jr.
viewed: 12/16/2017

Winston Churchill is said to have described Russia as “…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…” and maybe that’s an apt approach to what or whom The Residents are. Theory of Obscurity is a documentary that delves into their history, output, and following while keeping their particular riddle still wrapped in semi-anonymity.

I’m supposing how much you can deduce and know here may well have to do with how much you know about the band/art collective coming into the film.

I’ve had friends who were pretty serious fans over the years, so though my experience is more through contact highs than direct interface, I’ve always had an appreciation for the mysterious entity.

Though they originated in Baton Rouge, LA, they didn’t fully germinate until landing in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970’s. Their avant-garde strategies share some elements of other interesting radical art groups, but are at the same time vastly different. Not fully classifiable, their records and video art fit in well with the then burgeoning punk, post-punk, and new wave aesthetics, all while been far more rigorously non-commercial.

One thing for sure, it’s lit a fire under me to get a chance to see them when they perform in San Francisco next April.

Faces of Death (1978)

Faces of Death (1978) VHS cover

director  Conan LeCilaire
viewed: 11/18/2017

In the 1980’s, having seen Faces of Death was de rigeur for any horror fan. It was one of the most outré things on most family video store movie racks. As far as Exploitation goes, it might have been the video era’s greatest success.

The bait-and-switch of veritable horrors with hammy fakes fit is well within the carny sideshow tease and titillate. The reality, though, was always cheapened by the fake. And it still is. The voice over doesn’t help though it’s strangely politically progressive.

But these days much worse is readily available on the internet. So, out of the context of its reputation and the scrutiny of fake to realism, where does Faces of Death stand now?

It’s definitely in the Mondo mold, and I imagine that is the best way to categorize it today. It shares with Mondo the faux documentary style, the all-knowing narrator moralizing the stuff, the mixture of real life violence and staged material, especially the use of gruesome animal sequences that set the table and tone for verity and horror.

I d say that it’s flaws start with its structure, a seeming randomness that fails to sense its own strengths and weaknesses. It ends up meandering and working through no pattern of development. Interestingly, the music seems an ironic commentary throughout. Which might help to explain the mind-boggling credit sequence and song.

I appreciate Exploitation movies, though I doubt I need to re-watch this again ever. It’s still eerie and gross.

My Career as a Jerk (2012)

My Career as a Jerk (2012) movie poster

director David Markey
viewed: 08/14/2017

This Circle Jerks documentary works mostly as an oral history of the band, interviewing, not exclusively but almost, members of the band for their recollections. It starts out with a lot of old bad video with muddled sound from the band’s heyday in the earliest of the 1980’s. So much so, it seems like it’s going to be quite a slog.

But interestingly, the rest of the story unfolds, and while it’s far from a masterful work or even necessarily compelling, the tale of this band tells something different from what one might of thunk.

As well known as the Circle Jerks were for their name and skanker cartoon dude, they had one pretty great album, Group Sex (1980). They were a big hit in LA at the time, a minor supergroup made up of ex-members of Redd Kross and Black Flag. But personnel changes shifted things on a near constant basis. While singer Keith Morris and guitarist Greg Hetson were ever-present, the rhythm section went through a series of transitions that were more significant than in some groups.

As the 80’s wore on, the band put out less and less important records while Hetson had his other foot in Bad Religion (an apparent point of contention). They re-formed in the 90’s and cashed in on a major label deal in the wake of Green Day in what looked like a point of embarrassment. They also regrouped to cash in on playing some large venue gigs in the 2000’s.

The upshot is that the real hardcore punk scene didn’t make anybody any money. Even the more legendary bands, notable names like the Circle Jerks were just getting by, and though they had more fame and notoriety, that didn’t add up to much at the end of the day. And when “punk broke” in the 1990’s, they were just another group on the sidelines of the scene getting turned to capital.

More than anything, I’m glad to have learned how the nerdy guy from Repo Man (1984), Zander Schloss, wound up playing bass for the band. That always seemed kind of weird. Though he also seems like a cool guy in reality.

David Lynch: The Art Life (2016)

David Lynch: The Art Life (2016) movie poster

directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm
viewed: 07/30/2017

David Lynch is enjoying a moment again. This current moment is around the new season of Twin Peaks, a welcome respite in these fraught and psychotic times in America.

David Lynch: The Art Life isn’t really the documentary for this moment, necessarily. It does spend its time with the then 70 year old Renaissance man, as he works on paintings and other art pieces, entertaining his toddler daughter Lula. He recounts his childhood and relationship with his family and his concepts of art, through his school days and into Philadelphia, the onset of his interest in cinema. It culminates with the production of Eraserhead (1977).

Images of many of his artworks fill the screen, more often than not undescribed in title or time period. It’s just his own oral history. While it’s interesting, especially for someone who is interested in Lynch, it feels like an installment, not a whole. Maybe more interesting than Lynch (2007), maybe not.

Chained Girls (1965)

Chained Girls (1965) movie poster

director Joseph P. Mawra
viewed: 07/08/2017

Let me tell you, you could queer theory the hell out of Chained Girls. It’s almost a thesis project in itself, just packed with not just stereotypes of the day but leering while offering social commentary on the ways of lesbians in the world.

In the right company, this could be a laugh-riot. In other company, it’s about as offensive as you can imagine. For my money, it’s better to laugh than to cry.

This tidbit comes from Joseph P. Mawra, who (as the site will tell you) also made White Slaves of Chinatown and Olga’s House of Shame (both 1964). As well from producer George Weiss, producer of Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (1953) among many other Exploitation titles.

An amazing artifact, in its own way.

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014)

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014) movie poster

director Paul Goodwin
viewed: 07/04/2017

I experienced 2000AD sort of second hand. I got turned onto the Judge Dredd comics that were reprinted in the US in the early 1980’s and knew vaguely of the weekly British comic in which they originally appeared. I did at the time manage to land a single issue of 2000AD itself, but really had no sense of perspective or knowledge of the background of the publication.

So I was pretty stoked to see a documentary about it.

Sadly, it’s not a particularly great documentary.

Essentially an oral history as told by a litany of folks from the many decades and phases of the publication, it’s both insider-y and somewhat self-defined. It’s also a tad scattershot in focus and narrative.

Still, the tale of its origin, its eventual sapping by the DC Comics imprint Vertigo in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, and its near death around the turn of the century have interest for those interested in the subject.

Kind of a disappointment. At least I finally know how to pronounce Brian Bolland properly.

Danny Says (2015)

Danny Says (2015) movie poster

director Brendan Toller
viewed: 06/25/2017

Of the many music documentaries of late, I enjoyed Danny Says the most. Production-wise, it’s not dissimilar to Gimme Danger (2016), using interviews, old photos, old video, and even animation, but something about it, and maybe it’s Danny Fields himself (who does appear in the Stooges documentary, as Iggy Pop appears here).  The stories are almost entirely Danny’s, coming from his own recollections, of one of the most incredible life/career in late 20th century music.

To tell his story would sound like braggadocio if it weren’t all true. Starting out by publishing the interview that started the end for the Beatles to signing the Doors, the Stooges, the MC5, and the Ramones, and so so so so SO much more.

The rebellious nature of gay culture absolutely gave a place for punk to arise and thrive. It can’t be better stated than by John Cameron Mitchell, who says that Danny Fields was “Handmaiden to the gods, midwife to some of the most important people in music.” Fields’s taste in music wound up redefining music, without playing a note himself.

Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk (2017)

 Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk (2017) movie poster

director Corbett Redford
viewed: 06/10/2017 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA

I went to Gilman Street in spring of 1987, only a couple of months after it had opened. The show I caught was typically eclectic and in retrospect pretty awesome (Frightwig, the Didjits, the Dwarves, & Primus), though none of the bands that would become known as Gilman bands. I was 17.

My scene was in Gainesville, FL and my tangential link to Gilman and the East Bay was inspired by Gilman and its scene and led me to booking Operation Ivy and Crimpshrine when they toured in 1988. Eventually I moved permanently to California and Gilman was a continual pull, one of the only all ages venues of its day, plus its great price and atmosphere. I also eventually moved to San Francisco, and for the first year I lived in the city, I worked for MaximumRocknRoll and could call Tim Yohannon a friend.

So, Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk is populated by a number of people that I’ve known, some I still know, and tells a story from the inside of the Bay Area punk scene with which I have a lot of personal connection and familiarity and is also why I dragged my kids to sit through a 2 1/2 hour documentary on a Saturday afternoon.

Produced by Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, it’s a long-winded love letter to the heart of his punk birthing (and many others). The film is without a doubt overlong, but really tries to tell as full a story as possible, starting with Berkeley in the 1960’s, tracing the first waves of punk in San Francisco and the world, second waves of punk and all the early East Bay bands all before it gets to the founding of Gilman Street and all the bands and stories that emanated from it.

Since Billie Joe produced it, it’s got good production values and features Iggy Pop as narrator (though has Iggy ever been to Gilman?) Aaron Cometbus lurks around the film, silently lettering the chapter titles.

Some notables are notable in their absence. Controversies around the commercialization of punk and what happened to the Gilman scene in the 1990’s are addressed. It’s always seemed to me that Jesse Michaels caught a real sense of what was coming when he and Tim broke up Operation Ivy, the band that almost broke punk into the mainstream (their inherent popularity outgrew their comfort level before that chance ever reared its head.)

I actually took my son to Gilman for his first concert about a year and half ago, the first time I’d been there in 20 years. Physically it’s still the same, and it’s still populated by a lot of teenagers and young people (there were a couple old fogies like myself there). It is a cool place, and it’s truly amazing that it’s survived as long as it has in its being.

Gimme Danger (2016)

Gimme Danger (2016) movie poster

director Jim Jarmusch
viewed: 04/17/2017

When one of your favorite directors makes a documentary about one of your favorite bands, that is pretty much a cinematic slam dunk, right?

Unfortunately, Jim Jarmusch’s Stooges documentary Gimme Danger isn’t the great construct that it might have been. On the plus side, you’ve got Iggy Pop reminiscing widely on the birth, life, and death of the Stooges, as well as some input from other members, managers, and family. Certainly worthwhile for a fan.

But the style of the documentary isn’t great, hardly signature Jarmusch, not that he’s known for documentaries. It’s nice that it covers the period of reunion for the band, especially since the deaths of the Asheton brothers since. In fact, it might have been interesting to spend more time on the brothers’ lives between the break-up and reunion. It certainly seems like stories are there.

I have this thing I think about writing about something you love versus something that you have more critical distance from: it’s harder. Not that this is a love poem, but it feels like the story might have been more interestingly crafted with some critical distance.

As a document, it’s cool enough. It surely demonstrates that when you are too far ahead of your time for commercial success in your day, hopefully you’ll live long enough to have your cool recognized by the masses.

One More Time with Feeling (2016)

One More Time with Feeling (2016) movie poster

director Andrew Dominik
viewed: 04/03/2017

A study in contrasts: 2014’s 20,000 Days on Earth and 2016’s One More Time with Feeling. Both films are documentaries about Nick Cave recording an album. In 20,000 Days on Earth it is his 2013 album “Push the Sky Away”; in One More Time with Feeling it’s the 2016 album “Skeleton Tree”. The first is in color, the latter in black-and-white and 3-D.

The real difference is what happened between these two pictures, the death of Cave’s son Arthur in a fall from a cliff at the age of 15.

Cave is a different man, one who was always absorbed of darkness, but now leavened in loss and trauma. We see Cave’s wife, the beautiful Susie Bick and Arthur’s handsome twin, Earl appears briefly. Cave himself has deeply shaken by what has happened to Arthur, and while director Andrew Dominik engages Cave in conversation, the tragedy itself isn’t something that he wants to directly articulate.

Nick Cave and collaborator Warren Ellis scored Dominik’s remarkable 2007 Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It’s hard to know if this created an affinity between them, allowing access to the grieving process, the therapeutic return to work and art, but it’s conceivable.

These two films exist wrapped around Arthur’s death, the first by happenstance, this one by choice.