Theory of Obscurity

| April 21, 2016

In the early 70s, an avant garde group of artists known as The Residents started making music and films anonymously.  They believed that with their identities secret, they would be free to produce art in its purest form, without the influences and pressures that come along with celebrity.  Over the decades, The Residents have amassed a huge cult following through the production of their strange and subversive music while managing to maintain their anonymity.  The mystery surrounding them made them fascinating, and I’m sure the drug-friendly culture of the 1970s helped.

I imagine that somewhere there is a manuscript in a drawer.  It’s a memoir that starts with something like “My name is Jack and I’m the last surviving member of The Residents” before going on to tell the entire story of The Residents, and why they chose to keep their secret identities for years beyond the time they were making their art.  Fans seem to think that either they were already celebrities under their iconic eyeball masks, or they were afraid of any celebrity status tainting their artistic voice.  Watching this documentary about The Residents, all I could think was that they were probably just holding an experiment to see if they could consistently put out the worst music imaginable but still build an audience through the allure of their secretive nature.

One person interviewed for the documentary talks about being a teenager and hearing his first Residents song, a screechy, annoying, piece of drivel that he hated, but as he came to know more about The Residents, or rather discover how little there was to know, he became increasingly fascinated with the group, convincing himself that their music is genius and forming his own band to cover their songs as well as perform other music in their style.  This seems to be the pattern with many Residents fans who love the group because they’re so different from anything else you’re likely to hear.  Because that “anything else” is actually music.

The documentary itself is really interesting.  I knew nothing about The Residents, but seeing clips of their performances, music videos, films, and so on created a bizarre profile of the mysterious group that would have inspired me to look into their work more except I saw clips of their performances, music videos, films, and so on.  I’m all for finding individuality and a unique voice artistically, but to completely throw out all conventions of those who came before you is a bit too unique for my taste.

I can’t help thinking what The Residents would think of this very traditional documentary about their career.  I imagine they would be disappointed that their story is being told in such a conventional way, with archival clips and interviews.  Given the opportunity to make a documentary about themselves might have turned out something much more nonsensical and bizarre but it probably would have appealed more to their fan base.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for the conventional telling of their story, not to mention the irony of making an extremely conventional film about such an unconventional group.

Available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Film Movement.

About the Author:

Joe Sanders Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.
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