The Movie Was A Comedy But I Didn’t Laugh (The Census Taker)

Gonna get me a shotgun...The album’s cover doesn’t have a lot to endorse it. Simple but not elegant, it prominently features a picture of Garrett Morris who is only in the film for a brief time. Granted, this was not released through Ralph Records and didn’t have their art department, but surely something can be done here – even a standard publicity photo of the band would suffice. The message conveyed by the cover is: the movie alone will sell this music, The Residents will not. Which would be reasonable for a hugely successful comedy such as Ghostbusters, but I only heard about this film when the soundtrack arrived at my favorite record store.

Curious about a movie that would hire The Residents, I inquired at my local video store. Daniel, the owner, appears to have a bottomless knowledge of all movies ever made. For a brief moment I thought I had found the bottom, because he was unaware of a recent movie called The Census Taker. Telling him The Residents did the soundtrack understandably did not help. He did know of a recent Garrett Morris picture with a different title (Husbands, Wives, Money & “Murder”), and a bit of research revealed a synopsis concerning a census taker. He placed an order with his distributor and it arrived the next week.

The movie starts off promisingly enough, with an extended homage to Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? complete with inserting Bette Davis into the husband’s confused line, where in the original it was a Bette Davis film that was referenced. It sets up a tradition, hoping that a future film will do the same, with the wife referring to this movie, and the husband mistaking it for an Elizabeth Taylor film. But that’s never going to happen because this movie is not memorable. I can appreciate that satire is being attempted, which explains the casting of Greg Mullavey in what is essentially a reprise of his Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman role, but that show didn’t impress me either. It has awkward pacing, either due to the direction or editing or both, and I really wish somebody were on set to tell the cast the correct pronunciation of “verisimilitude.” I’d normally let something like that go, attributing it to a character choice, but the word was used so often and by every character that it seemed the screenwriter had just learned it and was excited to include it.

But enough of the movie.  What’s interesting is how it came to my attention: the soundtrack. There’s a growing interest in using electronic music in film scores. Chariots Of Fire is probably the film that legitimized its use, and ever since then filmmakers have been looking to reproduce that success. Recently I’ve heard the Beverly Hills Cop theme played on the radio a handful of times, which makes up in catchiness what it lacks in epic grandeur.

The Residents lie somewhere between those two, which may be bad news for everybody. The music doesn’t sweep and carry the film, and in fact almost intrudes upon it, though this could be due in part to the editing. With their previous project, The Residents have demonstrated that they can write a successful film score, and much of this sounds like it comes from those sessions, so it’s an issue of pairing the right film with the right music.

If The Residents are trying to market themselves as film composers, this is an unfortunate entry in their portfolio. The new music is very good, as are the old tunes reworked for inclusion, but they do not form a cohesive whole. In all likelihood, the band was rushed and simply pulled old recordings off the shelf to meet a deadline. Or perhaps the filmmakers specifically requested particular pieces. Whatever the case, it hurts the overall image of a band that is doing something truly original with music. And maybe they are aware of that, and requested the cover not feature them and display an incorrect (but better) title.