The pattern of late has been that by the time I get a chance to experience their latest project, The Residents have already moved to their next. The Wonder of Weird CD was released while Shadowland was happening, the Shadowland CD came out as Theory of Obscurity premiered, and now that I am able to see the film, a modified Shadowland is in full swing. I’m certain they’d be releasing Train Wracked By God if the touring group hadn’t had to reform in the wake of Charles Bobuck’s departure. I suspect the extra time he’s spending in the studio will result in something quite different.
This documentary has a difficult balance to achieve. First and foremost it needs to be a beginner’s guide to The Residents. That in itself is not an easy feat – how does one distill four decades of varying work into ninety minutes of sound bites? Without a narrative from the band itself, you are left with the unenviable task of working backwards from finished product to hypothesizing the intentions. If the filmmakers opted to have a narrator throughout the film it would only be the wild theories of a single person, and cease to be representative. The model they settled upon – a broad overview just lightly dipping its foot into selected highlights – is probably the best given the restrictions, though still problematic. Let’s be frank for a moment: The Residents are not a popular group, and never will be. Only a small minority of people will ever be interested, and they are more often than not keen to explore and don’t wish to be spoonfed information. As for the majority of the film’s audience – those who will never investigate further – there’s no point in delving into minute details of something they simply won’t care about. So that’s how to handle mainstream audiences.
The other demographic to consider is the existing fanbase. Of course they’ll see this film, even though it’s targeted to newcomers. But will they accept such a shallow overview? Of course not. They expect a movie that reveals new insights, as impossible as that must be for the dedicated fan. And the film caters to that mentality – while still being accessible to the public – in two ways.
First is the brilliant use of alternative footage for music videos. A newcomer need only see some of the stills from the “Hello Skinny” video to get the idea of the visuals, but the longtime fan recognizes the heretofore unused shots, and squeals with glee. Secondly, a handful of never before (or rarely before) revealed stories from behind the scenes. Are the construction details of the original eyeball necessary to the story? No, but it is interesting, and happens to tie into the main thesis of the documentary.
And that is the do it yourself attitude that pervades everything The Residents touch. Even when enlisting outside help, it seems those collaborators are given a challenge, taken out of their comfort zone, and must invent new methods to meet the goal. This is partially a movie that celebrates self reliance. It is also a movie about discovery because, as I understand it, the director had never heard of The Residents before he started this project.
How did he do? I think quite well. There are too many pseudo-insider perspectives when it comes to this group. With many fanbases one’s loyalty level is measured by amount of collected arcane knowledge, and with The Residents that goes into overdrive. Unable to verify even the most basic facts, they almost become a conspiracy theorist’s wonderland. To have a true outsider come in is gloriously refreshing. It’s not the film I would have made – and that’s certainly true for many others – but on the other hand, wouldn’t we rather have something that is different? Art – as well as Life – flourishes on the constant struggle between comfort and discovery. And after four decades, it’s nice to be able to watch it all again through the eyes of someone new.