The Residents love manipulating their own image, and have concocted some wild stories about themselves. (Did they really run away to England with the Eskimo tapes? I don’t believe that for a second, though for the sake of accepting what they are presenting – their art – of course I’ll play along.)
With that in mind, it’s a wonder they didn’t start right out of the gate with a documentary about themselves. It would be fitting if the first thing they released to the public was an elaborate fictional backstory. Instead they waited nearly twenty years before presenting their history. But the reason is clear: as much as they enjoy telling stories, they are less interested in their own story than they are in the characters they dream up. Case in point: most of this documentary consists of clips from videos and performances, with very little commentary or narration. The Residents feel their story is in their artistic output, and not in what happens behind the scenes.
And what little is provided may not be actual history. It’s presented by Penn & Teller, two professional magicians, or, as they’ll have it, liars. Penn of course has a long history of lying for The Residents, pretending to be shocked at every performance of the Mole Show, and earlier pretending to be locked in a hotel listening to records from a band he had never heard of (despite appearing on one of the records he was reviewing). He even walks out during this documentary, but we see on the teleprompter that his frustration was scripted. But again: this is not really a documentary; it is an artistic rendering of what a documentary looks like. So we go along with it.
My favorite part of this program is when one of the managers says The Residents are not particularly skilled at anything, but they have a lot of ideas. I think he’s selling them a bit short in the skills department, but he’s definitely correct that creativity is their strongest trait. Even when their execution falters, the core idea makes it memorable. Which is not unlike a good number of Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episodes – we remember how great the stories were, but when we catch a rerun we can’t help but notice some limitations of the production. If the occasional misstep with a good idea works for those classics, well then The Residents are in good company.
The band’s anonymity comes up, but instead of becoming a focus it acts only as a springboard to explore the effects of such a decision. How do they make money? How do they stay relevant in the personality-driven field of entertainment? These are the kinds of questions that I find interesting, partly because they can be applied beyond the narrow scope of a single band from San Francisco. Some people believe that the most important question concerning The Residents is “who are they?” I contend this is not a question worth pursuing. Yes, The Residents do seem to be playing a game, but it is not “guess who we are.” If that were the case, the game would be over the moment someone guesses correctly, and where’s the fun in that? The Residents’ game is actually “come pretend with us,” which is much more satisfying because it doesn’t have to end. Wouldn’t you rather have a game you can play forever? Every child’s frustrated plea for “just five more minutes” would need never be uttered.
In the end, I’m glad this video was not a revealing exposé. I think The Residents are an incredibly interesting group, and were I to meet a member I know I’d be tempted to ask questions about their process and intentions. But at the same time I know that getting those answers removes part of the structure of what “The Residents” actually represents. It’s a methodology, and a big part of that is not looking behind the curtain. Quite a product-centric stance for a decidedly non-commercial group.