Eyeball This: “Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents”

By on March 14, 2015

We’re very much looking forward to seeing Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents, a documentary about one of Night Flight’s favorite bands.

The film chronicles the nearly 50-year career of the theatrical art-rock collective, which was formed by Louisiana natives in San Francisco in the mid-1960s. The doc includes footage from their first show, in 1971, through their 40th-anniversary tour.

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In keeping with the group’s anonymous image, the Cryptic Corporation, which records and markets the music and videos, handles the interviews of more than 40 individuals connected to The Residents universe…fellow musicians, critics, fans, artists…the whole enchilada, so to speak, according to their Indiegogo page — “Les Claypool of Primus, Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller, Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, Jerry Casale of Devo, Chris Cutler of Henry Cow, Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads, Dean Ween of Ween, John Fishman of Phish, beans, cheese, tortillas, and much, much more.”

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Theory of Obscurity was completed after generous contributions were made to an incredibly successful crowd-funded campaign on Indiegogo; the filmmakers had hoped to raise $25,000 towards finishing the film — there were expensive post-production related costs due the fact that HD transfers had to made from various types of archival footage, shot on 16mm film, black & white videotape, 3/4-inch tape and other types of film and video sources — but the success of their late 2013 campaign far surpassed everyone’s expectations, topping out at more than $40,000 in donations, from all four corners of the globe.

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Rolling Stone writer Christopher R. Weingarten recently interviewed director Don Hardy about the film. Here’s an excerpt:

While hundreds of bands will be struggling to emerge from obscurity at SXSW 2015, one set of oddballs will be celebrating a 40-year home there. Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents, a feature-length documentary about the infamously anonymous avant-garde pop group will have its world premiere at the festival on March 14th. Featuring testimonials from famous fans — including Simpsons creator Matt Groening, illusionist Penn Jillette and Primus leader Les Claypool — the film delves deep into the apocrypha and mystery of the one-of-a-kind, dissonance-crazed band that revolutionized D.I.Y., presaged the music video revolution, embraced CD-ROM technology and basically trod a four-decade path of weirdness right into the MoMA’s permanent collection. Working with the band’s management, the Cryptic Corporation, director Don Hardy got full access to the group’s archives, filling the film with tons of footage both familiar and unseen.

So how do you do an authoritative documentary about a group who’s remained nameless and faceless since their 1974 debut? “The one movie we talked about a lot early on was the Banksy film, Exit Through the Gift Shop,” says Hardy. “And how that so beautifully took the idea of celebrity and the creation of art and turned it totally on its head and on the audience’s head. I think the line that Homer Flynn from the Cryptic Corporation said early on was like, ‘I think that to tell this story, we should, at every point we should try to undermine the credibility of it.'”

The film will be showing on three occasions at SXSW and the Residents will play their latest show, Shadowland, as part of an official showcase. We caught up with Hardy to discuss his attempt to document the strange and mysterious world of pop culture’s most dapper eyeballs.

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How did you get into the Residents?
It kinda happened by accident, really. I was working on another project with an old colleague. I used to work for NBC news in San Francisco Bay Area. The project was kind of falling apart and so we decided to go out for a drink with another old colleague from NBC. So it’s myself, Barton Bishoff and Josh Keppel. Josh mentioned that he had done some work with the Residents — he helped shoot on their two previous tours. As he mentioned this, I saw Bart, his eyes just kind of got wide, and he said, “You know who the Residents are?” For me, just sort of stepping back from it, I’m like, Wow this is an amazing story. Is anybody documenting this? A couple weeks later we were on the road for their 40th anniversary tour.

Once you got embedded with the Residents, how soon was everything demystified for you?
It happened pretty quickly. I approached it with that sort of wary, yet journalistic eye. I mean that’s my training. . .Once you [get] behind the wall a little bit, its pretty apparent who’s doing what. But I’d say the mystery that’s still there is, you know, I got conflicting stories — ’cause we’re talking about stuff that happened 40 years ago. Filling in those blanks and those gaps, there’s still conflicting reports. There’s been so many different parts of it over the years told by different people and so much of it has just been forgotten, that [it] quickly became apparent to me that I couldn’t tell it like a completely fact-based account. It just wasn’t going to be possible. [Laughs] You can’t talk to the Residents, you can only talk to the people who have collaborated with them over the years and try to tell a story about what it’s like to work with them. Ultimately, what I landed on, is it’s not about the people, it’s about the collective approach to trying to create art.

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You can’t always match a human being to an eyeball, but it’s our natural tendency.
Absolutely! I’ve heard all these stories. We kind of poked fun at some of the famous people that [have] been called Residents over the years, Bob Seger and David Byrne and Jerry Harrison being one of the most notable. I think that mystery is so much more fun than whatever the reality would be. Even if it really was, even if it was McCartney under the eyeball — I mean, that would be pretty cool, but just not knowing and you can conjure up whatever it is, is so much more interesting.

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You can read the rest of the interview with Hardy at Rolling Stone.

The Residents, of course, appeared on Night Flight back in the day — we’ll have a clip for you to check out soon!

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents premiered on March 14, 2015, at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. The group also will present its latest show, “Shadowland,” at SXSW on March 20, an idea that Hardy shared at the first meeting between the filmmakers and the Cryptic Corporation.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.