“If you wait until you understand enough to do something, you’re never going to get it done.”
-Penn Jillette, The Theory of Obscurity
Until about a week ago, I had no idea who The Residents were, but I know I’ve seen reincarnations of the big eyeball head with a top hat. As far as their sound and art though, I’d never been exposed. So watching 2015’s documentary The Theory of Obscurity, written and directed by Don Hardy Jr., was a brief introduction that got me devouring everything I could find of their work, mostly from youtube, where a wealth of their videos and live performances can be found.
As the introduction to the film states, there is certainly no “definitive” history for the art group, and no personal histories for the members. Their identities have still, after over 40 years, never been revealed.
One of the interviewees in the film makes a comment that the group can really be looked as “failed filmmakers” primarily, even before their sound. Their music, as far as I know, from the earliest time they were making it was always accompanied by film in some form. Whether it was a matter of designing and making a set, objects and costumes for a specific song, or messing around with newspaper one day then much later deciding to use it for a music video for another tune.
I was drawn in by how atmospheric and over-the-top their art is, going as far as possible into the weird and approaching a space that is subconscious and nightmarish, but pleasantly so, like the feeling you get after waking up from a nightmare; knowing you are safe, you bask in the coolness of having had such a horrible nightmare, and you dwell on it while taking joy from it. (Perhaps not with really, really bad nightmares I should say, this is just my experience.)
The film shows snippets of their videos and a great deal of commentary by those who surrounded The Residents during their group’s lifetime, including founding members of the Cryptic Corporation, but of course there is nothing so revealing in the film as to feel like we can hone in on the personality, or indeed even person-hood, of the group. They are the one-for-all, all-for-one mentality described in the “Theory of Obscurity,” which basically states that artists can more fully realize their artistic visions when they are outside and apart from the public scrutiny that comes along with celebrity. In this reality, they have the best of both worlds; they have achieved the highest of cult status with fans all around the world and a working career spanning several decades, but at the end of the day they can always go to the grocery store and the local diner without ever dealing with fans in a personal way. This isn’t to say that there is no personal connection between the group and their fans. Somehow I think it is even greater because there is a malleability in the group and their art that make it relevant to individuals in individual ways. The Residents’ work is not muddied by personal histories or personalities that tend to distort whatever the body of work the group has created. You think of big name artists and many of them now have strings and controversy attached to their work because of this thing they said in an interview, or that thing they did off stage, etc. The Residents’ body of work is untouchable and infallible in that sense.
The visual effect that comes across when I see the music video to, say, “It’s a Man’s World,” or the photographs of the members wearing giant eyeballs on their heads is hard to describe, and I think I came closest to explaining it for myself personally above, when I said they are visually akin to the feeling of waking up safely from a nightmare. The images stay with me and I am intrigued because they trigger so many individual emotions into an amalgamation that is completely different from any other artistic experience, save for certain film directors’ movies. The Residents’ visual work manages to capture emotions without story, but with abstract and shocking images. The weirdness touches on a strange human capacity to latch on to and obsess over something grotesque and distorted, but that somehow satisfies a deep voyeuristic impulse. Like something disgusting in a video your friends show you, but somehow you can’t keep your eyes from watching. Les Claypool describes it succinctly when he talks about the first Residents’ song he ever heard, Constantinople. He says he hated it, he thought it must be the music they play in hell to torment people. But as time progressed, the sound he’d heard stayed with him, somehow going from something he couldn’t stand to something he couldn’t shy away from. He describes it like a fungus. It just kept sticking to him, growing. “The Residents were my fungus,” he states, hilariously straight-faced. The next clip shows him singing with Primus a cover of that very song.
The film also touches on how it is easy to dismiss The Residents if you refuse to look beneath the surface. Like I mentioned, I latched on to the atmosphere of the music, then watched some of the visual work, finally I looked into lyrics. There is something so tragic and personal in some of their work that perhaps would not be possible without masks to cover the bareness of their souls they are showing to the audience.
Last night I watched Freak Show, as performed in Prague. The show swings you from fun and hilarious, to beautiful, tragic, morose, and then dumbfounding. The Freak Show is something that is something of an analogy for the Residents themselves, they prove the universal fascination in human deformity, but at the expense of empathy and acceptance that these creatures are still human with human hearts.
The show is divided into two parts. In the first we play the part of the audience at a Freak Show, the boisterous and funny MC takes you on a journey through the history of the freak show and then we get to see the show’s stars one by one. The second part plummets you into your own soul, showing the behind-the-scenes of a possible reality after the lights are dimmed and the curtain falls. Each freak is engaged in their own reality in extreme deficit of something anyone on the street would call a basic human need for love, something everyone deserves. But beyond this, and more painfully I think, we then get a demonstration of these pitiful creatures’ attempts to fill the void within them, to keep up the façade of life and meaning where they’ve been stripped completely of their humanity. Such uncomfortable moments make the viewer grimace in disgust at the same time that she finds the twisted image of the reflection of these vain efforts in her own heart. My personal take-away is that we are all caught in the absurdity of life and in equally vain and pitiful attempts to frame our lives with meaning. We are all caught in the freak show.
Like I said, I am just at the beginning of my journey through The Residents’ work, something I am excited and perhaps a little nervous about! =)