DIRECTED BY: Don Hardy, Jr.
PLOT: Various talking heads (including a member of the Talking Heads) reminisce and opine about the longest lasting and perhaps most creative performance art group of the past half-century, the Residents, interspersed with clips of performances, videos, and news appearances.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Modestly disappointing, Theory of Obscurity slams through all the familiar tropes of the modern documentary form, with the subject matter its weirding grace. Oddly for a documentary, this seems to be aimed at those who only care to know very little about the subject.
COMMENTS: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” is undoubtedly a hyperbolic aphorism to use, but the underlying message is apt in describing Hardy’s underwhelming Residents documentary. Setting his sights on the pop-underground ensemble, Hardy has whipped up a love-letter worthy of a high school freshman. The sentiment is correct, and the delivery is in earnest, but he somehow says far too much without conveying anything of depth. The technical competence of his documentary cannot be argued, but one is left wanting something more than a film version of an All Music Guide bio.
Assorted entertainment luminaries, each with a varying degree of modishness, sit in front of the camera and talk about their feelings or experiences with the mysterious troupe from Louisiana. Les Claypool from Primus particularly shines, likening his first experience of a Residents tune to hearing the “music that plays in Hell,” then explaining it came to be “like a fungus” that he learned to appreciate. Penn Jillette pops in fairly often, but his presence is largely unilluminating, as he wears his fandom (quite rightly) on his sleeve. Tossing in a slew of other less famous individuals (including the soft-spoken gentlemen who made up the original “Cryptic Corporation”, the Residents’ administrative and marketing crew), the viewer is left with not quite an hour and a half of sentimental tales, enthusiastic praise, and archival clips. The fact of the matter remains, and is emphasized, that this group really can and should be judged based on their output.
Along with the main feature, there are some forty minutes or so of remastered Residents material in the supplements, from a (very) bad recording of their first live performance (before they had even adopted their name) to a “found footage” dream narrative put together in the mid-Oughts. While watching these selections, their evolution from unlistenable neo-Futuresque troubadours to dominanting icons of weird, the correct way to study the Residents became even more apparent. Ditch the commentary and listen (and watch) the source material.
I may be judging Don Hardy and company a bit harshly here, but that is because such a bold topic as the Residents deserves a far, far bolder documentary. He and his team were allowed, the disc says, previously unrivaled access to the group’s archives. However, either through inability or disinclination to expand on what’s already been made available, Theory of Obscurity languishes. Its quality is sufficient for those who know nothing of the group and seek a loose frame of reference, but anyone who has had any interest in the Residents will likely already know everything the movie recounts, and more. A quote from Matt Groening in the film’s first half acts almost as a disclaimer: “Our knowledge [about the Residents] is incomplete.” Unfortunately, Hardy’s Theory of Obscurity does nothing to further this knowledge.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…fans and newbies alike will be delighted by much of Don Hardy’s documentary, which draws on an expansive archive of surreal expressions from an (alleged) quartet whose creative emphasis was as much visual as sonic from the start.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (festival screening)