'Theory of Obscurity': Film Review

Theory of Obscurity: A film about The Residents Still - H 2015
Courtesy of SXSW

Theory of Obscurity: A film about The Residents Still - H 2015

An always-colorful portrait of the cult group

Who are the weirdos under those eyeball masks?

"There is no true story of The Residents," said Matt Groening, a fan of the band/performance art troupe, way back in 1979. That becomes a little less true with the arrival of Theory of Obscurity, Don Hardy's doc about the remarkably long-lived cult phenomenon. Stuffed with examples of the nose-thumbing spirit that has sustained their popularity despite the bandmates' refusal to reveal their individual identities, the film is a fine primer for the curious, even if it mightn't convince many non-fans to brave their intentionally challenging musical output. Given the passion of their fan base, the doc has potential in niche theatrical bookings, though life on video will be more robust.

Who are these art-damaged musicians who never perform without masks, usually in the shape of giant eyeballs? Primus's Les Claypool hypothesizes that Bono and Eddie Van Halen are secretly members. The infinitesimal possibility that celebrities were onstage may have stoked some curiosity in early days. But fans' fervor has hardly dimmed as, with passing years, it has become widely accepted that they are mostly some otherwise-unknown high school buddies from Shreveport, Louisiana who moved to California in the hippie era and found a way to turn their proclivities into a rent-paying entity.

We meet those Louisiana pranksters, and many of the friends who have collaborated with them over the years (whether onstage or behind the scenes), but they uniformly refuse to admit the obvious. All speak of the group's past by saying "they" did this, "they" believed that. While some viewers may grow irked by this devotion to the band's "theory of obscurity" — which holds that artists do their best work before fame changes their lives, thus a successful but never-famous artist can remain vital — it does allow the film to present a reasonable narrative of The Residents' early (and to a lesser extent their more recent) career.

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That unlikely and amusing story is fleshed out with ample footage of early live shows and nutty filmmaking projects (the group is described as "failed filmmakers" who managed to make music a career), some of which, miraculously, were actually shown on MTV. We hear about personnel shakeups over the years, disagreements over money, and come to understand that many part-time Residents have come and gone in their chaotic late career. Both celebs (Penn Jillette, Talking Head Jerry Harrison, and punk-comix pioneer Gary Panter) and ordinary fans offer their perspectives without taking too much time from those with first-hand experience. Then again, can you call a fan "ordinary" who endures countless for-pay medical experiments just to earn enough to buy four copies of every product a band releases?

Production companies: KTF Media, Depth of Field Productions, Hidden Pocket Productions, Moving Train

Director-Screenwriter: Don Hardy

Producers-Directors of photography:: Don Hardy, Barton John Bishoff, Josh Keppel

Executive producer: Yoshifumi Okuyama

Editors: Don Hardy, Barton John Bishoff

Music: The Residents

No rating, 87 minutes