“Good night Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”
“Who the fuck are The Residents?” Asked by one of the documentary’s talking heads, this is the question that Theory of Obscurity tries to answer. But it’s tricky, because who the fuck are The Residents? They’re a band. They’re filmmakers. They’re artists. They’re pop culture historians. They’re a permanent exhibit at MOMA. They’re cutting edge and seemingly ageless. And they are truly anonymous. We’re not talking Daft Punk anonymous, where you can find their names and faces if you really want. But truly unknown. Which is why, in writing “The True Story of The Residents” in 1979, The Simpsons creator Matt Groening said this:
There is no true story of The Residents. You should know that right off. The secrets of The Residents will never be revealed by anyone but The Residents themselves, and so far they aren’t saying much…. Our knowledge is still incomplete. Anything is possible.”
For all we know, like the Dread Pirate Roberts, the makeup of The Residents is ever-changing. While we may not really know who the fuck The Residents are, Theory of Obscurity does about as good a job as possible of digging into the meat of this riddle. The documentary is actually a fairly by-the-numbers doc about a band’s formation and journey, with the obvious distinction of maybe-possibly not having the band actually participating in the filmmaking process (more on that in a beat). We follow their formation as an avant-garde punk band in the early 70’s of Northern California and watch them become recording artists and filmmakers, pioneering music videos and winding up in heavy rotation in the early days of MTV. We see them fail, we see them succeed, we see them influence. As Groening put it, we see the duality of their art, both entertaining and subversive, and see how they are “taking elements of pop culture and mutating them and doing something completely different.” The documentary tells us this through the various talking heads, and shows us this through their music, film snippets, and tour performance excerpts. In honoring the band and trying to present an appreciation for their sense of humor and the seriousness of their art, Theory of Obscurity succeeds.
The film pulls this off because director Don Hardy managed to get tons of folks to talk, a testament to The Residents’ lasting influence. There are the former collaborators (musicians and artists), most famously including Penn Jilette, sharing their personal experiences with The Residents. There are the bands and musicians, including Primus, Devo, Ween and countless on-the-fringe groups, explaining how and why The Residents came to be so influential to them. And then there’s The Cryptic Corporation.
The Cryptic Corporation is The Residents’ management company, formed in the bands’ early days to oversee and manage their endeavors. Because the band sanctioned this doc, Hardy was able to get the founders of the Cryptic Corporation to talk quite a bit about the band’s working and their own involvement therein. Of course, two of the founders (and still current members of theCcorporation) are widely believed to also be the two artists primarily behind The Residents, so the film maybe-just-maybe also includes discussion from The Residents themselves. This also creates an interesting viewing experience, because the Cryptic Corporation folks all carry this air of potentially being unreliable narrators, at least insofar as they may be lying about their own involvement in the band.
So what we’re left with, ultimately, is a film about art. It’s not so much about the truth of The Residents as individuals, because how can it be? (In fact, in an age where we seemingly know everything about everyone, the anonymity The Residents have continued to maintain is almost as impressive as their body of work itself.) Instead, it’s more about how and why this Thing came to be. There are a lot of reasons one becomes a performer. After his recent Oscar win, veteran character actor J.K. Simmons offered the following advice to would actors:
“I almost got back on the bus a handful of times,” Simmons said of his early days trying to make it, “and if I had had any reasonable options, I probably would have.”
Simmons continued: “I read a very romantic book when I was young, when I was in college, Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet.’ And I’ve always felt that if you are in any kind of an artistic, creative endeavor and you feel there’s something else you can do for a living and be happy, I think you should do something else. Because you’re much more likely to find comfort and happiness. If you can look deeply in yourself and say there is nothing else that can bring you satisfaction. That’s your answer.”
We may never know if this truly applies to The Residents and why they’ve followed the career they’ve followed, but the biggest takeaway from Theory of Obscurity is that it sure seems that way.
Theory of Obscurity premiered at South by Southwest 2015.