• Theory Of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents

    Released by: Film Movement
    Released on: April 19th, 2016.
    Director: Don Hardy Jr.
    Cast: The Residents, Matt Groening, Les Claypool
    Year: 2015
    Purchase From Amazon

    The Movie:

    Directed by documentary filmmaker Don Hardy Jr., 2015’s Theory Of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents is just that – a film about The Residents. For those not in the know, The Residents are best known as a band but are more than that. They don’t just record music, they make films, they incorporate various aspects of performance art into their concerts and they do it all under the guise of secrecy. Despite the fact that the band has been around for over forty years at this point, they’ve never made their identities public. When they appear in public they’re often wearing bizarre masks or just as likely their now iconic ‘eyeball with a top hat’ piece – but you never see their faces and you never learn their names.

    The film takes a chronological look at the genesis of The Residents, taking us to San Francisco in the late sixties where we learn about the origins of the outfit and soon after the formation of Cryptic Corporation, an organization set in place to run their business dealings. From there we witness the genesis of the never finished Vileness Fats film, completed projects like the Third Reich And Roll short and we learn of their influence on various musicians from across the spectrum. As time passes and we come into the modern day, we see one fan receive the UBS (Ultimate Box Set) which is a piece of one of every release The Residents have offered up over the years, along with one of the aforementioned eyeball masks, stored away inside a full sized refrigerator. Not many of these were made, they were very expensive and rather hard to store, but one of them wound up being put into the Museum Of Modern Art – a rare mainstream acknowledgement to the work of a truly avant garde collective.

    There’s a load of interesting footage here from throughout the band’s career, not just live footage but clips from their various short film offerings, from a computer animated DVD-Rom project called Freakshow, TV appearances and loads more. Interspersed in between all of this is the interview clips. Collaborators new and old like Penn Gillette, various members of the Cryptic Corporation (including one named John Kenney who, of course, became their president!), musicians like Dean Ween, Les Claypool and Jerry Harrison and other cultural impresarios like Matt Groening all offer up their thoughts on what appeals to them about the band and why they matter to them. Interestingly enough, Claypool notes that when he first heard The Residents by way of a friend’s mother’s record collection he hated them, but has clearly come around on their music as Primus now cover them sometimes during their own live shows. Footage shot from what is clearly a recent Christmas themed live performance is also used throughout the movie in interesting ways, evolving from black and white to black and white with graphics overtop and then finally to color as the movie comes to a close.

    The documentary never tries to uncover the identity of the four people under those masks, but it does offer up some reasoning as to why that part of the story remains untold – it really just comes down to artistic freedom. Regardless of who these people are, what they do has been consistently interesting over the years and the fact that they remain as beloved and are found so inspiring by as many people as they are, well, that’s testament to the fact that they’re doing something right.


    Theory Of Obscurity arrive on Blu-ray framed at 1.78.1. The newly shot interview and concert footage that makes up roughly half of the feature looks excellent and shows fantastic detail and great color reproduction. The archival material, however, is all over the place. A lot of this material was shot on tape decades ago and so it’s soft and occasionally a bit faded. Tracking lines pop up here and there and it looks like the old tape sourced material that it is. It never takes away from the viewing experience and really, there’s no way around it when putting together a feature like this. The good certainly outweighs the bad, however – you just need to keep your expectations in check.

    The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is frequently impressive in how it pushes the music to the various channels in the mix. Dialogue stays clean and clear, never to low in the mix, and the levels are nicely balanced. There’s some hiss in some of the older archival material used here but that’s completely forgivable given how obscure some of that material is. An optional Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix is also included on the disc.

    Extras include a whole collection of odds and ends starting with six and a half minutes of footage entitled The Boarding House which is a video document of The Residents' first live performance. This material is used in the feature but it’s cool to see it on its own, even if it’s in pretty rough shape. The eight and a half minutes of Vileness Fats Outtakes, the film that the band started early in their career but never finished, are also neat to see, if not in amazing shape. The five minute Third Reich And Roll video, the three minute Hello Skinny video and the five minute collection of One Minute Movies have all been taken from the original 16mm negatives and look much better – the content here is as weird as you’d expect it to be if you’re at all familiar with the band. Also here is a three minute video called Mellon Collie Lassie that the band made out of outtakes that the found while searching for materials to remaster, five minutes of 3-D/CGI animation from the Freak Show DVD-Rom project, seven and a half minutes of found footage culled from the internet titled The Walking Woman and a three minute piece called UBS #1 wherein we witness The Residents’ Ultimate Box Set being interred in the Museum Of Modern Art.

    The disc also includes extended and deleted footage culled from pretty much all of the interview sessions that took place during production. In this section you’ll find even more material with Les Claypool, Jay Clem, Chris Cutler, Homer Flynn, Hein Fokker, Matt Groening, Jerry Harrison, Penn Jillette, John Kennedy and Brian Poole. There’s just under an hour’s worth of content in this section and if you want even more input on how these guys all feel about The Residents, their art and their connection to said art, this is where you go to get it.

    Rounding out the extras are a trailer for the feature and trailers for a few other Film Movement releases: the Peelander-Z documentary Mad Tiger, The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, The Gambler, the Joe Sarno documentary A Life In Dirty Movies, Famous Nathan and The Pillow Book. Menus and chapter stops are also included.

    The Final Word:

    Theory Of Obscurity is pretty interesting stuff, a great mix of appreciative interviews, historical documentation and some genuinely rare footage all of which goes a long way towards painting one of the most comprehensive portraits of the band thus far in their forty year plus career. The Residents aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea but those with a taste for the bizarre or who just appreciate outsider art in any of its myriad forms should check this out. The Blu-ray release from Film Movement is over very good quality and contains some impressive supplements as well.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!