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Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents

Review by Richard S He

How did The Residents, an anonymous band of suit-wearing eyeballs, become world-infamous? How do you construct a documentary around a band who won’t even show their faces? Documentaries are subjective by definition; the smartest ones just hide it better. Instead, Don Hardy’s Theory of Obscurity has the good humour to stick a disclaimer on the very beginning: “There is no true story of The Residents.”

Here are the literal facts: The Residents emerged from late ’60s San Francisco, as the death throes of the hippie dream spawned stranger things. Over two decades, they went from amateurs trolling open mic nights to absurdist pop deconstructionists. Through regular rotation on MTV in the ’80s, their eyeballs-in-suits costumes became as iconic for a certain generation as Frank Zappa’s moustache.

There’s only one rule for music documentaries: do they tell you more than you could learn from the artist’s work alone? The problem is, The Residents’ music is deliberately inscrutable. Their best experiments transform childlike mischief into sinister clown voices into the existential – but they reveal nothing about their creators. Fittingly, Theory of Obscurity presents the band’s work in the same fashion as their early sound collages: as an endless parade of non sequiturs. Theory of Obscurity makes you long for context, some kind of explanation – but that’s the joke! There is no punch line.

The Residents’ biggest influence on music isn’t, well, musical: it’s about the democratisation of talent. As everyone in the film freely admits, the band had barely any discernable musical ability to begin with. That they ever produced a record is a minor miracle in itself. That they built a career out of a series of experiments with an intended audience of approximately zero suggests that they touched on something deeper than just youthful absurdism. The fact that The Residents can still surprise you – and, more importantly, themselves – seems to be the only thing that keeps them going, well into their fifth decade.

That makes Theory of Obscurity as much a victory lap as a documentary. One of its final scenes sees the band’s ‘Ultimate Box Set’ – stored in a full-sized refrigerator, price tag $100,000 – added to the permanent collection in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Somehow, institutionalising The Residents only makes them stranger. Don’t watch Theory of Obscurity looking for answers. Those damn eyeballs will stare right through you.

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents screened 1, 4 August