Positive Influence

This is the full text of my review, from the March 2023 issue of The Wire, of Stand By for Failure: A Negativland Documentary, directed by Ryan Worsley:

This is a photo from 1981 of the three founding members of the band Negativland, from left to right: David Wills, Mark Hosler, and Richard Lyons

If you know anything about Negativland, then you’ll giggle when you see the FBI warning about copyright infringement at the start of Stand By For Failure, Ryan Worsley’s new documentary film about the band. Few artists have logged as many hours on the battlefield of fair use, let alone questioned as persistently the associated legal constraints around intellectual property, as Negativland, whose sonic, visual and performance appropriations and parodies have challenged eyeballs, eardrums and moral standards alike since the late 1970s. The FBI insignia here feels less like a pro forma admonition, and more like evidence from an active crime scene. And even if you know nothing about Negativland – members of the band debate the extent of their fame in the film – you’ll still have an immediate sense something is up. The FBI warning label is depicted in a sickly green, vibrating as it gets layered below rapidly cycling footage.

Something most definitely is up. Worsley directs her documentary by embracing Negativland’s own “helter stupid” collage techniques. Much of the film layers eviscerated visuals into a vaudevillian media kaleidoscope. Some of this material is drawn from the band’s own work, while other portions simulate the Negativland plunder-drunk ethos, drawing from the group’s favourite resources, such as televangelism, advertising and TV news.

No zone is safe, not even the home that David Wills shared with his mother. We first meet him as a precocious boy when he starts broadcasting his recitation of the weather report in 1959. As he matures, so does home technology. Soon he’s filming and, later, using video recorders to capture daily life. Worsley frequently reproduces segments of Wills’s home movies in split-screen. The message is clear: even the most mundane aspects of human existence are technologically mediated and surveilled – and thus raw material for the madcap minds of Negativland.

Wills befriends other tinkerers and Negativland is born. We see gleeful Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons self-release the group’s first record in 1980. Later member Don Joyce brings a dramaturg’s clarity to their self-awareness. The longtime KPFA DJ says Negativland doesn’t merely copy existing material; their parodic use is antithetical to its initial purpose.

Some sourced interview footage is by William Davenport, who directed an earlier documentary, Media About Media About Media: The Negativland Story. Much is from the members themselves, often filming each other filming something. In one of the film’s many touching moments we see Wills record an emaciated Lyons, who is dying in bed.

Stand By for Failure proceeds chronologically but the antic presentation may confuse those lacking foreknowledge. The story of how Negativland’s song “Christianity Is Stupid” got associated with a murder was a hoax they themselves perpetrated, a point touched on in a manner that could be misunderstood. A U2 parody that nearly cost them everything culminated with Negativland interviewing The Edge – which, again, may elude some viewers. Confusion, of course, comes with the territory. Jon Leidecker aka Wobbly, the group’s most recent member, talks about how when he first heard Negativland at age 15, he thought he had tuned into three radio stations simultaneously.

If you know nothing about Negativland, you may still be confused at the film’s end, but you’ll have another kind of knowledge. Worsley successfully depicts the mix of buffoonery and consciousness-raising that define Negativland. To have told the story straight would have produced the worst sort of parody: unintentional.

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