Above is the opening of my review of the new Negativland documentary, Stand By for Failure, directed by Ryan Worsley, which is in the new issue of The Wire (the one with the Necks on the cover). I’ll post the full text in a month, once the subsequent issue is out. In the interim, some thoughts I had while writing the review that didn’t make the assigned length:
▰ The word “documentary” has been devalued in recent years. Often what’s called a documentary is more of a promotional film at worst and a celebration at best. This is more of a proper documentary (though not a particularly critical one), all the more so because it isn’t a proper documentary, in that it doesn’t adhere to a strict linear narrative form or clear storytelling. It embraces the weirdness of Negativland in the telling. It’s almost autobiographical, in the way it is built to a degree from work recorded by members of the group.
▰ I struggled when writing this review with whether or not to refer to Negativland as a “band.” They’re more a collective, an anarchist agency, a distributed co-op. It feels odd to say “band,” which suggests such a simple, received concept — when there is nothing simple or received about Negativland. But they debate the word themselves in the film (“Let’s just pretend we’re a band,” says Mark Hosler), so in the interest of concision, I went ahead with using it.
▰ As a former radio DJ (WYBC during college, and KDVS after I moved to California), I loved seeing the carts (short, looped cassette cartridges) employed by Don Joyce (who is a particularly valuable voice in the movie, perhaps because he joined the group after its formation and thus has an outsider’s perspective to a degree). The mechanisms of their collage work were quite different from the digital cut and paste of modern times. Seeing them at work is valuable.
▰ I wanted to talk a bit more about the group in the context of American pop surreality, notably the Firesign Theater and the Church of the SubGenius (J. R. “Bob” Dobbs), neither of which are mentioned in the documentary, or industrial music like Consolidated and Ministry.
▰ Joyce gives voice to the compelling question of why it is that culture that reaches us can’t, in turn, more freely be turned into something else. Negativland jammed culture because the rules were so tight that to do anything was illegal, and so they pushed further, against the absurdity of the world they found themselves in. (That sounds a bit like something from Howard the Duck, another outcropping of American pop surreality.)
▰ The included Marshall McLuhan quotes are informative, but also a little confusing, as they’re not particularly cutting edge. They could pretty much be overlaid with anything about modern technologically mediated life. What makes them special about Negativland is unclear.
▰ I also didn’t have room for the concept of culture jamming, which is (in contrast with the McLuhan elements) quite timely today. McLuhan has never gone out of style; culture jamming has never been more in-style. The role of the “culture jammer” has arguably become a daily norm for a lot of people, even though they don’t necessarily have that jargon at the ready (the term was coined by member Don Joyce). Post-post-ironic (I’ve lost track of the nested posts; it’s posts all the way down) social media is rife with people who communicate by saying one thing, meaning another, sending dog whistles intended not just to be heard by one audience but also to drive another audience to distraction, and ultimately to destabilize common perceptions and assumptions.
▰ I mention how when Jon Leidecker (aka Wobbly), the most recent member to join the group, first heard Negativland at age 15, he thought he’d accidentally tuned into multiple radio stations at once. This led to a friendship with founding member David Wills, two decades his senior, who visited his home and brought police scanners with him. What I didn’t have room for was that visit, or this comment by Leidecker: “My mother was terrified.”
▰ We’re over 30 minutes in before the movie, quite literally, asks “What is Negativland?” I can’t say the movie answers the question. Then again, I’m not sure it’s easily answerable. They are the sum of what the movie shares, and of much more.
▰ In the review I mention how some of the material will be confusing to unfamiliar viewers. I didn’t have space to include the moments of American Top 40 host Casey Kasem cursing.
▰ In the end, David Wills (witty, fragile, insular, family-oriented, the elder statesman and by appearances also an eternal child) is even more of a mystery than is Negativland itself. A focused documentary on Wills would be a great follow-up, like the one on Don Joyce that Stand By for Failure director Worsley did (How Radio Isn’t Done, which a friend pointed out to me after I initially posted this).