Burning Eyes: The Residents and The Theory of Obscurity

by Morgan Davis

The Theory of Obscurity The Residents Movie Poster

When you get down to the question of who most defined art and culture in the 20th century, there are constants, figures who will come up over and over again, most of whom had commercial impacts similar to their critical achievements. Yet one of the secret directors of 20th century culture remains basically anonymous, with no real commercial impact to speak of. The Residents never had any hits and their true identities remain debated, but as the documentary The Theory of Obscurity shows, they’ve had a lasting impact on art in our era, pioneering the way media intersected in the 20th century, continuing to influence it in the 21st century, inspiring legions of geniuses across any number of fields.

Rather than provide answers about any of the mysteries surrounding The Residents, Don Hardy’s film instead seeks to place the group within the context of contemporary art and music while also showcasing the ways the band’s disciplined dedication to anonymity has helped them become one of culture’ most unique and prolific forces. Assembling a remarkable number of artists who have collaborated with The Residents as well as be inspired by them, Hardy creates a perfectly Residentsian narrative in that there is no narrative, only anecdotes and samples and information that result in more questions than answers. The figures who have crossed paths with the Residents– ranging from previous collaborators like Penn Jillette and Gary Panter to the group’s Cryptic Corp founders to fans like Dean Ween and Les Claypool— all stress that the band’s success comes down to their lack of a cult of personality and a dedication to simply making what they want to make with an almost childlike naivete about what they’re supposed to be capable of.

Residents fans already know the basics of the band’s story and how they left the deep south for San Francisco in the ’60s and acquired their name after sending demos to Warner Bros, which were returned to them in care of “the residents” of where they were currently residing. Though Hardy does dig up archival footage of the band’s early attempts to infiltrate the counterculture and material from their abandoned film Vileness Flats, the bulk of the documentary focuses on the various tactics the band has utilized to remain anonymous (including their iconic eyeball heads), the way their fanbase has evolved over the years and footage from their stripped down contemporary shows. For the unconverted, The Theory of Obscurity is a lot to take in, but it’s perhaps the best possible entry into the band’s intimidating history, illustrating their ambition and scope and personality rather than burying the viewer in facts and data.

That makes it easier to focus on the advancements The Residents made, particularly their dedication from the beginning of their careers to strong visual elements, which ultimately led to the band developing some of the first music videos. The band’s iconic eyeball costumes– perhaps their most visible contribution to the cultural lexicon– grew out of a need to “market” the band without sacrificing their basic mission, and the band’s disinterest in wearing the costumes led to them utilizing any number of other people as stand-ins, a technique that expanded interest in the group and built up their mystery further. It also allowed the group to focus on pushing technology further and further, leading to their pioneering efforts in mixed media, including concept albums that came with their own CD-ROM games and comic books and early adoption of websites and podcasts to build up The Residents as an all media enterprise.

The Residents

Hardy also spends a significant amount of time detailing the way the art world embraced The Residents, and how The Residents’ techniques were meant as a criticism of that world. The Residents’ Commercial Album videos were exhibited at MOMA and also received constant play at MTV during the network’s early days as a result, and last year The Residents’ “Ultimate Box Set,” collecting all of their official releases and one of their original eyeball masks, was archived at MOMA in a giant refrigerator. The band understands how to speak in the language of the art world, but is also comfortable mocking the way it often sterilizes and freezes art.

But The Theory of Obscurity chiefly proves that The Residents have always been most at home in creating spectacle, specifically in their ambitious live shows, which merge rockstar tropes with avant theatre and vaudeville. Their first world tour, the Penn Jillette-narrated experimental opera The Mole Show, nearly destroyed the band and led to massive splits with many of the Cryptic Corp’s early members (who fans have frequently speculated are in fact the original Residents) but also seemed to crystalize The Residents’ focus and ambition, resulting in more and more grand spectacles. Hardy also spotlights the way their crowds have changed over the years, as digital culture has caught up with The Residents and allowed new, younger fans to discover their music without them sacrificing any of the obscurity techniques that define them.

Many of the best moments in The Theory of Obscurity simply show recent tour footage, Hardy animating lyrics as they come out of the band’s mouth and allowing the band to narrate their own story through the songs they pick and the stage banter they partake in. The Residents might not be the same people as their original line-up, they could be an ever shifting array of musicians and pranksters, but as one Cryptic Corp employee explains, anyone could “be” The Residents as long as they remain faithful to the concept, since The Residents is merely the name we have given their art, much like Spot is a name we give a cat. In an era of digital democratization, is there any enterprise as revolutionary?

The Residents are currently touring with their film Theory of Obscurity and can be seen tonight, May 4th, at Marchesa Hall.

Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.