More often than not, a legacy needs just one thing to hold it firm. Be it a voice, an idea, a line of poetry or a cinematic statement, myth can be born out of even the most minor. It can also rise from the misunderstood. Back in the early ‘80s, when rap was just getting a hold of the pop cultural zeitgeist, a trio of white boys decided to show their skills and flaunt ethnic acceptance. Initially viewed as a novelty, The Beastie Boys soon became a benchmark, a linking verb between the incendiary urban message of the current music and party animal element it would come to be known for. Indeed, the combination of East Coast antics and knucklehead novelty made the guys an initial hit. Two decades dedicated to the true art of hip hop turned them into icons.
Now, with the untimely and tragic passing of Adam “MCA” Yauch from cancer at age 47, one of the defining groups from rap’s original ascent is no more. Even worse, the death throws the eccentric offshoot of the man’s muse - Oscilloscope Laboratories - into flux. Last week, a shake-up of sorts was announced when President David Fenkel (who used to run THINKFilm) stepped down, making way for Dan Berger and David Laub to run the company. Both had previous roles in marketing, distribution and acquisitions. Oddly enough, none knew how sick Yauch really was (he had recently been a no show at the Beastie’s induction into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame). In light of current events, Fenkel announced that he will remain closely linked to the organization, acting as a consultant.
Oscilloscope, named after Yauch’s NYC recording studio, first got into filmmaking and distribution as part of a process which saw the Beastie’s take more control over their visual image. For more than a decade, they played the label games of videos, but as their music became more esoteric and insular, they wanted a similarly unusual means of expression. Under the pseudonym ‘Nathaniel Hornblower,’ Yauch directed several shorts for the Beasties, then expanded his horizons by tackling a documentary on young basketball players. In fact, the final effort, the well-received Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot was partly the inspiration for broadening the music only Oscilloscope into other formats.
In a 2008 interview for New York, Yauch expressed his new company’s main purpose: “A lot of times you hear people say, ‘That’s a great film, I loved it, but it’s not marketable.’ That’s the film Oscilloscope is picking up. So what if it’s not marketable? If you feel good when you’re watching it, there’s got to be a way.” Using an Earth friendly approach to packaging (all releases come in a sturdy cardboard case the unfolds to reveal information and, occasionally, additional content) and a numbered release pattern, Gunnin’ became “Oscilloscope #1.” From there, Yauch pursued movies that he felt would make a difference. Indeed, there is an interesting balance between fiction and documentary when one looks over the company’s releases to date.
The first real fire set by Oscilloscope occurred during Awards Season of 2008. Wendy and Lucy, a Cannes favorite centering on a young woman (Michelle Williams) who gets trapped in Oregon when her car breaks down and her companion dog is taken to the pound, the film announced the distributor’s desire to be taken serious. There was a push for Oscar recognition - the Academy eventually snubbed it - but the attention turned Oscilloscope from a wannabe into a legitimate player. The next year, 2009, saw several releases - Burma VJ, The Garden, the Woody Harrelson/Ben Foster Iraq War film The Messenger - received AMPAS acknowledgement. For many, Oscilloscope had finally arrived.
Over the course of the next four years, the company would complement its initial success with a diverse catalog including such controversial efforts as A Film Unfinished (a horrifying documentary about propaganda during the Nazi’s reign in Germany), a pre-Where the Wild Things Are overview of the book’s author (Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak), and a well received portrait of actor John Cazale. From Yauch’s end, film was activism, and many of the titles centered on important issues like conservation (If a Tree Falls… , Zero Impact Man), 9/11 (Rebirth) and the environmental impact of multinational corporations (Bananas*). However, these more serious releases were almost always counteracted by oddball offerings like the insane Christmas movie Rare Exports or the meta Mad Max, Bellflower.
In the last few years, Oscilloscope has truly increased its award season presence. Banksy’s brilliant Exit Through the Gift Shop became a presumptive Oscar winner (it was eventually beaten by the anti-Wall Street screed, Inside Job) on its way to dozens of critic and guild acknowledgements, while the compelling period drama Meeks’ Cutoff earned similar accolades. And just last year, the company pushed hard for one of its best titles ever, an unhinged parental nightmare entitled We Need to Talk About Kevin. Featuring Tilda Swinton in what was, arguably, the best performance of 2011, it marked a turning point of sorts for Oscilloscope. It argued for the organization’s range, as well as its desire to take risks.
It will be interesting to see where the company goes from here. Without its founder and chief artistic influence, Oscilloscope stands at a crossroads. While already prepping a series of titles for 2012 (including Brooklyn Brothers Beat The Best and Shut Up and Play the Hits), the last vestiges of Yauch’s influence can be seen. Naturally, those remaining behind will do everything they can to keep the label vital and vibrant, if not just as a tribute, but as part of their current place in the industry dynamic. While never really invited to the big party, Oscilloscope still stands as a formidable force on the outside, clamoring for its inclusion by the very nature of its product.
As culture changes and chooses, as past celebrity morphs into deconstructed dismissal and revision, it’s hard to tell where the Beasties will ultimately fall. They remain fixtures, favorites, and founding fathers, but as with all givens, someone is bound to take them apart for the sake of a specious argument. With Oscilloscope, however, Yauch has provided access for ancillary consideration. As a rapper, he must contend with hundreds of voices in an arena where tastes vary like the potency of party punch. As someone who thought outside the box when it came to film and film distribution, Adam Yauch had few equals. Oscilloscope Laboratories will certainly miss his guidance. Hopefully, we film fans will still be included in the corporation’s conversation to come.