[23 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Seated alongside The Residents as long time bay area agent provocateurs, the San Francisco based avant-gardists Negativland consistently defy description. Sonic poets, defenders of free speech, and flaunters of the Fair Use Doctrine, the magnificent mash-up artists have been taking on corporate consumer speak and unrealistic copyright laws since their founding at the end of the ‘70s. Though the core of the collective has changed little since their first high school meeting (Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons have remained friends since), the actual band has always been a loose amalgamation of like minded artists, skilled filmmakers, animation activists and similarly styled pop culture rebels. And with targets as imposing as Disney, Coke, Pepsi, and those all powerful mainstream music icons U2, they’ve never been at a loss for material. Toss in a little swearing Casey Kasem, a phony axe killer connection, and various affronts to so-called conservative society, and you’ve got a series of lawsuits just waiting to happen.
Collected together by celebrated DVD outsiders Other Cinema, Our Favorite Things offers 18 mindbending examples of the band’s creative collage collaborations with experimental and no wave filmmakers. Multifaceted, layered, and brimming with solid subversion, it’s clear why the group has been seated at the center of controversy. Anyone who would challenge the House of Mouse by having Little Mermaid Arial voice the foul mouthed rant of a corporate scumbag attorney is asking for trouble. But Negativland’s targets are typically much bigger than the keepers of Walt Disney’s dying legacy. Hot button subjects like religion, marketing, greed, and government propagandizing make the issues of an angry animation company seem small. Yet the power in these shorts cannot be underestimated. In fact, most of Our Favorite Things plays like brainwashing purposefully created for the already converted. Indeed, by using similar subliminal techniques as those who are doing the preaching, it’s hoped that the faithful truly see the light.
It all begins with something called “Learning to Communicate”. A combination of anti-technology stances and pro-Luddite tweaks, it starts the disc off on a very surreal note. Once we get to “No Business”, the real purpose behind Negativland can be seen. Taking the classic number from Gypsy, the short examines the concept of stealing – in this case, not the extra bow, but music from the Internet. As classic downloading bars fill the screen, Ethel Merman’s bombastic voice extols the joys in robbing artists of their work. Without changing anything except the order of the sung lyrics, this amazing montage is a borderline masterpiece. So is “Gimme the Mermaid”. As a violent voice chides someone on copyright and ownership, a familiar Disney heroine provides the visualized façade. In a very simplistic, uncomplicated manner, this short makes the point regarding the unreasonable nature of indignant ownership.
Next up is the special edit radio mix of “U2: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. As the familiar strains of that alt-rock revivalism screed scurry along the background (in perfectly modulated Casio keyboard crappiness), we hear the familiar voice of Shaggy and America’s Top 40, one Casey Kasem, using language that would make the typical tweeny-bopper blush (with recognition, probably). It’s simply stunning. Then we have a weird exchange between another radio personality – a call-in talk show host – and a listener who doesn’t know the number of “Time Zones” there are in the old Soviet Union (the answer is 11). It’s good, but not as wonderful as the next track – the flawlessly executed “Freedom Waiting”. Initially, we think the scattered and stuttering narration is talking about our inherent right to liberty. Then we start to see all the TV commercials, and the soft shill pitch becomes painfully obvious. Similarly, “The Bottom Line” uses a home shopping style lampoon to sell America’s policy regarding prisoners and torture. Both movies are masterful.
At this point, Out Favorite Things wanders over a bit into the bleeding obvious. It doesn’t dissuade from the message or the manner in which it is being presented, but when an anti-gun feature (called “Guns”) mixes classic kiddie TV ads from the ‘60s with shots of Vietnam and Buddy Dwyer’s on-camera suicide, the level of approach seems rather simplistic. Much better is the No Nukes nonsense “Yellow, Black, and Rectangular” which uses the Civil Defense symbol as a means of illustrating public disinterest in the arms race. Finally, a small child sings “Over the Rainbow” as hiccups occasionally ruin her take. The stop motion animation features a somber stick figure rabbit that finally gives in to its fatalistic urges. It’s funny and effective, but just not as good as what has come before – and what is about to arrive.
One of the best deconstructions of how popular culture cannibalizes its symbols, the “Mashing of the Christ” takes clips from dozens of Hollywood Bible pics (Gibson’s Passion, numerous versions of The King of Kings, and The Greatest Story Ever Told) and cobbles them together in a perfect compare and contrast arrangement. In the background, an evangelist endlessly repeats a meaningless Marxist chide – “Christianity is stupid. Communism is good.” The combination of blood, belief, and bullshit is just superb. And the crackpot KPIX News story on the fake connection the band created between this anti-religious rant and a horrible family killing in the Midwest is nothing more than typical myopic media icing on an already melting communications cake. It proves one of Negativland’s most frequently voiced adages – people are too dumb to realize when a lie stares them square in the face. The next two films illustrate this flawlessly.
“Truth in Advertising” pits another talk show host against a caller who wants clarity between the salesmanship of commercials and the actual validity of a product’s purpose or content. The edited banter, in combination with the repetitive backdrop of noted advertisements, keeps the concerns – and the lack of clear cut answers – in focus. The next seven films take on one of the band’s favorite targets: the pointless soft drink wars between Coke and Pepsi, and the unnecessary onslaught of overhyped, celebrity driven, selling. “One World Advertising” proposes a solution, while “Why Is This Commercial?” and “The Greatest Taste Around” continue the pointed dissection. “Taste in Mind” and Humanitarian Effort” comments on the worldwide influence of such corporate carping, while “Drink It Up” and “Aluminum or Glass” offers two hilarious songs that mock both the health and habit forming flaws in the sodas. Throughout, clips from a ‘40s era Coke industrial film deifies the soft drink. The DVD ends with a glorious reconfiguration of the Sound of Music song that comprises the title of this release.
As an immersive example of pure performance art, Negativland: Our Favorite Things is practically pristine. It may occasionally employ a cinematic sledgehammer to make its points, but when the information and ideology is so evocative and meaningful, it’s okay to apply a bit of blunt force trauma. The animation/cartoon collage format is perfect for the band, since it instills the numerous meanings behind every track expertly, and the range of material and subjects is without equal. Sure, it may seem like the band is railing against the same five issues all the time, but there are hidden declarations and untold political positions buried in each and every poptone. The DVD is delicious, adding several additional shorts (the tainted travelogue “Visit Howland Island”, the hilarious home horror movie “The Monster of Frankenstein”, among others) and a wonderfully rich visual transfer to keep the pictures pretty. There’s also a bonus CD featuring the a capella versions of the band’s material by singing group 180 Gs.
There will be those who find this leftist liberal leaning lunacy one giant act of unimportant no-name rock band hubris. Instead, Negativland: Our Favorite Things, is like listening to the skeleton of one of those horrid celebrity vanity project albums. This is Bruce Willis bellowing offkey as ‘Bruno’, it’s Phillip Michael Thomas endlessly living the book of his life. It’s Warhol, washed out and worm-ridden, MTV melted down to its business model whoring. Once witnessed, the mind instantly focuses on other noxious issues the collective could tackle. In a world where the current President has condemned the US to decades as the world’s laughing stock, a Negativland take on such an onerous official would be oh so super sweet. Until then, we have this amazing collection of short films to hold us over. Like the best that cinema has to offer, many here will stand the test of time – and so will their meaning.