It’s true what they say about vacation photos: private pleasures often transform at a moment’s notice into public agonies. You would think that that the sheer weight of emotion someone invests in something — be it velvet Elvis paintings, jelly jars, disco regalia or cubic zirconium — would magically convert the object of rapture into a universal icon. But, no. Too often, the proud addict trots out his wares only to watch his audience’s eyes glaze over with feigned fascination.
This possibility does not daunt the director of So Wrong They’re Right, Russ Forster, who demonstrates the exuberance of a true believer. The film focuses on the ongoing fanaticism of a small but vigorous community of eight-track tape fans. They remain devoted to that lamented legacy of the 1970s and ’80s before sound went digital and denied analog its accustomed place of preeminence.
In 1990, Forster met Gordon Van Gelder, who edited the magazine 8-Track Mind in the 1970s. Already a committed advocate and archivist of the format, Forster believed that Van Gelder’s magazine deserved resurrection. This was during the heyday of the fanzine, so Foster dove deep into the subculture of the like-minded, and found a friendly community anxious not only to purchase but also to publish in his restarted periodical. Soon, that community grew so robust that more than half the pages of each issue were occupied by letters from fellow enthusiasts.
Forster had simultaneously begun to dip his creative toes in the film community, learning the basics of 16mm production, editing a feature, releasing a few of his own short subjects. It seemed only too obvious to marry both avocations. So, in 1993, Forster and Dan Sutherland, who manned the camera, began a month-long 10,000 mile odyssey to meet and photograph fellow aficionados. They budgeted $20,000 for the enterprise, and took to the highways.
However much one admires their chutzpah and the enthusiasm of their subjects, So Wrong They’re Right proves to be more entertaining than edifying. Other than arguing against the recalcitrance of the initiated to extol the virtues of the deceased format, the interviewees fall into a pattern, showing off their stashes of eight-tracks and rattling off anecdotes about how cheap the material used to be, before eBay made the selling off of ephemera a household mini-industry. The interviews feel all too much like sessions at a Tupperware gathering, even though I will admit that watching someone wax on about his copy of Lou Reed’s Heavy Metal Music proves more entertaining than a homemaker’s encomium to the imperishability of leftovers when housed beneath a burp-proof seal.
Other Cinema has assembled an elegant package for the film. Accompanied by dead-pan yet detailed comments by Forster, the clarity of the footage belies its low-cost roots. That said, the film’s visual dynamics are decidedly low-tech. The subjects sit before an unmoving camera and effuse to the lens until they’re spent. Minimal editing occurs, and only the most occasional cutaway to elements of the immediate environment. The style resembles the exalted anti-cinematic minimalism of Andy Warhol’s work at the Factory in the 1960s, when his superstars cavorted before a stationary, unblinking recording mechanism.
The DVD includes as well a set of follow-up interviews with some of the subjects, as well as filmed comments by celebrities, including David Byrne, T-Bone Burnett, and the late Tiny Tim. The sections devoted to the present day circumstances of fans bring an unexpected melancholy to the generally upbeat and at times even effervescent feature, as one of the most active individuals, by daytime a professional librarian, had succumbed at a young age to cancer.
Sometimes the film feels too close to those many nights, trapped in the light of the home projector, watching the theoretically edifying stream of vacation photos pass through the seemingly endless revolving tray. But some of Forster and Sutherland’s subjects possess such a giddy exuberance about their addictions that passages of So Wrong They’re Right prove outright engaging.