Depending on your age and cultural background, you might know The Residents as: a long-running and deeply influential San Francisco-based music-art-video group; the source of many weird videos on MTV during the early 1980s; the giant-eyeball band; or “never heard of them.”
Don Hardy Jr.’s new documentary makes some effort to profile the band, whose members have remained anonymous since the group’s formation over four decades ago. Thus, we never hear directly from the band — or maybe we do. But various colleagues and adherents (including Penn Jillette, who worked with The Residents on a stage show before he was famous as a magician) weigh in. Some light history is sketched in — The Residents are likely some dudes from Louisiana who, in the late 1960s, came to San Francisco and found a place for their iconoclastic sounds and performances in the free-for-all of the post-hippie art scene. They were early video pioneers as well as DIY proponents, creating their own label and merchandise. By remaining “willfully obscure,” one interviewee observes, The Residents became famous.
And perhaps that was what sustained the cult band, both internally and externally. The “theory of obscurity” holds that artists “do their best work … when free to do whatever purely comes out of them.” Certainly The Residents’ brand of ever-evolving bizarro isn’t for everyone, but it’s no small potatoes to have a career retrospective installed at the Museum of Modern Art (in a refrigerator, per the band’s request). For fans, Theory has a trove of archival footage and good scattering of fascinating nuggets, but make of it what you will. The film warns early on: “There is no true story of The Residents.” The March 5 screening will be presented by local cartoonist and illustrator Wayno.