residentsHaving just switched to high speed Internet I’ve been exploring the video options across the net, mostly at Youtube. I found that I can find a short video on pretty much any subject. Actually, I can find a couple of dozen videos of any subject. Last night when somebody sent me the goofy cyperpunk material I embarked on a brief journey reminiscing on some cultural influences of my early adulthood, including clips of the Residents, Negativeland, and Bob Dobbs. Tonight I traveled a little further back in time to my “cultural awakening” in high school, and found this pre-PC scene from Fritz the Cat triggering old memories of chemical mind alteration in a seedy repertoire theater on Market Street called the Strand.

Something’s lost in the translation though. As teenagers my friends and I would defy our parents wishes and wander down to the Rocky Horror Picture Show party at the Strand rather than the much safer if more sanitized gathering at the Laurel in Daly City. I remember one friend’s father trying to turn his racism into a joke by telling us that we’d “run into gang kids down there none of whom is any lighter than Nipsey Russell.” (For those who might be too young to remember, Russell was sort of the black ambassador to suburban white America during the 1970s. He was on a bunch of game shows.) This was a time in which music videos were avante-guarde, seen late at night on PBS during time they didn’t have to worry about offending too many pledgers. The rustic darkened neighborhoods of SOMA, the Mission, and the Haight contained a slew of bookstores, some of them thematic with black culture, women, politics, etc. You could find an old used bookstore with back rooms and books stacked on the floor in no particular order, with stained glass windows, baroque music in the air, a friendly old cat, and maybe you could find a dusty old book on witchcraft with spells that really worked.

On the film front, eventually we graduated to other midnight showing cult classics like Eraserhead or Phantom of the Paradise. The pump primed for our pseudo-intellectual cravings, we ventured to the same theaters in daylight. The repertoire theaters would put out multi-color fliers with their film schedules, which would include among other extra-mainstream films Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Divine Madness, Space is the Place, A Boy and His Dog, Quadrophenia, Tommy, A Clockwork Orange, Harold and Maude, etc. There were plenty of subtitled Kurosawa, Bergman, and Fellini films, and off-beat documentaries about dadaism, Warhol, or old Pink Floyd.

These theaters were mostly done in by the VHS machine. The Strand, the UC, the Laurel, the Vogue, Taraval, and almost all the others have disappeared or switched to new release format. I think there are two left in San Francisco – the Roxie on 16th and the Red Vic in the Haight. As we moved into our 20s we’d rent the same films. But it wasn’t the same, not even “altered.” There was something to the experience of of a pilgrimage into forbidden areas of town, once in the venue immersed in an alien or dreamscape culture, or at least the illusion thereof. It was a full-bodied experience where we escaped the comfort of suburban familiarity for a context that seemed to be mind expanding, and on a certain level probably was.

To see a film like Fritz the Cat in the comfort of my living room, where the aura is literally contained in a box kind of reveals the wizard for the man behind the curtain. It’s even worse if you view the extras on the DVD’s and realize that the people who made these films aren’t particularly deep, or at least don’t come across that way in interviews. The mysterious becomes mundane. And very quickly as we aged we realized that complexity of form is not necessarily depth of substance. It’s not that the art is no longer available. But we see too much of the real context, instead of the seemingly extra-normality context. The dreamlike qualities of Jim Jarmusch’s movies Stranger than Paradise, Ghostdog, and Dead Man are diminished when he comes across like a shallow airhead in an Entertainment Tonight interview. The music of the Wolverines or Black Flag are available in “best of” DVDs, with Jello Biafra in advertisements and running for president.

And then there’s Youtube.

Negativland, the Residents, and Crass – all with a plethora of clips to be found on Youtube, contained even more compactly on a screen within the screen, the rest of the space taken up with hyperlink options, rating stars, and dorky ignorant comments. I used to listen to Negativland‘s Over the Edge on KPFA after Music from the Hearts of Space on Sunday nights. I’d fallen asleep during the latter a few times with the former chaotic audio art affecting my dreams. I’d wake up partially then remember some of the material in the morning wondering how much of it I’d dreamed. When I finally set up for recording and played it the next morning I found it was as weird, disorienting, and transcending as I’d remembered. I hadn’t been dreaming. To click on the hyperlink in the light of day and watch it with video materials, no matter how legitimately artistic, just doesn’t allow the mind to take you to the places for which I think the medium was intended. It’s safe. And sterilized for popular consumption.

Don’t get me started on the Residents. Those of you who remember the Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway, SF during the 70s and early 80s remember the otherworldly experience of their performances, and like performances by other artists. They don’t belong on Youtube. Their viewing should be the culmination of a journey, preferably on public transportation, and without parental permission. The movies weren’t as deep as we thought they were, but they took us out of our usual contexts and made us look at the world a little differently. There’s not much in bohemian terms to offer a teenager in the cities anymore, except goth clubs, grunge bands, and power exchange parties.

The Fritz the Cat scene linked above should be disturbing and challenging. It was in full-bodied context. Now it’s as trite as Shrek. Okay, seeing the Disney characters cheering the napalming of Harlem, that image is powerful in any context. But I shouldn’t be able to watch just this clip. I should be watching the whole film. And not comfortably contained.

Even the blog. Not exactly comfortable. But not transcending either.

Anothers love, anothers pain,
Anothers pride, anothers shame.
Do you watch at a distance from the side you have chosen?
Whose answers serve you best? Who’ll save you from confusion?
Who will leave you an exit and a comfortable cover?
Who will take you oh so near their edge, but never drop you over?

—From Where Next Columbus?, by Crass

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