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Other Cinema presents
"We didn't know, at the time we decided, how prophetic it was that the plane was shot down."
DVD ReviewIn 1991, the Oakland-based avant-garde band Negativland got themselves into very hot water when they created a record that combined U2's music overlaid by outtakes from Casey Kasem, foul-mouthedly exploding over a variety of problems and generally screwing up the description of the band U2. This documentary by Craig Baldwin takes a look at Negativland's problems with the copyright and trademark laws, broadening the discussion to "cultural jamming" in general, which is the phenomenon of taking the corporate mass media and using juxtaposition and collage to create an impact very different from that intended.
Sampling, at least for purposes of parody, was since upheld by the Supreme Court as being permissible, but all too often it is a vehicle for a lazy artist to steal from the talented and just overlay it with meandering rap lyrics. Negativland and the other cultural jammers in this film take a rather different perspective, trying to make a point, which is usually political or anti-corporatist. This anarchic treatment of the mass media is naturally infuriating to the corporate powers, and most of the time they are quite successful in crushing the parodies, with occasional exceptions such as the 2 Live Crew case. Legal challenges abound in the area, making it a risky field for the creative spirit, since avant-garde artists are seldom able to pay to defend themselves in court. Negativland itself was not only sued by U2 and its label, Island Records, but it was also sued by its own label, SST, ending up with a massive award of damages against it.
The documentary soon wanders off into other areas of sampling, such as audio collages by John Oswald and the Tape-Beatles, who rearrange pre-existing materials with varying degrees of success. The Emergency Broadcast Network does the same thing with television video imagery and audio, sometimes dissociating them to make a point. Somewhat tangential are discussions of scanning cellular phone conversations, billboard rewriting artists and the Barbie Liberation Organization, which swap the voiceboxes of Barbies and G.I. Joes with admittedly entertaining results. The film itself is very much in the spirit of these artists, packed with found audio and video that comments on the program itself.
This field is rich with potential for irony, and there's plenty on display here. Audio artist Doug Kahn expresses irritation at one of his works, using Ronald Reagan's to express sentiments contrary to his own, itself being sampled without payment or credit by Fine Young Cannibals. But the richest irony is reserved for U2 itself, which during its Zoo TV tour played downloaded satellite images on stage, which is essentially the same thing that they sued Negativland over.
The production is fairly primitive, mostly shot on hand-held video. Baldwin can't seem to resist the cable-access foolishness of randomly solarizing the video or turning it negative. Otherwise, however, it's an interesting look at a most difficult area of copyright law that still generates controversy. To a certain extent, the intervening ten years have made the technological aspects of the sampling work seem pretty quaint, but with the ability to make perfect digital copies on nearly any home computer, the difficulty of drawing the lines is even more emphatically an issue.
Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: As is fitting for the subject matter, most of the film is shot in low-quality video and colors are frequently inaccurate and skintones are greenish. Video line structure is frequently apparent, but that's obviously intentional so the grade isn't marked down for that. But one certainly shouldn't expect anything of high video quality here.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Again, the intention is to include low-grade audio, so there's plenty of hiss and noise. The interview segments with Negativland often also are muffled and less than clear too. Hiss, noise and crackle are dominant throughout.
Audio Transfer Grade: C-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsAn interesting look at "culture jamming" and those who recombine the corporate media to attack itself. The low production values make a technical assessment difficult.
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