Sonic Outlaws.

Sonic Outlaws. – movie reviews

Chris Chang

There’s a war going on. Mobilized armies of “geek flesh” are putting new spins on an ancient art practice, and the lawsuits are flying. Whether it’s reverential “homage” or premeditated theft, a growing community of artists believe that anything they can pull out of the muck of media-saturated society is theirs to reassemble and/or regurgitate: “Copyright Infringement Is Your Best Entertainment Value.” Call it plaglarism or “culture jamming,” it’s a practice that can mix equal parts Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson, and Casey Kasem and give birth to a monstrous hybrid that you can’t take your eyes or ears off. Go ahead: scream in terror as you vote it into office.

Craig Baldwin’s second feature, Sonic Outlaws, both exemplifies and documents this subject. As the director who brought us the cult classic Tribulation 99 – a mutated found-footage conspiracy theory meditation that makes the Warren Commission look like an Easter egg hunt – Baldwin has the proper pedigree for such an endeavor. While elements on the cultural fringe surf on media controversy to promote their recombinant products, idiotically paranoid corporations feel threatened and react with overwhelming legal muscle. In general, the little guy gets publicity while the big guy ends up looking like an asshole. Baldwin’s compilation of subjects makes a community of artists who practice continuous appropriation of other people’s work look as if they’re on the cutting edge of originality. By interweaving pirated images (actual pirates in one case) and handheld documentary footage of the artists into a seamless web, Baldwin supports his story by saturating it with the very strategy practiced by his subjects: unrelated sound and image are reborn and implicated in a parade of poetic imagery that substitutes “satellite dish” for “stream of consciousness.”

The film begins with and was originally inspired by the plight (ploy) of the San Francisco radio broadcasters and performance group Negativland. You could say trouble is their medium. In the summer of 1992, the group released a record with a large “U2” on the cover. Needless to say, the management company of a certain multimillion-dollar arena rock band went a little kneejerk. U2’s label, Island Records, sued and, in a domino effect, Negativland was dropped and sued by their own label SST, an indie record company known for its credo “Corporate Rock Still Sucks.” (Throughout the sequence Baldwin intercuts B-movie images of giants at war with mere mortals. In one particularly nice edit, a Negativland audience boos at the mention of SST as Baldwin cuts to the Frankenstein monster seeing his own image for the first time in a mirror.) It is stir unclear whether Island or U2 had ever listened to the offending disc. What is certain is that legal action dealt a crippling blow to both Negativland (fully recovered) and its former management (outlook uncertain).

Baldwin is quick to point out that parody, in many forms, pervades media history. While he chats with a copyright attorney, he cuts in cartoon footage of Daffy Duck singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with a quick morph into Teddy Roosevelt along the way. “Fair use,” the legal infringement on the limited monopoly of the author, is what parody ought to be. Baldwin brings the story into the present with sampled TV footage. The relentlessly moronic rap group 2 Live Crew brought their version of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” – replete with the gemlike rephrasing “Big hairy woman” – to the Supreme Court and was cleared of copyright violation. Justice Souter, writing for the unanimous decision, stated that parody, “like less humorous forms of criticism, can provide social justice” (emphasis unnecessary). It is unfortunate that it took 2 Live Crew to squeeze that one out of the Court, but law, as we all know, is a mere shadow of justice.

The Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO) appropriates the dolls, “surgically” switches their voiceboxes with their GI Joe counterparts, and replaces them on toystore shelves. The girl toy now speaks of guns, the boy toy wants to shop; TV news sniffs out the story and interviews the kids and their parents as a new dialogue on gender opens up. Baldwin identifies other examples to show that culture jamming has many different material manifestations. There’s a group that concentrates on billboards. After a nighttime raid, an army recruitment ad reads “We’ll Pay You $288.00 A Week To Kill.” The alteration seamlessly matches the original’s style: you have to do a doubletake to catch it. In another example, the Colonel’s logo suddenly reads JFKFC and you notice that the face is unmistakably Kennedy’s. Everyday surfaces are caught off guard and restructured to reactivate public consciousness. Corporate advertising becomes the medium for revealing the days of our manipulated lives.

Another possible definition of “fair use” is when somebody’s work is reproduced for “educational purposes.” Baldwin is obviously attempting to extend the argument from an aesthetic arena into a moral one, and it is to his film’s credit that it raises the ambiguity. The content of 2 Live Crew’s appropriation is, at best, sexist, and in any event disposable; “their” precedent, however, is of central importance. Our sense of the shape of creativity and of originality must always be in question if both are to flourish. Sonic Outlaws does precisely that.

Chris Chang recently wrote a catalog essay for CoCA on artists’ films and videos of the Seventies.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group