Theory of Obscurity (2015)

For four decades, the masked and mysterious sound and video collective known as The Residents have not just made music. Or art. But some form of commerce that creates art that feeds commerce with music. It’s complicated. So who is under the giant eyeball masks? What inspires those songs? And what makes fans get so obsessed that they end up creating their own bands inspired by the masked ones?

Luckily for viewers, The Residents’ management company, The Cryptic Corporation, gave the filmmakers unprecedented access, not only to the band’s video and audio archives, but to the musicians who have played with them before as well as a front-row seat on their 40th anniversary tour.

Members of Devo, Primus, Ween, Talking Heads and Pinback also appear, discussing how their bands and The Residents cross over with one another. The Residents — like the above bands and other sonic collectives like Negativland — have never existed to make music for everyone. But for those that are ready for their message, they have become auditory messiahs, inspiring not just fandom but further creation.

The Residents have always existed under N. Senada’s “Theory of Obscurity,” which states that “an artist can only produce pure art when the expectations and influences of the outside world are not taken into consideration.” His Theory of Phonetic Organization further states, “the musician should put the sounds first, building the music up from [them] rather than developing the music, then working down to the sounds that make it up.”

Some say N. Senada was a Bavarian composer. But then you realize: his name means “in himself nothing.” So while he may have been inspired by someone — perhaps Harry Partch or even Captain Beefheart, who inspired the masked ones in the way they did the same for so many — it seems that the man whose laws govern them was probably created by them too.

Like I said, it’s complicated. And I like it that way.

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