The Residents – The Eyes Scream: A History Of The Residents (Cryptic Corporation film, 1991)

The Residents 'The Eyes Sceam: A History Of The Residents' VHS artwork

cryptic corporation | vhs | 1991

One of the consistent things that has always hovered around The Residents is, of course, the identities of the members. This is hardly a surprise when the members have generally spent most of the last forty-odd years underneath various masks, the most obvious being the eyeballs that have become synonymous with the band for most of this time. The obsession with knowing the names of The Residents taps into a curious aspect of the human psyche – namely the need to know. It is simply not enough for us to appreciate their art – music, films, multimedia – as art; we need to know who is behind it.

But really, what would knowing their names actually achieve? Would our appreciation or comprehension of the work of The Residents really be any more enriched by knowing the names of these people? I think not. Nevertheless, we’re all still desperate to know, and The Residents themselves know this all too well; not too long ago they unmasked themselves and announced that their real names were Randy, Chuck and Bob. No-one believes that for a second, but it’s probably as much as we’re ever going to get.

The Eyes Scream, a 1991 documentary by the band flirts with the need to know those identities in the final few minutes. The host, long-term Residents accomplice Penn Jillette, stops reading the praise for The Residents from the autocue and storms off set, the camera following him as he walks off; as he does so, The Residents are there operating the cameras and microphones. Just before the credits roll, they lift up the eyeball masks, offering a brief and tantalising glimpse of who they might really be. But then, how do we know they really were the actual Residents and, once again, does it really matter? Probably not.

Given that The Residents are not a conventional group, The Eyes Scream is not a conventional documentary. The film takes the form of video selections from the band’s body of work, some live performances on various television shows and obligatory talking head interview footage. The videos show how richly inventive the band have always been when it comes to the use of visuals, whether that be in the early use of computer animation (Earth Vs. Aliens) or the art-house narrative of Whatever Happened To Vileness Fats? which feels a lot like David Lynch directing Elias Canetti’s Auto Da Fe on the set of Rentaghost. Vileness Fats was the mythical film that the band’s first single, 1972’s Santa Dog, was supposedly taken from the soundtrack for, and only extracts like the one included here have ever been released.

Then there’s the band’s tendency to dress up. Eyeballs aside, there are plenty of examples here of the band dressing up and clearly having a lot of fun, including some spirited cowboy clobber on a performance captured live in Munich – here the band are without eyeballs, but any hope of discerning features is thwarted by their faces being obscured by scary lights. We can all see the artistic side of the band, but what’s perhaps overlooked is their theatricality and sense of showmanship. Just check the Busby Berkeley-esque choreography on their rendition of ‘Jailhouse Rock’.

The documentary is hosted by Penn and his mute sidekick Teller. Penn has worked with the band in the past on a 1982 European tour and several albums (beginning with that year’s Ralph Records 10th Anniversary Radio Special!), even acting as a sort of spokesperson for the group according to some clips included here – as surreal as this band are, there’s little more weird than watching four eyeball-headed people playing ‘snookers’ (sic.) in a Brixton pub. The involvement of the duo briefly gives rise to the notion that maybe they may themselves have been Residents, but clearly you can spend too long thinking about these things. Penn and Teller’s own brand of comedy has always tended toward the somewhat bizarre, making them perfect presenters for this supposed (albeit loose) history of the band; the best section is one where Teller keeps on taking off layer upon layer of clothing to show the camera a variety of Residents t-shirts and sweaters, while Penn reels off a list of available merchandise such as a Residents pizza holder ora Residents yo-yo (‘so you can walk the Santa Dog’).

As this is a music documentary, it wouldn’t be complete without the addition of talking heads, in this case the Cryptic Corporation‘s Homer Flynn and Hardy Fox. Both have vehemently denied being Residents, but on the video evidence presented here, during one of the sections where the band are relatively shorn of masks, the lead singer looks a lot like Flynn. Flynn himself sums up the motivation of the band, explaining that they are constantly ‘creating their own reality’. In this sense, in a world of alternative reality, identities don’t matter a jot.

The Eyes Don’t Scream is a product of the Nineties – its presentation and garish graphics are reminiscent of MTV or The Word – but in the absence of anything more concrete, this documentary is essential viewing for anyone seeking to make sense of this most enigmatic of bands.

Featured Clips:
Don’t Be Cruel
Alter Image
Third Reich & Roll
Vileness Fats
Man’s World
Hello Skinny
One Minute Movies
Jailhouse Rock (Live in Oslo)
Cry For The Fire (Live in Oslo)
Man’s World (Live in Australia)
Burning Love (Live in Munich)
Earth Vs. Flying Saucers
From The Plane To Mexico

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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