Remixing RiP: Two blogs debate the hit copyright documentary

0 Posted by - March 20, 2009 - Conversations, Features, Screen
Girl Talk quite literally "feels the love" in this grab from RiP: A Remix Manifesto

Girl Talk quite literally "feels the love" in this grab from RiP: A Remix Manifesto

RiP: A Remix Manifesto is currently circulating on the festival scene and winning over audiences from Amsterdam to Austin. At IDFA it won the much-coveted audience choice award (beating out 300+ documentaries), and at a recent screening in Montreal for Cinema Politica (disclaimer: I’m the programmer for Cinema Politica) 550 cheering audience members nearly leapt out of their seats while enthusiastically viewing the documentary.

Brett Gaylor spent three years and one million bucks making this film with the NFB, and his hard work and efforts show. The film is a fast-paced, entertaining and informative rave-like rip through the world of copyright, cultural policy and mash-up culture. The film’s form is its strength – a pastiche of interview, director POV, fantastic animation, music video, concert, home movie, and multi-media mix. It is in short, an exemplary mash-up piece, true to the investigation found within. By the end you might feel like you dropped acid and read a cultural policy paper, but chances are you’ll just be stunned that a documentary on copyright could be so damn fun.

But RiP has its problems and its detractors. While critics are overwhelmingly heaping praise on the doc (and Gaylor) some, like the National Post (shock!), see a shallow flop. Among the best critiques of the film I have come across is Laurence Miall’s, posted on his blog. Because he takes on the documentary with a passion and alacrity for well-honed prose mixed with dashes of art-cynicism and political posturing, I’ve decided to respond here on Art Threat. Miall writes:

The apparent protagonists of this film — remix musician Girl Talk, and Brett Gaylor himself — know in advance the answers to all the questions they raise. They are listless and strangely incurious people, not interested in the relationship between capitalism and innovation, or in modes of production, or in questions about art’s responsibility to represent, question, challenge, or subvert reality. About the most subversive artistic act evoked in this film is sticking cartoon features on evil George W. Bush’s face.

I’m in general agreement here: I have little to no appreciation whatsoever for Girl Talk, especially as he shows us simple software wrangling while his narcoleptic girlfriend languishes in the background in a seemingly unending and distractingly comedic soporific state. These are white privileged kids playing with technology and sleeping off hangovers, and I guess we shouldn’t expect more from them. But where are the subversive anarcho-technos? Queers with toasters hooked up to modems? The marginalized and politicized? The people enlisting mash-up who would rather eat their own spleens than suffer a photo op with Paris Hilton (as Girl Talk does in the film, a filmic act rightly chastised by Miall)? And, um, where are the women?

“Nothing is new under the sun” of course. Who can argue it? Artists borrow, reinvent, adapt — some even flagrantly steal. The central problem of RiP! is one of scale. Gaylor presents some of the greatest hits of corporate stupidity over the last decade — major corporations suing poor little families for downloading two dozen songs, as if this is a genuine battle of David and Goliath, and we all know how that one turned out. It would be reassuring, were it not for the fact that thus far, outside of a few lost music royalties, Goliath is actually enjoying a largely uncontested battlefield. We live in a corporate kleptocracy of ever-greater audacity — wherein a good portion of the loot is swindled right in front of our eyes — and there’s damn little the download generation has done about it.

I think this point cuts to the heart of the techno-enthusiasm and euphoric tone of RiP. The “download generation” has done about as much as Generation X, Y or Z to confront corporate malfeasance, greed and repression. Celebrity culture is at a historic high – privileged knowledge now includes Google map identifiers for which toilet Brad Pitt last deposited his shit in. Being politically “involved” these days means you have a cell phone and you twitter information about Jon Stewart’s latest rip into “the man.” But it’s always been this way hasn’t it? Isn’t there moral panic in every generation about the youngens? And is this really the territory RiP sets off or claims to tackle? Absolutely not. RiP is a hagiography to new technologies, new media, and new modes of creativity that shun restrictive laws and policies. If you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of political action and cultural policy as it relates to collective rights, creative control and artistic freedom, you’ve downloaded the wrong film. It’s kind of like bashing An Inconvenient Truth for not exploring alternatives to capitalist-logic. Not every film can cover every aspect of enormous and complex issues – that’s why we need 50 films on copyright and culture, not one. An Inconvenient Truth tells us to change our lightbulbs not fire bomb every SUV we see. RiP tells us mash-up isn’t stealing, it’s creativity. Of course there’s more to each story.

I have often felt that film is a kindred spirit to the novel both in scope and ambition. Both succeed primarily by virtue of their powers of narrative persuasion. RiP! falls flat because, by any conventional measure of a narrative, it has no plot. Don’t look for conflict or struggle in the story of Girl Talk and Brett Gaylor. They start the film in love with themselves and each other; they finish the film the same way. No epiphanies, no engagement with their adversary, no struggle.

If you want standard narrative devices, complete with the predictable conflict development arc halfway, resolution ten minutes from the end, and of course the obligatory political documentary trope of the final ten minutes earnestly devoted to “what can we do about this?” then again, you’ve got the wrong chunk of media. Thankfully, RiP eschews these tried and tested devices, and instead offers a blend of approaches to storytelling that sometimes work and sometimes do not. RiP’s scramble of threads is much more interesting than the one chord documentary that you can essentially sleep through still be able to later describe in a bar to eager politico ears. The struggle is between worldviews, and Gaylor gives us a very limited sampling of the “yes we can!” and “we’ll sue your ass!” sides of the coin. This is one of the film’s weaknesses however, that in the unconventional narrative that is RiP we find very predictable proponents engaged in an undefined Manichean struggle over rights and freedoms (a point Miall also makes). But Gaylor does love Girl Talk and by now Girl Talk surely loves Gaylor (who wouldn’t after a feature documentary devotes so much time to showing the world how great you are?). When we finally get out of the white, middle class, heternormative, patriarchal world explored throughout the film, RiP lands in Brazil and sadly only stays for a touristic snapshot. This is where I think the potential of the story is lost: the copyright and creativity issues re-inscribed in the politicized spaces of Brazil are so exciting they provide a needed antidote to the American characters slamming beer and saying “like” and “cool” more times than you’ll here in a skate park. But alas, Brazil is more of an epilogue, and in that sense, I smell a sequel. Step up filmmakers!

What truly boggles the mind is that RiP! failed to even answer the following question: how does art continue to get made if nobody pays for it? Brett Gaylor solved this problem by finding a public agency prepared to pony up taxpayers’ money for his project. Sadly, this is not a solution that will work for everyone; nor is it a solution that Gaylor even acknowledges with any gratitude in his film.

This is where Miall and I take different paths completely. Framing the question of art, especially the ontology of art-making, in a stringent and inflexible framework of capitalism is a disservice to artists and to the larger discussion around art and its buttressing, mingling and contamination with capital. The symbolic and violent system of capital is not a necessary prerequisite for art. Miall accuses Gaylor of circular logic, but the circles don’t get much more round than the one that posits, who will make art if no one is buying art? Um, artists perhaps? Many artists indeed make their living from art, many do not and wish to, and still many more make art because, shock and horror, they love to make art. Creativity cannot be corralled so easily with the violent capital-logic of patronage and profit. There’s other reasons for art, many other reasons. RiP shows that, whether it’s the thrill of the worshipping crowd at a concert or the political satisfaction of changing peoples’ minds (as in Brazil) art and artists exist for reasons other than to sit down with capital and make out.

And the fact that the state funded RiP and in Canada funds many other works of art is, for my money, a better answer to artists’ survival than the propagation of a ridiculously unequal and cruel market. If every Canadian paid a fraction of a cent for more films like RiP (as they have, through funding agencies), we’d be a richer society. It’s a collective answer to supporting those in society who cannot answer capital’s logic with complicity and flag-waving. Supporting the arts by supporting state policy that argues for increased funding for the arts is the kind of logic I’d like to hear more of. While capitalism as a system cuts so many out, if we expect artists to find their niche in the market each time, we just might end up with another Paris Hilton CD.

Yes RiP was made by a federal agency. It was also made by a bunch of artists and creative talent that might not find work as the next reality TV show is only hiring four staff. Let’s not turn this debate into who’s paying for what. It’s about creativity, and how we can support creativity – through our laws, through our tax dollars, through our own attention, and through our actions. It’s about collectivity, and while Girl Talk is certainly not the best ambassador for this manifesto, he definitely helps to keep an engaged, creative and lively film hopping along. That alone is worth the purchase/rental/viewing/theft/download.

To read the full critique by Miall, visit his blog.

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