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AS CREATIVITY SUCCUMBS increasingly to corporate control, where does that leave the creator--particularly the independent one? And if art can be defined as one's response to the culture, what happens when the artist (particularly the critical one) loses access to that culture?
Craig Baldwin's densely woven documentary Sonic Outlaws examines these questions chiefly through Island Records' 1991 lawsuit against Negativland, the San Francisco-based "media about media about media" group which sampled a U2 song, packaged it as satire, and suffered the consequences. But the film loops around broader issues to consider how mass culture threatens to turn us all into passive receivers. The trick, per Negativland, is to "turn the barrage back on itself"--and get away with it, or else go down fighting.
Negativland's crime was "U2," a collage record that spliced some 35 seconds of the Joshua Tree track "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" together with an illegally acquired blooper tape of DJ Casey Kasem giving a horribly fumbled intro of the band ("This is bullshit! Nobody cares! These guys are from England and who gives a shit?"). Island promptly served the sonic outlaws and their label, SST, with a 180-page copyright-infringement suit that effectively suppressed the record while assessing $90,000 in "damages." After Negativland published a collage-art book about the ordeal, they were sued again, this time by SST. Meanwhile, U2 went on to profitably reinvent themselves as cut-and-paste postmodernists with their "ZOO-TV" tour, appropriating the work of satellite pirates the Emergency Broadcast Network for the show's channel-surfing aesthetic. This prompted Negativland's Don Joyce to conclude that "U2 is doing the same thing they sued us for doing."
Meaning to tear down the house with the master's tools, Sonic Outlaws assembles an A/V blitzkrieg itself, mixing found sound and images to forge a united front of kindred "culture jammers" like the Billboard Bandits (which alters corporate ads to critical effect) and the Barbie Liberation Organization (which performed sex-change operations on more than 300 G.I. Joe dolls, swapping their voiceboxes with those of Barbies). As the future already seems trademarked, the filmmaker raids the past to link the electronic outlaw culture with the traditions of Dada and Cubism, as well as Warhol and MAD magazine. And as his own assemblage includes clips from televangelist sermons, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and Negativland's hilariously tense phone conversation with U2's the Edge, Baldwin reverses the flow of copyrighted propaganda--and gets away with it.
Clint Eastwood's Absolute Power likewise evokes sympathy for the thieving artist: The star directs himself as a cat burglar who, in his spare time, likes to sit in museums copying the work of major painters. Meanwhile, following his heroic pillage of The Bridges of Madison County, the auteur attempts to steal another popular hit (the novel by David Baldacci) from its trashy roots. During his heist of an old billionaire's mansion, Eastwood's Luther Whitney witnesses the lady of the house (Melora Hardin) being felt up and slapped around by our nation's sadistic president (Gene Hackman), and then shot to death by Secret Service agents when she tries to defend herself. Forced into hiding, the guy who silently observed the murder decides to fight the power only after watching the president's televised display of grief for the victim: Sexual violence is indeed a shame, but White House manipulation of the media--now that's unforgivable.
To an extent, Absolute Power critiques the evil that old white men do, its protagonist included. Hackman takes his monstrous patriarch from Unforgiven to unbelievable heights; E.G. Marshall plays the cuckolded billionaire as an eye-for-an-eye zealot; and Eastwood's character is a cruelly inattentive dad who struggles to make amends with his bitter daughter (Laura Linney). As the familial melodrama becomes far more convincing than the intrigue per se, Absolute Power doubles as a self-portrait in disguise, with several scenes depicting the aging thief torn between his duties as a tough guy and a father. In other words, if the 66-year-old actor is nearing the end of his action-adventure rope, the artist is still in pretty good shape.
One last thought on thieves, art, commerce--and Andre Techine's Thieves (Les Voleurs), another ostensible crime thriller that's more interested in family relationships and thievery as metaphor. Scheduled to open at Lagoon Cinema on Valentine's Day, it was postponed at the 11th hour, following the news that Shine and The English Patient (each playing at Lagoon and at 10 other area theaters) had been nominated for Oscars. Thieves may open (exclusively) at Lagoon this Friday, or sometime later, pending the artsyplex's decision to relinquish one of its blockbusters. Talk about absolute power.
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