Ever since French artist Marcel Duchamp scrawled a mustache on the "Mona Lisa," elements of pastiche, appropriation, and collage have been integral to modern art.
Film and video lend themselves well to these pursuits - especially collage, since movies are usually made of multiple images spliced together. Hollywood often hides this beneath a smooth narrative flow, but some artists like to celebrate the glorious fragmentation that motion pictures can provide. Two new movies, "Sonic Outlaws" and "Abductees," plug into this approach with an infectious energy and eye-dazzling technique that are ideally suited to the topics they treat.
"Sonic Outlaws" comes from the prodigiously gifted Craig Baldwin, whose previous picture was "Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America," a compendium of hilariously strung-out conspiracy theories that equal the flights of fancy in Umberto Eco's somewhat similar novel, "Foucault's Pendulum."
Baldwin explores less science-fictional territory in "Sonic Outlaws," spinning the real-life story of an artists' collective called Negativland, which fought a fierce legal battle against Island Records over a copyright issue.
Negativland's adventure started when it released an album including a few seconds of material "sampled" from a disc by the popular Irish rock group U2, also displaying a U2 logo on the jacket. Sued by U2's record company, Negativland responded that the letter U and the numeral 2 are common property that everyone can use - and anyway, doesn't the legal concept of "fair use" allow free play with cultural material invading the public sphere?
The growing popularity of sampled music has brought intricate legal questions in its wake. Negativland cuts through the courtroom complexities by embracing a proudly post-modern view, arguing that mass-communication devices make any public utterance the legitimate property of anyone who stands in its path.
Obviously sharing this conviction, filmmaker Baldwin recounts the battle of Negativland vs. U2 with clear sympathy for the former, flashing out his account by adding similar cases into the mix. These include the famous tussle that erupted when the rap group 2 Live Crew made an irreverent version of Roy Orbison's rock classic "Oh Pretty Woman," and had to defend its action all the way to the Supreme Court, which cleared the rappers of copyright infringement on the ground that parody has a legitimate social value.
That sounds like a fair judgment, but what happens when parody spills outside the musical arena? Baldwin comes up with several cases that are as uproarious as they are authentic. One favorite is a group of "advertising guerrillas" who reverse billboard messages by altering them in the dead of night. Another is the Barbie Liberation Organization, which switches the voiceboxes of Barbie dolls and GI Joe figures, subverting the sexist indoctrinations the group sees in these kid-oriented products.
What makes "Sonic Outlaws" a treat is partly its clever use of images and sounds - flowed into an unpredictable cascade that never lets up - and partly its spunky political stand. The movie echoes Negativland's own strategy of playing a slyly subversive David to the wealthy Goliaths of the corporate entertainment world.
"Copyright Infringement Is Your Best Entertainment Value," says a Negativland slogan, and it's amusing to note that Baldwin's film purloins the motto in a cheerfully larcenous maneuver worthy of Negativland itself. "Sonic Outlaws" is both an informative study and an excellent example of the cut-and-mix culture it's about.
Baldwin's work is not unique. The premiere of his new picture at New York's Film Forum is paired with "Abductees," a remarkably like-minded look at people who insist they've been kidnapped and studied by visitors from outer space. Directed by Paul Vester, this high-intensity essay uses super quick film-and-video montage with as much inventiveness as "Sonic Outlaws," if not with the same thoroughness. Pungent, poignant, and parodic, it's worth seeing by anyone with a taste for the collage-like capacities of modern film.
*"Sonic Outlaws" and "Abductees" have not been rated, but contain vulgar language.