The Residents, for those who have somehow escaped their sway for the last 35-plus years, are the venerable Bay Area-based practitioners of a singular amalgam of performance art and rock 'n' roll, aided and abetted by a dose of leading-edge digital technology. They are simultaneously omnipresent and invisible, infamous and unknown, perennially ahead of their time and deeply enmeshed in the past. How can this be? Because the Residents have deemed it so.
The group, a trio (I believe) augmented by various collaborators across the decades, has adamantly and diligently hidden the identity of its core members. Onstage and in their numerous videos, they're outfitted in top hats, tuxes and eyeball headpieces that, like any uniform, sublimate the individual to the group. Neither shy nor agoraphobic, The Residents originally suggested a kind of rebuke of the megalomania and hero worship of rock superstars in the '70s. In the 21st century, when American Idol spits out a new household name every week (or is that overstating things? I can't bring myself to watch) and everyone in America aspires to be a 15-minute fame whore, the idea of a performer seeking anonymity is nothing short of perverse.
The spotlight is on the group's visual art this week, with the Pacific Film Archive screening 15 works in the amusingly titled program, Icky Flix Remix: Videos by The Residents. The great majority of the pieces were made between 1972 and 2000, and were collected on the 2001 DVD Icky Flix. No matter. The big screen always beats the small screen, especially with all the weird production design and detail that the Residents typically pack into a piece.
Endlessly creative and undeniably restless, the band never seems to repeat themselves visually. Their oeuvre encompasses seductive stop-motion animation, quasi-grotesque live-action and primitive and sophisticated computer graphics. Their influences cover the waterfront of moving-image detritus, from silent film to Japanese monster movies, from vaudeville to underground comics.
Frankly, I'd be hard-pressed to decipher and explain the meaning of any particular Residents video, although "Songs for Swinging Larvae" (which I picked primarily to share the pleasure of its title) seems to be about a child's desire to trade his boring, kitchen-captive mother for a magic-inclined playmate. Experimental, nonlinear and unclassifiable, The Residents' music videos -- buoyed and enhanced by delicious tunes with equally mysterious lyrics -- are somehow simultaneously juvenile and sophisticated. How can that be? Because the Residents have deemed it so.
Icky Flix Remix: Videos by The Residents, 1975-2010 screens at 7:30pm, Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 642-0808 or visit www.bampfa.