23 November 2004

Dig?

  • DIG! Dir: Odni Tominer. Palm Pictures, 2004.

What happens when you make a film and every single person interviewed has no idea what they are talking about? In this case you’re making a film about the music industry, which means you’re making a film about the collision of art and commerce. DIG!, a well-crafted documentary focusing on The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, two minor ’90s West Coast bands, manages to piece together a compelling work out of the thoughts and actions of a lot of ignorant and delusional people. Director Ondi Timoner spent at least 4 years following each band’s unique navigation of the scummy water of the music business and created a film which hangs together in spite of its cast of happy fools.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre was and still is the brainchild of Anton Newcombe, a petulant charlatan of the lowest order. I guess that’s a compliment. Courtney Taylor, the impresario of Portland’s Dandy Warhols, is a guy with some talent, some smarts and some dumb luck.

The movie is a tapestry of interpersonal psychic battles between the two bands, mainly the two leaders (there’s a voice-over narration from the Warhols’ Taylor throughout most of it), and peers underneath the mossy indie rock to find—nothing much of note.

The film takes pains to establish that Newcombe and the Massacre are post-modern geniuses making future music that will be remembered for generations. It feels like the punch line of their lame pun of a band name. A litany of dubious “experts” rambles on about what it was like to see the band in their heyday. Genesis P-Orridge from Psychic T.V. and Throbbing Gristle babbles on about how the Dandies and Jonestown were the only bands he was compelled to see during the mid-90s. The editor of Paper Magazine tells us the Jonestown were the best band in 15 years and that musicians are going to be mining their albums for ideas for generations. So when the curtain is pulled back, about 20 minutes into the film, and we see the pastiche, ersatz rock of these bands’ live shows, the establishing chatter looses all its import. The shit is pedestrian with a capital boring. The distinguishing thing about Brian Jonestown is their frankness about their influences: they name their albums, Bringing It All Back Home Again, Their Satanic Majesties Second Request, etc, etc. It’s not future music, it’s perversely anachronistic—from the drug addictions, to the album titles, to the recording techniques, to the stage presentation. The problem is that the bands they are aping actually put on great live shows, wrote great songs and were world-class instrumentalists. Perhaps if the BJM leads people to the early Stones, Animals, Small Faces, and Dylan records then they’ve done something. But is their best redeeming quality the nakedness of their influences?

In 1996, Jonestown released three excellently derivative albums and were probably at the peak of their notoriety. This is where this film climbs on board the caravan and starts to assist their delusions of grandeur. At the time the film begins, in the summer of 1996, they are the darlings of indie rock. I remember the time and still really enjoy their album, Take It From the Man, with its brazen British Invasion riffs and faux-English accents. It holds up well on a recent spin. When I went to see them at the Knitting Factory in 1996 I was prepared for the second coming of Satan. They weren’t even a decent Stones cover band.

So then, the Dandy Warhols—another painfully stupid name, and a modest success in the cutthroat world of the major labels. The film explicitly contrasts the BJM’s boho existence with the Dandies’ own studied “career path” in the biz, and the Dandies emerge owning houses, creating a performance space in their hometown of Portland, Oregon, and playing sold-out tours across Europe.

The Dandies want so badly to be liked and respected by Newcombe and the Jonestown, who have nothing but contempt for their music, their success, and their souls. This anxious dynamic gets lots of screen time during the film and ends up being the source of much of its titillating drama. Particularly telling is a moment when Taylor and the Dandies arrive at the BJM house the morning after a party (which the Dandies didn’t attend) to do a photo shoot amidst the wreckage. As the band tiptoes carelessly around the wasted bodies of the Massacre and their hangers-on, the embarrassment of the situation becomes almost unbearable. The Dandies exploit the blasted Massacre house with unrestrained glee—Taylor prances around the wreckage announcing the perfection of the setting like a location scout. As the bleary-eyed Massacre guitarist Matt Hollywood wakes up and looks at the camera to say something like, “What the fuck are you doing here?,” it’s the most damning moment in the film. The Massacre play the dangerous game of rock and roll excess to the hilt and suffer the consequences, and the Dandies wander around the house the morning after, wanting to tell the world they were there.

Later on it seems as if Newcombe wants to do the Dandies harm; they receive a package of sundry items which include a shotgun shell inscribed with each of the Dandies’ names. They grow paranoid of his intentions and the film begins to focus on the Jonestown’s many missteps, bad decisions, and eventual dissolution (Newcombe has always been the center of the group, which now has all new members). These include blown industry showcase performances, drug addictions, brutal inter-band fights—and as I sit here and recount it a weariness starts to seep into my soul. This is absolutely the most pointless and narcissistic bunch of lame-asses around which you could center a film.

That said, director Ondi Timoner squeezes out some great drama from these mundane and artistically corrupt people. The film ends up being of a piece with VH1’s Band On The Run reality TV show, where 4 bands without talent and without record deals drive around the country trying to draw the most fans. I was entertained throughout but I wasn’t inspired by the performances, the music, or the decisions of this group of musicians. Isn’t that the scourge of the mutated verite that reality TV has given us? And is it news that the meeting of art and commerce results in an excess of horror, dullness, and existential strife?

Probably the wittiest and most enjoyable presence in DIG! is the BJM’s tambourine player Joel Gion, who enjoys the absurdity of rock excesses in every single frame w/o succumbing to boorishness. He somehow makes pouring drinks down his pants, impersonating W. C. Fields and making fun of record label jerks high comedy, and the film benefits from his warmth. This is the fucking tambourine player. We share the absurd humor of his better moments: when he signs the TVT record contract for the Jonestown he announces that it’s “just like signing the Declaration of Independence”; and after the band dissolves, he looks into the camera and says, “I guess after three years as the ‘tambourine man’ I’m going to have to find something to do.” Among what seems to be blizzard of lies, half-truths, and broken promises, here’s a person who was along for the ride and emerges unscathed. He’s the cross standing among the ruins of a bombed church.

Other than these fine moments DIG! captures nothing rare, though it stands as a well crafted document. It’s a tiny drama being played out on an even smaller stage to an audience amused at the modest triumphs and bleak failures of some marginalized musicians. At the end of the exhausting and brutal exercise I emerged with dull ears and a renewed awareness of the abject failure of the music industry to sustain the people who create their capital. The film makes unfortunate subjects of people who maybe should have been left to their own devices beyond the glare of the video camera. Instead we see our pettiness, our failures, and our shortcomings reflected back at us in every frame. What exactly is DIG! digging? A sub-sub-culture that barely speaks to the world at large, and caters to the little industry circles who believe their scattershot technique actually captures real talent and real culture. In a season of films which dissect musicians’ missed opportunities (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, The MC5: A True Testimonial and Ramones: End of the Century), DIG! adds its knife blade to the operating table. I’m just not sure I need to care.

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