Animal Charm, Bryan Boyce, and TV Carnage chart the outer limits of piracy
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Dick Cheney surveys the teeming white crowds at the 2004 Republican National Convention. With their Cheney Rocks! placards and stars-and-stripes Styrofoam hats, these people worship him, but he still looks like he wants to spray them with buckshot. "You're all a bunch of fucking assholes!" he sneers. "You know why? You need people like me — so you can point your fucking fingers and say, 'That's the bad guy.’”
OK, maybe Cheney didn't use those exact words in his convention speech, but we all know he was thinking them, so bless Bryan Boyce's short video America's Biggest Dick for making the vice president really speak his mind — in this case, via Al Pacino's dialogue in Scarface. The title fits: Boyce's two-minute movie exposes the gangster mentality of Cheney and the rest of the Bush administration, perhaps giving his subject more charisma than he deserves. Ultimately, Cheney gets around to admitting he's the bad guy — after he's compared the convention's hostile New York setting to "a great big pussy waiting to be fucked" and speculated about how much money is required to buy the Supreme Court. "Fuck you! Who put this thing together? Me — that's who!" he bellows when a graphic exhibition of his oral sex talents receives some boos.
One might think the man behind America's Biggest Dick might be boisterous and loud, but Boyce — who lives in San Francisco — is in fact soft-spoken and modest, crediting the movie's "stunt mouth," Jonathan Crosby (whose teeth and lips Bryce pastes onto Cheney and other political figures), with the idea of using Brian de Palma's 1983 film. "I knew I wanted extensive profanity, and Scarface more than delivered," Boyce says during an interview at the Mission District's Atlas Café. "But I was also amazed at how well the dialogue fit."
The dialogue fits because Boyce masterfully tweaks found material, particularly footage from television. It's a skill he's honed and a skill that motivates the most recent waves of TV manipulation thriving on YouTube, on DVD (in the case of the Toronto-based TV Carnage), and at film festivals and other venues that have the nerve to program work that ignores the property rights of an oppressive dominant culture. "It is, admittedly, crude," Boyce says of America's Biggest Dick, which inspired raves and rage when it played the Sundance Film Festival last year. "It's a crude technique for a crude movie matched to a very crude vice president." As for the contortions of Crosby's mouth, which exaggerate Cheney's own expressions, Boyce has an apt reference at hand: "The twisted mouth to match his twisted soul — he's got a Richard III thing going on."
America's Biggest Dick isn't Boyce's only film to mine horror and hilarity from the hellish realms of Fox News. In 30 Seconds of Hate, for example, he uses a "monosyllabic splicing technique" to puppeteer war criminal (and neocon TV expert) Henry Kissinger into saying, "If we kill all the people in the world, there'll be no more terrorists.... It's very probable that I will kill you." All the while, mock Fox News updates scroll across the bottom of the screen. "That footage came from a time when Fox thought that Saddam [Hussein] had been killed," Boyce explains. "That's why Kissinger kept using the word kill. Of course, no one says kill like Henry Kissinger."
In Boyce's State of the Union, the smiling baby face within a Teletubbies sun is replaced by the grumpier, more addled visage of George W. Bush. Shortly after issuing a delighted giggle, this Bush sun god commences to bomb rabbits that graze amid the show's hilly Astroturf landscapes — which mysteriously happen to be littered with oil towers. With uncanny prescience, Boyce made the movie in August 2001, inspiring fellow TV tweak peers such as Rich Bott of the duo Animal Charm to compare him to Nostradamus. "Even before Sept. 11, [Bush] was looking into nuclear weapons and bunker busters," Boyce says. "His drilling in the [Arctic National Wildlife Reserve] led me to use the oil towers."
Having grown up in the Bay Area and returned here after a college stint in Santa Cruz, Boyce — like other Bay Area artists with an interest in culture jamming — calls upon Negativland ("I thought their whole Escape from Noise album was great") and Craig Baldwin ("He's kind of the godfather of cinema here") as two major inspirations. In fact, both he and Baldwin have shared a fascination with televangelist Robert Tilton, whose bizarre preaching makes him a perfect lab rat on whom to try out editing experiments. "He speaks in tongues so nicely," Boyce says with a smile. "He's just so over-the-top and sad and terrible that he lends himself to all the extremes of the [editing] system, such as playing something backwards."
Boyce believes that the absurdity of "an abrupt jump cut between incongruous things" can "really be beautiful." And the TV Carnage DVDs put together by Derrick Beckles might illustrate that observation even better than Boyce's more minimalist tweaking. In just one of hundreds of uproarious moments within TV Carnage’s most recent DVD, the wonderfully titled Sore for Sighted Eyes, a sheet-clad John Ritter stares in abject disbelief at a TV on which Rosie O’Donnell pretends to have Down syndrome. At least two different movie writers at this paper (yours truly included) have shed tears from laughing at this sequence.
"I just picture a conveyer belt, and there are just so many points at which someone could press a big red stop button, but it doesn't happen," Beckles says, discussing the source (an Angelica Huston–helmed TV movie called Riding the Bus with My Sister) for the O’Donnell footage. "There’s this untouchable hubris. It blows my mind that people are paid for some of these ideas. Crispin Glover told me that the actors with Down syndrome in [his movie] What Is It? were offended by [the O’Donnell performance], or that they felt uneasy. It is uneasy to see Rosie O’Donnell do a Pee-wee Herman impersonation and think she’s embodying someone with Down syndrome."
Beckles’s interest in manipuutf8g TV — or as he puts it, “exorcising my own demons” by exorcising television’s — dates back to childhood. But it took several years in the belly of MGM to really fire a desire that has resulted in five DVDs to date. "TV Carnage is my way of screaming," he says at one point during a phone conversation that proves he’s as funny as his work. Like Boyce and audio contemporaries such as Gregg Gillis of Girl Talk (see "Gregg the Ripper," page 69), he filters "mounds and mounds and shelves and shelves" of tapes and other material through his computer.
"It’s not so much that I’m always in front of the TV," Beckles explains. "I'd just say that I have this divining rod for shit. I have these psychic premonitions when I turn on my TV. I have years and years of footage. I pull all of it into my computer and say, 'Now what?' Then I take a swig of whiskey and go, 'You’ve got yourself into it again.'" On Sore for Sighted Eyes this approach results in eye-defying montages dedicated to subjects such as white rapping. (Believe me, you have not lived until you’ve died inside seeing Mike Ditka and the Grabowskis or the Sealy Roll.)
Overall, mind control is TV Carnage’s main theme. One segment within the release Casual Fridays looks at children who act like adults and adults who act like children — two plagues that run rampant on TV. “Kids are like al-Qaeda," he says. "They’ll shift their plans every day to keep you wondering. [Meanwhile], you can just feel the adults who host teen shows thinking about their mortgage payments: ‘What are kids doing now? Slitting each other’s throats? Great! Let’s do a show about it!’” An infamous "swearing sandwich" sequence within TV Carnage’s When Television Attacks encapsulates Beckles’s worldview. "People who are into self-help — they might as well be taking advice from a sandwich.”
Breaking from the more free-form nature of TV Carnage — which isn’t afraid of running from Richard Simmons to Mao Zedong in a few seconds — Beckles is working within some self-imposed restrictions to make his next project. The presence of rules has some irony, since the project is titled Cop Movie. "I’m taking 101 cop movies and making a full-length feature from them," he says. "The same script has been used for hundreds and hundreds of cop movies — they just change the characters' names, using a name that sounds dangerous or slightly evocative of freedom."
"The reason I’m using 101 movies stems from this ridiculous mathematical aspect I’ve figured out," he continues. "If I take a certain number of seconds from each movie, it adds up to 66 minutes and 6 seconds, and the whole construct of 666 makes me laugh. I’ve already cut together a part where a guy gets hit by a car, and he goes from being a blond guy to a black guy to a guy with red hair to a guy with a mullet. It flows seamlessly. It’s a real acid trip — and kind of a psychological experiment. After I finish it, I’ll probably just pick out a casket and sleep for a hundred years."
The encyclopedic aspect of Beckles’s TV Carnage sucks in more recognizable footage such as American Idol’s Scary Mary and a musical number from The Apple. In contrast, the duo who go by the name Animal Charm tend to work with footage that few, if any, people have seen, such as corporate training videos. “Our interest from the beginning has not been to turn to a video we love or have a nostalgic connection to,” says Jim Fetterley, who along with Rich Bott makes up Animal Charm. “We were looking for things that were empty that could be used to create new meanings.”
Those meanings are often hilarious — the new Animal Charm DVD, Golden Digest, includes shorts such as Stuffing (in which a real-life monkey watches animated dolphins juggle a woman back and forth) and Ashley (which turns an infomercial for a Texas woman’s Amway-like beauty business into a bizarre science fiction story). But if reappropriation brings out the political commentator in Boyce and the comedian in Beckles, for Fetterley it’s more of a philosophical matter. Pledging allegiance to contemporaries such as Los Angeles’s TV Sheriff and the Pittsburgh, Pa., collective Paper Rad, he talks about Animal Charm’s videos as “tinctures” he’s used to “deprogram” himself and friends. “Our videos can make an empty boardroom seem like the jungle or something very natural,” he says when asked about his use of National Geographic–type clips and dated-looking office scenes. “In the videos, the animals are like puppets. You could say it’s like animation but on a more concept-based level.”
While Boyce, TV Carnage, and Animal Charm most often work with found material, their cinematic practice — jump-cut editing, for example — is more imaginative and creative than that of many “original” multimillion dollar productions. “We’re not predetermining any space we want to get into,” Fetterley explains, “other than most often that level of disassociation and absurdity where you are almost feeling something like the rush of a drug.” For him, generating this type of “temporary autonomy” is liberating. “With massive paranoia and war going on, it’s so easy to control a lot of people with fear and paranoia. We like to think if we can sit down and show our videos to our friends and others and have a laugh and talk about it seriously, it might help take everyone out of that mind frame.”
Because of the popularity of YouTube and its ability to create a new type of TV celebrity (and also the recent notoriety of musical efforts such as Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album and Girl Talk’s Night Ripper), reappropriation is reaching the mainstream. But even as Animal Charm's and Boyce’s clips proliferate on the Internet, a veteran such as Fetterley looks upon such developments with a pointedly critical perspective. “There’s a general tendency right now to get excited about things that are unknown or anonymous,” he says. “Accountability is almost more important than appropriation nowadays. All of a sudden, if something is anonymous, it makes people feel very uncomfortable.”
For artists with names, censorship is still very much an issue. Boyce recently found America’s Biggest Dick (along with Glover’s What Is It?) cited during a campaign to withdraw funding from a long-running film festival in Ann Arbor, Mich. But Fetterley sees a troubling larger picture. “Danger Mouse’s Grey Album is a very solid conceptual project — it’s gray,” he notes. “In comparison, if somebody is doing a New York Times article about something current politically or globally, there are red zones and flags that will be brought to others’ attention whether you or I know it or not. Those are things making this moment dangerous, in terms of not being able to be anonymous. With ideas about evidence dissolving and accountability hung up in legalities, it makes the culture around music or aesthetics or youth culture pale in comparison.” SFBG
LAMPOONS AND EYE-TUNES: BRYAN BOYCE'S CULT JAMS AND MUSIC VIDEOS
With launch party for Animal Charm's Golden Digest DVD
Oct. 7, 8 p.m.
Artists’ Television Access
992 Valencia, SF
For complete interviews with Derrick Beckles of TV Carnage, Bryan Boyce, and Jim Fetterley of Animal Charm, go to Pixel Vision at www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision .