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On film: smashing icons

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In 1988 the Bay Area experimental band Negativland issued a bogus press release suggesting a link between their song "Christianity Is Stupid" and a set of gruesome ax murders in Minnesota. Poking fun at the way the media rarely checks sources, the hoax snowballed into a nationally reported story. Such "culture jamming" is a common interest of all the people in Craig Baldwin's film Sonic Outlaws, which profiles Negativland and such like-minded artists as John Oswald, the Tape-Beatles, the Barbie Liberation Organization, and Emergency Broadcast Network.

In one of the most amusing scenes Negativland's Mark Hosler explains off-camera how Island Records crushed his band. On-screen we see an old B-movie featuring Beau Bridges as a giant who stomps around town terrifying citizens. Negativland's legal hassles over their hilarious parody of the U2 hit "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" form the center of discussion in this spirited documentary, which examines the issues of intellectual property, fair use, and culture jamming in the arts.

Negativland's notoriety stems from their pairing layered samples of the U2 song with an exaggerated reading of the lyrics that plainly emphasized their banality. The parody also included various profane outtakes from Casey Kasem's Top 40 show, with Kasem losing his cool and saying things like, "These guys are from England and who gives a shit." The band called the record U2 and used a photo of an old U-2 spy plane on the cover. U2's label, Island Records, was not amused and slapped Negativland's label, SST Records, with a hefty lawsuit. SST immediately succumbed to the formidable corporate pressure, recalling all copies of the record and sending them to Island to be destroyed. SST then saddled Negativland with the $90,000 legal bill.

Sonic Outlaws vividly portrays Negativland's plight. Part of the work's dazzling synergy arises from how Baldwin assembles often incongruous footage to tell the story of musical artists who've made a career doing likewise with audio samples--a method he calls "collage essay."

The California filmmaker has long been involved in recontextualizing found imagery in mail art, zines, and billboards, but after studying with noted experimental filmmaker Bruce Conner, he focused his energies on film collage. A few years ago Baldwin met Negativland's Don Joyce while attending a panel discussion on public versus private information, sponsored by the San Francisco chapter of the National Writers Union. The men discovered they shared common ground as collage artists. "Their [Negativland's] ideas were so rich above and beyond their manifesto," says Baldwin. "The whole thing was tragic, comic, and ironic--I had a good story and I didn't need a scriptwriter for it."

Baldwin combines eight different formats to compose the work's dense visual patchwork, including Super-8, swiped footage from TV news broadcasts, and forgotten Hollywood films. "The idea is to come up with goofy, inappropriate fictionalized images," he explains. "The sources are really detritus--stuff that would end up in someone's garage--from 70s drive-in movies to old educational and industrial films. I like the idea of displacement, what I call cognitive dissonance, where someone thinks, 'Something's wrong here.' I like the blurring effect, presenting newsreel material with fictional material so there is a kind of confusion about the authority and credibility of the images, so the whole thing is almost thrown into question."

Raising more questions than it answers, Sonic Outlaws provocatively examines the prickly issue of intellectual property in a modern context: with the proliferation of things like CD-ROM, the Internet, and accessible sampling technology, the problem of unauthorized use of sounds and images promises to become more pervasive. Sonic Outlaws will be screened Friday and Saturday at 8 PM in the Kino-Eye Cinema at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division. Admission is $6. Call 384-5533 for more information.

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