First off, a personal thank-you to director Brett Gaylor and his CC posse for making this documentary and for sending me a copy of it to review and give away (contest is here). I have been in a creative funk for a couple weeks, and this film came at precisely the right moment to awaken something in me that had felt dormant for far too long.
Buzz for Rip! A Remix Manifesto had been making its rounds on the Toronto circuit a few months ago. Unfortunately, I never made it to the showings but on the periphery I got the sense that the documentary was about something I hold very dear to my heart, something that has in part defined the way I engage with culture: the creation and exchange of mixtapes. The word mixtape, as far as I recall, is never uttered in the film, yet the spirit which drove that early peer-to-peer expression permeates this investigation into the culture of mash-ups, remixes, and culture jamming. A mixtape aspires to create something greater than a playlist of songs, the very act of recontextualizing the music brings with it an ability to inject new narrative and mood inflections to the familiar to make something singularly yours. As Lawrence Lessig (founder of Creative Commons) describes it in the film, such an act progresses the conversation with the past so as to make something new, and indeed, there is in part an organic logic to this freedom of expression. The post-Napster boon of mash-up remixes is essentially this same impulse that gave rise to the mixtape phenomenon, where rather than using whole songs as found components to pastiche, the expression is created within the confines of a single song or a single video clip, taking anything and everything in the public domain and even outside of it to evoke a Pop Art for our times.
Gaylor’s documentary is part advocacy for, part celebration of this mash-up culture, a movement that considers the well-being of a culture reliant upon the fair access to the intellectual property of the past in order to build upon it. This, as the titular manifesto states, is what ensures free societies. From the get-go, the film makes it clear this is a culture war, the old versus the new, the resuscitated spirit of dadaists and beatniks, in the form of remixers now emboldened with hitherto unimagined technological resources who seek to jam the cultural milieu of Big Media and overturn the legislation that has granted them the encroaching right to stifle artistic expression. In short, this is a war on Mickey Mouse.
Do not let the subject matter of copyright infringement and the legal ramifications of intellectual property fool you into thinking this to be yet another dry talking heads activist agenda documentary, the message while always prescient, is never didactic; in fact, this is one of the most enjoyable visual aural onslaughts I have had this year. By making a documentary on the issue of copyright infringement imposed by the mash-up culture, the director was allowed the rare privilege of using copious clips from licensed music and video in order to make his argument (a fortunate ‘fair use’ clause that allows Gaylor to have his cake and eat it too). While he paints the bleak realities of those not protected by the ‘fair use’ clause, those deemed pirates irrespective of context and sued for enormous sums of money that do not fit the crimes, he himself (for the most part) gets away with sharing licensed works without paying. The documentary doesn’t so much depict it’s subject as embody it, exploding outward with the energy of a viral video, and in fact, part of the documentary is mashed from the contributions of his open source cinema project.
Observing the evolution of music and all manners of storytelling, RIP! blurs the lines of what it means to infringe on intellectual property, showing how organically music has taken from its past to enrich itself, and how in video, Disney built its empire on the unapologetic reappropriation of the past right down to the mouse himself as a Buster Keaton knock-off in Steamboat Willie. The myth and cult of originality is a relatively recent phenomenon, in tow with the American delusion of the self-made man, and born from this delusion comes an inflated sense of ownership that over time has gained more and more fervor to the detriment of a progressive culture. In Antiquity, the Italian Renaissance and even Elizabethan England, imitation lacked such derogatory implications and was rather a badge of honor. As Rip! explores, its only with the dawn of the 20th century and the corporate instinct to partition off all aspects of life for financial gain that imitation became a bad word.
One of the chief joys of this documentary for me is the discovery of the musician Girl Talk, who intermittently talks and performs throughout the film and serves as one of the cultural heralds spearheading the movement. Armed with a laptop, headband and lots of perspiration, Girl Talk is a maelstrom of energy whose contagious spontaneity in the celebration of mashed music spurs on impromptu raves that rush the stage and even burst onto the streets. Watching him create new music seemingly on the fly as he cuts and pastes appropriated songs into a cacophony of pulsating sound is one of the great joys of the documentary, a joy I can relate to with my mixtapes. Rip! shows the possibilities for this bright future of artistic expression, a new Renaissance not unlike what is happening in Brazil, and with the advances by artists such as Radiohead and Girl Talk, and the rise of Creative Commons and the further democratization of choice in a world set free by the internet rhizome, there is hope. I implore you to seek out this film. Viva the laptop revolution!
* Please Note: later this week there will be a giveaway of a copy of this film, do yourself a favor and stay tuned at Row Three to win.
Check the trailer to get a taste:
Check out Row Three’s interview with the director, Brett Gaylor, some good stuff there.
For samples of Girl Talk’s music and performance go to my post on Morepop here: