Rip! A Remix Manifesto, directed by Brett Gaylor, is a co-production of the National Film Board of Canada and Eye Steel Films. It cost approximately $1 million to make, and over the past few months, has been garnering awards on the festival circuit. This week it opens in many theatres across Canada — but the NFB has made it available in full on their website, and in keeping with the ethos of the enterprise, it would be a lost opportunity to not post at least one small serving of the film here.
If this is the future of film, time-transport me back to the past. RiP! is to film what a scramble is to eggs: satisfying to some, but hardly a creative use of the raw materials. The issues had so much potential: the stranglehold by corporations over copywright law; the invasive spread of patent to include living organisms; and the perennial favourite, “what is art?”
The apparent protagonists of this film — remix musician Girl Talk, and Brett Gaylor himself — know in advance the answers to all the questions they raise. They are listless and strangely incurious people, not interested in the relationship between capitalism and innovation, or in modes of production, or in questions about art’s responsibility to represent, question, challenge, or subvert reality. About the most subversive artistic act evoked in this film is sticking cartoon features on evil George W. Bush’s face.
In the worldview of RiP! our planet is teeming with ideas and cultural artifacts like a giant museum, except this museum is, like, fun. All the world needs is to stop with the oppression, let everyone inside this museum of Cool, let people mess around with stuff, and new and even cooler things will emerge. At every opportunity, we are forcibly reminded of just how cool the protagonists in this struggle are, thanks to Gaylor’s incessant use of the word “cool” itself, or only slightly less ham-handedly through visual cues: Girl Talk posing with Paris Hilton; or how about Girl Talk and his girlfriend in bed, interspersed with images of a frumpy employee of the Register of Copywrights. Young, sexy, and dancing = Good; middle-aged, overweight, awkward, wearing a suit = Bad.
When he’s not using the imagery of body fascism to make his point, Gaylor simply bludgeons you with circular logic. “Girl Talk’s music is obviously creative,” he states matter-of-factly. It’s obviously creative because it draws on the “Remix Manifesto” — the origins of which Gaylor never truly explains.
Obvious? Obviously not obvious to the frumpy copyright expert, who diplomatically says, “You can’t argue your creativity when it’s based on other people’s stuff.”
Ah ha, but Gaylor has History to back him. Muddy Waters sang other people’s songs, as did the Rolling Stones — except those rascally Stones then turned around and sued The Verve for stealing the score for “Bittersweet Symphony.”
“Nothing is new under the sun” of course. Who can argue it? Artists borrow, reinvent, adapt — some even flagrantly steal. The central problem of RiP! is one of scale. Gaylor presents some of the greatest hits of corporate stupidity over the last decade — major corporations suing poor little families for downloading two dozen songs, as if this is a genuine battle of David and Goliath, and we all know how that one turned out. It would be reassuring, were it not for the fact that thus far, outside of a few lost music royalties, Goliath is actually enjoying a largely uncontested battlefield. We live in a corporate kleptocracy of ever-greater audacity — wherein a good portion of the loot is swindled right in front of our eyes — and there’s damn little the download generation has done about it.
I digress. It would be unfair to not point out that there are parts of RiP! that, at the very least, are informative. It’s interesting to discover the changes in copyright law, and to learn that the Unites States used to permit the wholescale reproduction of foreign authors’ works with no compensation, the profits of which sometimes went to supporting homegrown authors (the example cited is Charles Dickens sales enabling Mark Twain’s success).
Nevertheless, these nuggets are buried in a film that is a sloppy mess; its very structure proving that a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks method will rarely work.
I have often felt that film is a kindred spirit to the novel both in scope and ambition. Both succeed primarily by virtue of their powers of narrative persuasion. RiP! falls flat because, by any conventional measure of a narrative, it has no plot. Don’t look for conflict or struggle in the story of Girl Talk and Brett Gaylor. They start the film in love with themselves and each other; they finish the film the same way. No epiphanies, no engagement with their adversary, no struggle.
At one point, Gaylor gushes enthusiastically at the spectacle of a Girl Talk show, saying, “What these kids are doing on this dance floor are unravelling that control [of the past over the present]. The future and the past are duelling it out right here on the dancefloor. Whoever wins gets to decide if ideas will be determined by the public domain or private corporations.”
If you believe getting high at a rave is the required effort for Change, or that clicking a cursor to rip off some new Arcade Fire tune is an act of rebellion, then RiP! might well be inspiring.
What truly boggles the mind is that RiP! failed to even answer the following question: how does art continue to get made if nobody pays for it? Brett Gaylor solved this problem by finding a public agency prepared to pony up taxpayers’ money for his project. Sadly, this is not a solution that will work for everyone; nor is it a solution that Gaylor even acknowledges with any gratitude in his film.