The Body Electric

Photo by Brian Stauffer

In old Japan there was a Buddhist concept that addressed “the hollow center,” a way of accommodating differing values within oneself while staying true to one’s self. The idea is that in one’s hollow center reside several spheres, each containing a truth-system that may be in conflict with those in the other spheres; but as long as each sphere adheres to its own laws, one carries within an agreement to disagree. Thus one concedes the open and contradictory nature of the human being, and finds peace of mind.

Better Living Through Circuitry, Jon Reiss’ new documentary about the electronic-dance subculture, succeeds in articulating the fluid values and constituent parts of the “culture” even as that culture’s subjects are at best mildly articulate, and often seem to be perceiving entirely different worlds. The effect on the viewer is a cumulative understanding of the rave phenomenon and the intricacies of its music, a seemingly intentional cinematic device in tune with the way the trance-inducing music makes itself understood. It has some good beats, in other words.

If you dig a bit under the basically slamming soundtrack and pleasant talking heads, you’re presented with one of the movement’s more interesting contradictions: The electronic subculture espouses true egalitarianism in a separatist world of its own design. This world could be seen as espousing mere youth-culture rebellion, by definition a members-only experience. Yet “It’s not about rock & roll,” DJ Jason Bentley asserts in one of the many billboard-ready slogans (“Be nice. Play fair.” “Use your imagination.”) that litter the film. Though one can sympathize with his wish to erect a barrier between this potentially elevating experience and the creaky old leather jackets of rock, the similarities between this “one-night oblivion,” as a veteran raver calls it, and other youth-culture phenomena are plain as day. If the electronic-dance movement isn’t about the rock & roll of beer/pot/sleazy sex (in Germany, at least, raves are largely about drinking beer and getting laid), then for its creators it’s very much punk rock; like Frankie Bones says, being a DJ means having the chance to make a sound even if you can’t play an instrument, being able to press up a few copies and distribute and promote them yourself — these are your core DIY ideals.

Circuitry presents the rave experience on several levels, from good way to debauch (nicely) on drugs in the desert to utterly perception-altering way of life, a difference of vantage point that introduces a smallish creative tension to the film’s otherwise cheerleaderish approach. It’s a largely uncritical view, with brief advisories about the dangers of mixing drugs, and one funny punk dissenter: “I tried all the peace and love . . . you can’t love everybody.” Circuitry plays as both an impassioned defense of an embattled lifestyle and a joyous yawn at rockists or nondancers or whomever, and it’s a good practical guide for those considering taking the techno-plunge (for those treks into the wilderness, bring water, a Swiss Army knife and a shovel).

It’s also like a handbook for parents who wish to understand what all the fuss is about, which is a curious stance, since there just ain’t much fuss anymore. Indeed, what feels peculiar about Circuitry is its token acknowledgment of the ubiquity of the electronic “subculture” in contemporary life (and its high profitability — this is one very long commercial for the Moonshine and Cleopatra labels, whose artists dominate the soundtrack). In one of a handful of skeptical notes, Darling Nikki of Lords of Acid points out that an electronic-music event that can draw anywhere from 20,000 (typical for European festivals) to 1.5 million people (as has the annual Love Parade in Berlin) can’t very well refer to itself as “underground” anymore. So the film often feels strangely nostalgic (it should’ve come out five years ago); shots of little blond girls in Dr. Seuss hats, waving glo-sticks, abound — archival material? It’s hard to tell.

Circuitry hums along quickly, nice jump cuts, video psychedelics, thumping beats. It feels tight, so the often redundant observations of its talking heads aren’t irritating, and in fact the cast of characters is very likable; especially endearing are the streetwise Brooklyn kids/DJs Frankie Bones and Heather Heart. The intermittent flashes of sociopolitical and/or musical insight come mainly from the electronic scene’s most notorious flies in the ointment (and, not coincidentally, those who’re most radically messing with the music’s form and content), including the language-obsessed DJ Spooky (“My music is about ideas”), sometimes-pop-rockist Moby, electronic eavesdropper Scanner, and the highly quotable and very pro-drug eccentric Genesis P-Orridge, who acts as the film’s darkest Aldous Huxley with his comments about electronic culture’s potential for changing the way we think about what we see and hear and consume: “Cutting something up, you’re emasculating its power over you.” The drum ’n’ bass thinker BT discusses his explorations into the body’s response to “photic” elements such as strobe lights and rhythmic audio frequencies; when synced with the movements of large groups of people, it influences the brain state, a practice, rooted in rituals of indigenous cultures, that electronically brings us back to what Moby refers to as “a naive celebration.”

Unlike Iara Lee’s 1998 electronic-subculture film Modulations, which traced the music’s lineage back to the pioneers of the 1920s–’60s, this one isn’t much for the history of the sound, though the droll former Kraftwerk member Wolfgang Flur has an amusing turn describing the evolution of the drum machine, illustrating how new musical forms are now following advances in technology. Drum ’n’ bass is an example: Since programmed instruments are capable of spitting out supercomplex rhythms that are humanly impossible to play, this has created a new, virtual music by virtue of its mastery only by machines — the musicality is up to the programmer. (The joke is, drum ’n’ bass is associated with dance music, yet as any DJ will confess if pushed, it’s the best possible way to empty a dance floor.)

So it’s the year 2000, and we’ve come too far to bother with whether any of this electronic noise is in fact music, and any fan of the scene will most likely gaze blankly into your face for suggesting such a thing. You have to be there — in a room with too many people, absorbing wave after wave of corpus-molding, BIG, BIG bass frequencies — in order to comprehend it, which is not so much snobbery as it is a fact of the music’s methodology. Because this is an art form that communicates primarily through the body, if you aren’t willing to use your body, you won’t distinguish much other than its surface repetition and generally simplistic melodic parts. Within the autonomous (and arguably utilitarian at best) world of electronic dance, the traditional high standards that figure into both “serious” and pop music simply don’t apply.

The film’s mantra is that its subjects’ autonomy “scares” outsiders, which is a wishful brag; yet their world resides in an extremely vital hollow center where, since its denizens have made their own rules, including musical, all that’s required for their rules to have legitimate worth is that they remain true to this game of their own devising. And that is very effective in answer to outsiders’ sneers about how silly young people look doing goofy dances, or angry rock critics’ nagging on the “mindless” simplicity of the music.

Old Genesis P-Orridge intones that the establishment cringes before an electronic generation that, with its perhaps superior understanding of the malleability of reality, “could laugh them out of existence.” While the ravers’ alternative world, much like the straight life, is loaded with perceptual clash and blatantly exclusionary attitudes — a useful-not-useful dichotomizing of musical genres/lifestyles such as rock and metal is prevalent, and there’s a lot of harping about how uncool ignoramuses spoil “our parties” — the fact is that there is an amazingly cooperative spirit at most electronic-dance events, and anyone, even the worst nondancing rock moron, is likely to be welcomed at a rave if he adheres to the rules.

And that is, in itself, rather new and decidedly non–rock & roll: not just rebelling or asserting the ego, rather a way of syncing up and connecting with other people, and transcending to a higher place together. This way of expressing the self — through the body — is a means, says P-Orridge, “to forever changing your self.”

BETTER LIVING THROUGH CIRCUITRY | Directed by JON REISS | Seventh Art Releasing | At the Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. | Friday, May 26, through Thursday, June 1


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