techno documentaries @ tampere short film festival, march 1997 & 1998
Tampere International Short Film Festival held during this week had in its schedule two documentaries on techno music, Rave New World (UK, 1994) and Universal Techno (France, 1996). The former, discussed on techno mailing lists before, had lots of stuff on raves, interviews with Orbital, the "stepfather of MDMA" Alexander Shulgin (with some classic Absent-Minded Professor mannerisms which put a large smile on my face), some wacky Arizona techno hippies and Gary Cobain of FSOL babbling on the future of interactive media and blah blah (their video clips were nice, though, but that must be old hat by now). All this very interesting, but hardly anything your average raver/techno trainspotter wouldn't know by now, and this culture also moves on so fast that "Rave New World" feels dated already, only three years after its making. The visuals on some large international raves were nice anyway, especially to the one gotten used to the minuscule local events... [See an edited transcript here.]
The best of two documentaries shown, though, was Universal Techno, directed by Dominique Deluze last year, covering the scenes in Europe, USA and Japan. The film started with Richard D James wandering in some eerie catacombs, explaining how it feels like home, and eventually almost looked like "Who's Who in Techno", featuring Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins, Kenny Larkin, Jeff Mills, even Mike Banks (who only agreed to be interviewed with his face covered); from Europe (vastly overrated but for this feature essential, I guess) Sven Väth, Autechre (touring in Barcelona), Mark Bell of (and these days also all of) LFO, Steve Beckett of Warp Records; and from Japan, Ken Ishii.
All in all, and what usually troubles all features of this kind, the documentary felt at times too patchy, giving artists only a chance to provide some memorable soundbites at their best (the scene with Derrick May and his visual designer giving a weird rap on the tenth planet of solar system was great!); with some interesting glimpes to the streets of Detroit (which looked at times like some post-apocalyptic war zone, really), Sheffield and Tokyo, and of course to some sublime-looking raves, parties (Jeff Mills in all-DJ action, mmm...), gigs and videos (Ken Ishii's 'Extra', LFO's 'Tied Up' and Autechre's 'Second Bad Vilbel').
And as usually, the omissions were almost as remarkable as what was featured there: where were for example Robert Hood, Carl Craig or Richie Hawtin; all jungle and trip hop (or hardcore) artists; or minimalists like Maurizio and Sähkö/Pan sonic posse (I must be biased here...) -- but obviously it's totally impossible to cover all scene in merely an hour.
The people, places and sounds (like our record collections condensed to one hour) presented were wonderful, of course, and it felt great finally to be like face to face with all your heroes you've been worshipping for years, so one couldn't just be too harsh towards the lack of any deeper critical insight or pondering of what it all means. So, I hope you'll get a chance to see this documentary yourself, but let's also hope some innovative film-maker will cover some day those areas that were missing in this one.
This year they screened Modulations by Iara Lee, known for her "electronic road movie", Synthetic Pleasures, which was also shown in Tampere 1997. I must say -- after my child-like enthusiasm of last year -- my own feelings towards Modulations were a bit ambiguous. Sure, it was really great to see all the big names from Pierre Henry to Invisbl Scratch Piklz featured there and admire the impressive amount of work Iara Lee and her crew had done all around the world, but on the other hand, I got the feeling that the fragmentary narrative and fast soundbites from artists just left the viewer a bit confused in the end; to ponder what was it all about, after all.
Maybe personally I would have preferred even more analytical approach towards the history of electronic music and all its subgenres, which would have shed also more light for someone who was totally unaware of this scene and its developments, i.e. the film probably opened the best to someone actively following the scene, I don't know about the rest of them. I also think some kind of commentating narrator would have been great (just call me old-fashioned), to tie all the themes together some way and make it a bit more cohesive (a hard task, I admit, because of all the myriad different directions this music is sprouting to).
Some additional criticism on the film and its depiction of electronic dance music was had on the IDM mailing list, September 1998, as, it was said, you can find from the film, among all, the following facts:
1 - e-musicians are ugly
2 - e-music is really boring live
3 - e-music is made on turntables
4 - e-musicians all believe they are revolutionary
5 - revolutionary music all sounds the same (boom boom)
6 - Bob Moog invented the synthesizer
7 - e-music jumped from crusty academics to hipster DJs with no intermediate steps
8 - drum'n'bass began with techstep - no ragga, no dub, no breaks, no jazz
9 - ambient music is an outgrowth of techno
10 - Panacea - goto #1
It's easy to see the problems that arise from this approach. But on a personal note, all the documentaries on techno I've seen have followed the same lines, anyway: interviews cut rapidly together with samples of music, computer graphics, footage of parties, raves and some "weird" party people; maybe a brief comment from some "expert", like a doctor in his white jacket telling about the effects of MDMA, to give it a bit more pseudo-scientific credibility -- and that obligatory Kraftwerk clip to take care about the history section -- but in the end you just easily wonder what the fuss was all about. Perhaps we should already talk about the "techno documentary" subgenre of its own, following its typical conventions and mannerisms. I want to emphasize, though, that this criticism is not directed especially towards Modulations, but that I watch it here against the background off all the other documentaries on techno and rave culture I've seen (Rave New World, Universal Techno, Bring The Beat Back by a Finn, Hannu Puttonen, made already as early as '92; and also a Danish film I saw last year, which name I can't unfortunately remember now), and can't help but to make some comparisons. Maybe that's what you get when you try too hard to be "hip".
I suggested to the producer of Modulations, George Cund, who was present there at the screening, that perhaps they ought to cut also a longer version (maybe even a TV series) from the same material, since I know loads of it was cut out from the final version (among all, the material they had filmed here in Finland that I was eagerly anticipating for). But by all means, go see the film if you can and form your own opinion; maybe I'm just too critical for my own good.
This year the Tampere International Short Film Festival had a documentary called Hang The DJ, but I couldn't be bothered about seeing it. Enough is enough.
More info on 'Universal Techno' (in French/German).
Modulations Web Page
Modulations @ Wired
Modulations @ Motion