D V D    R E V I E W    B Y    J O E    P E T T I T    J R .

 

"For they (the overseers of the city) must beware of change to a strange form of music, taking it to be a danger to the whole. For never are the ways of music moved without the greatest political laws being movedÖ"

-- Plato, The Republic

Itís rare when a subculture as controversial as the rave underground gets a sympathetic, much less fair, hearing in the mainstream media. Hysterical news outlets all over the country cry out in indignation over the latest drug-and-sound fueled invasions of local warehouses, using the flippant caricature of "dance-aholic Ecstasy abusers" to describe its participants. Figures are cited, claiming an epidemic of E overdoses on the dance floor. Reports by law enforcement officials describing raids on the parties lend an official air to the news stories. In all probability, most of these reporters have never spent much time beyond the front door of the raves, relying on brief observations and hearsay from marginal participants to conjure up fantasies of the most illicit of gatherings. Itís an approach that has been used for years: discount a "dangerous" musical form by dwelling on its most sensational aspects without making the attempt to understand why the lives of thousands of people -- in this case musicians, DJs, artists and dancers -- revolve around a particular subculture. Thatís why Better Living Through Circuitry is so refreshing. It provides an almost reverent introduction to the electronic dance underground while revealing that thereís more to it than drugs and dancing. Evocative and provocative, the documentary takes us on a euphoric journey through the pulse pounding, dayglo nightworld of the raver, while also delving into the nuts and bolts of the creative and technical angles and the underlying philosophies behind the culture.

Director Jon Reiss began the project as a true outsider. Asked to direct the film based on the strength of his music video background, Reiss checked out a few raves in Miami at the invitation of his producers Brian McNelis and Stuart Swezey. The first rave he attended was a bust -- a DJ night in Miami. He was astonished that the producers had flown him thousands of miles to film a lame gathering of listless dancers barely moving to music he didnít like. Unperturbed, McNelis and Swezey encouraged him to check out another rave the next night. That experience was completely different. Reiss witnessed a genuine communion between the audience and the performers (Rabbit in the Moon) that reminded him of the early days of the punk rock scene. In addition, he noticed a spiritual side to the gatherings. He left the rave feeling an energy that he usually only experienced after meditating. After that, Reiss felt compelled to explore the culture to find out how it operated and to see if his intuitions about the spiritual nature of the music were correct.

From the opening title credits by Carsten Becker to the creative use of digital effects and editing to simulate the energy of a rave, itís apparent that the filmmakers successfully captured and embraced the creative spirit behind the electronic dance movement. Better Living Through Circuitry illustrates through film footage and insightful interviews with those behind the scenes and on the dance floor that one of the major distinguishing elements of the culture is its collaborative nature. The focus is on the event rather than performers. What defines a successful rave is not only how well the band plays or how proficient the DJ is on the turntable but also how the use of lights and computer graphics comes together. More importantly, a rave succeeds when the energy circulates between dancers, performers, and technicians to create a synergetic ambiance of positive flow, an element that several observers in the film claim is missing from the rock 'n' roll realm. From the secret location of the event to the choice of music and graphics, raves never play out the same way twice, relying on the creativity of the participants to establish a unique interactive experience.

The making of Better Living Through Circuitry reflected the process of creating a rave by evolving into a truly collaborative effort. During the audio commentary on Music Video Distributors recent DVD release of Better Living Through Circuitry, director Reiss freely acknowledges that he did not go it alone. The projectís success was due to the creative expression and suggestions of those directly involved in the making of the film and in the rave community. At the prompting of his producers, Reiss tried out the Sony VX 1000 digital camera and eventually dropped the idea of using traditional 16mm film altogether. The filmmakers attribute the intimacy of the footage to the fact that the VX 1000 was so unobtrusive, being smaller than a camcorder. The camera proved to be so convenient that the director, the producers, and the editor completed the filming with no additional cameramen involved. Eric Zimmerman, the filmís editor, simulated the excitement of a rave through his masterful editing of the digital footage. In addition, several computer graphics companies who provide video stimulation at raves graciously added their work. All of their contributions meld together to produce the fluid and exciting ambiance of a real rave. Even someone unfamiliar with the scene can experience what the film suggests is so exciting and compelling about the rave culture.

Despite the supposed diminishment of the importance of individual accomplishment, many intelligent, articulate, and curious performers are drawn to the genre. Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland, members of the Crystal Method, recount how the building of their studio and their music were fueled by positive experiences they had at the parties they attended. Opening up their home studio to the filmmakers, they lovingly explain how the Jupiter 6 synthesizer and the Wollensak, an unusual effects box that is both digital and analog, work within the context of their music. An openly psychedelic and pro-acid interviewee, Genesis P. Orridge (founder of the legendary industrial band Psychic TV), tells how his quest to create a shamanic, trance-inducing music led to his discovery and embracing of acid house music. He unabashedly proclaims that he means the term "acid" in its pharmacological sense, providing a rare moment of candor regarding the drug issue. BT, currently one of the most in-demand composers and producers of electronic music, describes a machine heís developed that reads his brain waves and translates the information into musical sounds. Another fascinating practitioner of the form, DJ Spooky, combines his philosophy major with his approach to music. For him, life is a process of continued sampling, re-writing as you go. Everything is a mix. Every DJ is a writer. The urban landscape is the text, or novel, of the DJ. He also sees sampling as a form of ancestor worship, taking the thoughts and creations of our tribal elders and combining them in fresh and unusual ways to create a new work that speaks to the bodies and minds of the contemporary community. All of their views are insightful and thoughtful, illustrating clearly how practitioners of electronic music strive to live a life combining the use of technology with oneís intellect and body, through oneís philosophical or spiritual paradigm.

Several cultural observers throughout the film contend that there is an implicit politics to the scene -- an underlying commitment to the transformation of consciousness. The majority of people are dissatisfied, living disconnected lives. When they come to the raves, they find whatís missing in their everyday lives: a sense of community. While at a rave, they can make a happy connection with their neighbor and engage in creative participation with their surroundings. Raves act as euphoric catalysts of commitment to forever change their lives. It is a call to live oneís own life creatively and also to help others do the same. According to the majority of those interviewed for the film, the transformative aspect exists at the very root of the culture. Borrowing elements from shamanic rituals, there is a conscious intent in the methods used in raves to affect a revolutionary change in consciousness. The choice of rhythms, the beats per minute of the music, the use of lights, and the ancient art of dance are all elements that are used to achieve this transformation. Drugs are often used, but not necessary as several interviewees in the film attest.

The use of pharmacological substances by rave attendees is, without a doubt, the most controversial aspect of the subculture. However, the film gingerly approaches the subject, downplaying its significance within the community. While itís refreshing to see the electronic dance movement portrayed as consisting of more than just dancing and drugs, the film loses a big opportunity to open up a discussion on some larger issues by quickly glossing over the facts. The filmmakers do include an interview with a Laguna Beach police officer discussing the fad of combining ketamine with Ecstasy, and the lethality of that particular combination. In addition, we hear a brief quote from a rave attendee who watched a dancer die in front of him, and thereís also a short discussion of the shamanic practice of combining psychedelics with ritual and dance; however, the documentaryís depiction of drug use within the culture is mostly implied rather than explicitly stated. The uninitiated viewer is left wondering if there is any merit to the mediaís portrayal of the rave culture. Are drug-related deaths occurring at epidemic proportions? If not, why do the media, law enforcement agencies, and the FBI perpetually hound the community?

Perhaps it is the Dionysian elements combined with the "intentional transformation of consciousness" espoused by the ravers that terrify the "guardians of culture." When large groups of people pursue an alternative way of living, the natural reaction of modern Western society is to tone down the radical aspects of the culture and assimilate the marketable elements. Although the artwork and graphics, as well as some of the music associated with rave, have been assimilated to a degree in mass media, the events resist assimilation for a number of reasons. The filmmakersí stance on rave culture is that it encourages creative participation through active involvement, encourages intelligent consumption of products that provide a specific use for the raver, and elicits hope for a better and more meaningful life while demanding the recognition that you generate the magic in your own life. The search for a life of substance and inner reflection using shamanic ritual methods is at odds with the goals of contemporary Western society, which tends to view personal growth in terms of improved productivity and job performance. For example, how does a worker who has had a transcendental vision of the unity of all life the night before relate to disenchanted co-workers and his meaningless job the next morning? Because of the underlying fear that the traditional work ethic will diminish in importance after one has gone through a revolution in consciousness, the guardians of culture will not desist in shutting down raves and persecuting rave participants until the rave scene dwindles in importance and no longer poses a threat. Illegal drug use remains a convenient means of persecution, providing an easy target to discredit the movement. This will continue until the larger society goes through its own change of consciousness regarding its traditional values.

Music Video Distributors DVD presentation of Better Living Through Circuitry includes several special features that are worth noting. The filmmakersí commentary is one of the most insightful and revealing commentaries I have ever sat through. Director Reiss and producers McNelis and Swezey offer interesting stories about the making of the film. Giving a fascinating look into the technical aspects of the film (what equipment was used, how the lighting was done, details behind the shoots), their comments illustrate how this was "guerrilla filmmaking" at its finest. They also provide the only documentation of the instances of resistance from the community Ė in Asbury Park, New Jersey where they were harassed by rave goers who thought they were from Dateline NBC, and when Brittany Somerset, a influential and well-connected New York DJ whose initial reluctance to cooperate with the filmmakers culminated in her walking off her interview, almost ended the project before it could even begin. Also included are extended interviews with The Crystal Method, Wolfgang Flur (from Kraftwork), Roni Size, and Genesis P. Orridge. (I wish the interviews could have run longer, considering the amount of unused material the filmmakers had). Computer animation reels from Nighttribe and OVT display stunning examples of their respective animation styles. Rounding out the disc, a flyer gallery allows the viewer to further admire the innovative work of the graphic artists featured in the film.

Better Living Through Circuitry is a love song to a passionate and ultimately subversive community. Its greatest strength is that it successfully conveys the enthusiasm and infectious creativity of its most ardent supporters. Its greatest weaknesses are its wide-eyed examination of a community whose idealistic claims will leave some viewers skeptical, and its refusal to engage the concerns of detractors of the rave scene in a substantial way. That said it provides a wonderful insidersí glimpse into an often-maligned and misunderstood subculture.

 


Better Living Through Circuitry is now available on DVD from Music Video Distributors. Suggested retail price: $24.95 each. For more information, check out Music Video Distributors Web site.