Rip!: A Remix Manifesto – Film Review
Until recently, I knew very little about Rip!: A Remix Manifesto, other than the fact that it was a new documentary on the topic of intellectual property law. Legal and ethical conundrums of this scale often deter my interest due to their volatility and insurmountability. But given that my recent self-reinvention as music blogger and DJ/mix-artist has begged of me many of the questions posed by this conundrum, my interest in the topic is to say… topical.
Rip! was written and directed over the course of six years by Canadian film-maker, Brett Gaylor. The artistically edited, meticulously organized 87-minute documentary carefully examines the myriad of personalities, questions and arguments surrounding its infinitely complex subject matter. Though the film’s perspective is broad and cultural, Gaylor’s narrative focal point zeroes on mashup prodigy and indie-music icon, Girl Talk.
Since the film is available for free*, I will spare you a long-winded play-by-play, though I would like to share a few of my impressions:
In spite of Rip!’s artistic focus on Girl Talk, its real intellectual steam is supplied by Stanford law professor, Lawrence Lessig and fellow Canadian culture critic, Cory Doctrow, both of whom forge convincing arguments and cast illuminating observations on big media’s role in public art and information sharing. Also worth mentioning is artist, Dan O’Neill who battled Walt Disney in a lawsuit over his 1971 comic strip parody of Mickey Mouse, Air Pirates. Disney VS. O’Neill stands as one of the most significant intellectual property rights cases of our time, along with Metallica VS. Napster, also covered in Rip!
Of Rip!’s most provocative and upsetting moments are several interviews with people who were sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for downloading copyrighted music and forced to pay thousands of dollars in settlements — One poor woman who refused to settle was successfully sued for $222,000!
“Without being found guilty of anything, [people who were sued by the RIAA] lost thousands of dollars, and not a penny went to the artists that were supposedly being defended.”
Brett Gaylor – Rip!: A Remix Manifesto
As Gaylor widens the scope of intellectual property law to an intercontinental breadth, we observe dance-parties and interviews from the Favelas of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Sample-heavy Baile funk** and activist musician Gilberto Gil are noted as pivotal components of the country’s copyright law structure, which differs conceptually and philosophically from that of the United States and (to a lesser extent) Canada. These conceptual and philosophical differences are reflected in Brazil’s intellectual property policies pertaining specifically to medical technology***. From here, Gaylor draws a flawless parallel to music copyright renegade, Girl Talk who worked by day in a medical research testing facility, handling patented medical secrets! It is with this sort of grid-like interconnectedness that Rip! steps out of the music documentary mold and takes its subject into a truly global context.
The film’s chronological perspective is another important point to touch on: Even in the scope of narrowly budgeted independent documentaries (often created by working people who do not have the luxury of a neatly packaged production schedule), a production time-line of six years is still quite protracted. But, in the case of Rip!, there is something important to be said for the fact that all of the footage (some of which alludes to taking place in the year 2007, or earlier) maintains its topical relevance; this illustrates, in a very real way, how difficult and time-consuming a solution to the stubborn intellectual property rights debate may be — I reckon we are a long way off yet.
Rip!: A Remix Manifesto is one of the most important and relevant pieces of cultural journalism of our decade. It possesses a kind of universal appeal on account of its clarity and organization of ideas, which favor the less musically-informed viewer (e.g explains the nuts and bolts of how a mashup is created) while still flexing enough sub-culture savvy for even the most elite among us — I would be just as comfortable going to see this movie with famed DJ-producer, Steve Aoki as I would with my own mother. I also appreciate how, at each chapter transition, Gaylor refers back to Lessig’s four-point manifesto:
- Culture always builds on the past.
- The past always tries to control the future.
- Our future is becoming less free.
- To build free societies, you must limit the control of the past.
This pragmatic arrangement creates an axis on which each of the film’s main ideas travel, offering the viewer a sense of continuity and logical flow. Rip! was produced to speak to people across the boundaries of culture and artistic persuasion.
In the opening scene, Gaylor invites the audience to “remix and remake” Rip!, citing OPENSOURCECINEMA.ORG as the place to take part in developing “evolving versions of the film”. Though my life of almost thirty years has infected me with knee-jerk skepticism, I was ecstatic to find a site sporting an embedded video editor which allows users to upload, edit and render video footage using only an internet connection! While I am not much of a video guy (yet), the premise of a web-based indie-video-remix scene sounds very, very interesting.
Though I do passionately agree with the underlying premise of Rip!, it does have its snags: Firstly, Gaylor draws a hard line between what he calls the copy right (corporations, media conglomerates, etc.) and the copy left (remix artists, file sharers and most of the general public). While I have no qualms about identifying myself as a member and a proponent of the copy left, the film’s one-sided perspective seems to border on propaganda, at times even playing the loathsome sad kid card with footage from a Florida daycare facility that was asked to remove its Disney decor. Secondly, Rip!’s version of the entertainment industry is only represented at its highest, most corporate level, making no mention of how media “piracy” might impact independent artists and labels, many of which are unable to break even because people won’t pay a dollar or two for an MP3.
I suppose that this might be where Gaylor’s remix vision comes into play: If I want a version of the film that examines a particular aspect of the subject matter, perhaps I should create it! My remix of Rip! would delve into the intricacies of file sharing and intellectual property rights at the most independent and grass-roots level — Electronic music, where labels are tiny and numerous, and almost all of the music is produced in home studios. I would dissect the delicate love-hate relationship between the MP3 bloggers and the artists that we simultaneously pirate and praise, piss-off and promote. In our digestive systems, there are millions of micro-organisms which play helpful and necessary roles in digestion, but an over-abundance of these organisms (or the wrong kind) can be harmful. (Yes, I just equated myself with a poopy little microbe.) Similarly, today’s underground beat-smiths and their information savvy counterparts must strike a balance between fairness and freedom in the mutual pursuit of benefit – music sales and blog traffic. I have a feeling that this is a perfect example of the kind of remix that Brett Gaylor is envisioning. ~
**For some local/regional perspective on baile funk, check out my recent interview with DJ Dan Demchuk, in Chicago. (This was my first interview and I don’t sound very professional, so cut me some slack.)
***Brazil’s controversial distribution of generic HIV/AIDS drugs in 2007 incensed Efavirenz patent holder, U.S.-based Merck & Co.
Revised and edited with the generous help of Jon J. Hardy, Kath Athanassiou, Heather Bashaw and Jenn Metzler. Thank you, friends!
- Evan Exempt