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PRINT September 2004

film

Dig!

ART HISTORY HAS long maintained a church and state–style separation between naive, unsophisticated work by so-called outsider artists and work whose construction and style are unmistakably savvy and sociable. Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor who spent his downtime secretly making obsessive paintings, is a good example of the consequence of these distinctions, remaining an honored guest of the art world rather than a bona fide star.

In rock music, this prejudice is reversed: The outsider is the ultimate insider. Rock’s history has been one of constant reinvention by artists too crazy or ignorant to understand the rules, and its canon is top-heavy with the music of weirdos, drug addicts, and idiots savants. Young musicians who aren’t inherently out of their minds go to great lengths to cultivate Beverly Hillbilly–like personas and create the impression that their only influences are nonmusical—say, the rustling of trees or the yells of their alcoholic parents. Rock fans and critics are so attentive to signs of wildness that a musician need only share a foul mood or two to have their CDs scrutinized for evidence of genius.

DIG!, a documentary directed by Ondi Timoner that chronicles and compares the career trajectories of two West Coast bands, the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols, is steeped in the notion that, for a rock musician, psychological problems are solid proof of artistic significance. The tormented genius in question is Anton Newcombe, songwriter and leader of the primarily Los Angeles–based BJM who spends the film doing drugs, throwing tantrums, and obsessing about Courtney Taylor, his well-behaved and better-groomed counterpart in Portland, Oregon’s DW (Taylor is also the film’s narrator). Both bands practice a kind of edgy, left-of-mainstream pop rooted in late-’60s psychedelia and delivered in a ramshackle ’90s alternative-rock style. They begin the film on equal footing as buzzed-about underdog acts with requisite hard-core followings and obscure, critically acclaimed recordings. But where the nerdy, grizzled BJM grab hipsters’ attention with their riotous, self-destructive live performances, the cuter, more professional DW draw a slightly more middle-of-the-road college crowd who think they smell the next Matchbox Twenty.

Newcombe and Taylor are at first friendly and mutually supportive due to their shared influences and high self-regard, but they’re quickly revealed as very different kinds of artists. Newcombe takes an unassailably romantic, purist approach to his music and sees taxing his health and destroying his personal and professional relationships as heroic measures to ensure his work’s originality. By DIG!’s conclusion, he has lost a long-suffering girlfriend (“Heroin makes him evil”), BJM’s devoted manager of six years (“Anton is a great songwriter, . . . but he is so horrible in so many ways”), and most of his band, including key member Matt Hollywood (“I would rather think of [Anton] as dead and miss him”), not to mention innumerable brain cells and several golden opportunities. Taylor, by comparison, is more a Paul McCartney type who sees popularity as the ultimate determinant of what is and what isn’t great. While he shares Newcombe’s love of the retro and experimental, he’s essentially a clever guy with a knack for writing quality pop hooks. As the DW happily manicure their sound and image, sign with a major label, and earn a spot in MTV’s rotation and the BJM self-annihilate in the name of integrity, the bands’ comradeship devolves into an ugly, if entertaining, one-sided feud. Newcombe’s anti-Taylor antics escalate from the slightly embarrassing (when the DW have a minor hit with their song “Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth,” BJM record an obtuse response, “Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth,” and pass out copies at a high-profile DW gig) to the downright creepy (after a show in San Francisco, Newcombe gives DW a gift containing shotgun shells and other sinister, symbolic items). The bulk of DIG!, which will premiere on the Sundance Channel and arrive in theaters this fall, juxtaposes scenes in which Newcombe acts out his frustration at Taylor’s success with scenes illustrating Taylor’s alternately smug and guilt-stricken responses.

DIG! feels like what it is—a documentary initiated as a shapeless, home movie-like project only to stumble onto a theme rather late in the game. Its vibe of intimacy and casualness is absorbing, and its strengths lie in a wealth of lucky-break moments: a stoned, disheveled Newcombe trying to torture a Phil Spector–esque masterpiece from his cheap four-track recorder or brawling with his bandmates onstage; Taylor preening for the camera and racking his brain for reasons why he might deserve his ex-friend’s abuse. The film grows less interesting when it seeks to justify Newcombe’s erratic behavior and commercial failure as upshots of his genius and infers that Taylor’s success is a result of his relative inconsequence as an artist. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the snippets we’re given of the BJM’s music present nothing that sounds particularly remarkable. Its artsy, lo-fi tenor and traditional, stretched-out song structures are entirely familiar. There’s a frustrating disparity between the film’s idolization of Newcombe’s talent, driven home by a series of talking-head interviews with smitten peers and admirers, and its fixation on his extreme behavior. By comparison, the DW’s music sounds equally unamazing but no more or less successful in its attempt to infuse the once groovy with a contemporaneous coolness.

Perhaps inadvertently, DIG! suggests that Newcombe’s integrity may in fact be an illusion created by the medium in which he works. Take away the nobility of indie rock and Newcombe’s cult status in that genre and he starts to seem a lot more like a haywire underground celebrity—say, post-Hole Courtney Love sans the paparazzi—than 2004’s answer to tortured visionaries like Syd Barrett or Brian Wilson or Kurt Cobain. The same could be said of DIG! Notwithstanding its novel subject matter and muddy air of studiousness, the film is essentially reality TV on a subculture safari with rock stereotypes substituting for ideas and Newcombe and Taylor as its dueling Anna Nicole Smiths.

Dennis Cooper is a contributing editor of Artforum.