Director Brett Gaylor has a boy crush on Girl Talk, and that’s totally okay. He makes it clear early on in RiP! A Remix Manifesto that Girl Talk is his very favorite artist and that the things this biomedical engineer from Cleveland does with music and people’s perceptions of pop culture are so pioneering as to constitute a call to arms to anyone with god enough sense to fight the tyranny of the “evil record companies.” The director's super-fan relationship to his subject also lends itself perfectly to the points Gaylor makes in the film.
RiP! A Remix Manifesto is Gaylor's his directorial debut, and in it he does his best to accurately depict the struggle of global remix culture against the powers that be. He adds dimension to this story line through interviews ranging from anti-copyright guru and Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig to author Cory Doctorow, that dude who started the Mouse Liberation Front, and Mark Hosler from Negativland, among others. In the documentary, Gaylor arrives upon 4 major bullet points for his Manifesto on remix culture: 1. Culture always builds on the past. 2. The past always tries to control the future. 3. Our future is becoming less free. 4. To build free societies you must limit the control of the past. It sounds somewhat dramatic at first, but with these tenets in hand, Gaylor travels the world to illustrate the necessity of reforming copyright laws--and his logic is ironclad.
Of all the well-researched case studies in his bag of tricks, the filmmaker's treatment of Walt Disney is by far the most illuminating. Gaylor and his friends on what he calls the “Copyleft” insist that Walt Disney was one of the most efficient remixers to ever walk the planet, stealing material from folk tales the world over and updating them for his time and culture. Where Disney went wrong, they insist, lies in his fierce desire to control the material that he would openly admit was shamelessly lifted from the minds of his forebears. As Gaylor illustrates, it is impossible to create an entirely new culture with no roots in the culture that preceded it. He insists that culture will suffer terribly if we do not have access to the great ideas and cultural strides of those who’ve come before us--and if modern tweens are any indication, he just might be right.
RiP is a tricky animal to review, seeing as it’s a constantly “evolving” (and thus never truly completed) documentary. Gaylor’s genius is to make every chapter of his film available online, for anyone to remix if they feel like it. So far there have been dozens of chopped-up versions floating around on the net, and this leaves the director pleased as punch. He has even started a website, OpenSourceCinema to create a place where remixers can come together and re-imagine his work. You have to give the guy credit for practicing what he preaches — the film is also available as a pay-what-you-want download.
But there is an obvious counterpoint to Gaylor’s arguments, and it goes a little something like this: If you’re giving everything you make away for free and expect everyone else to do the same, then how do you afford to pay your bills? Gaylor doesn’t have to answer this question, because the Canadian Government heavily funded his paean to mash-ups and piracy through their National Film Board (a detail that makes this American very jealous). Laurence Miall’s review of the film is probably the most well-worded argument against the decriminalization of copyright infringement, questioning if art has much of a future if no one pays for it. This is the one area of Gaylor’s documentary that is sorely lacking representation. It’s all fine and good if you have a steady income source that allows you to spend your off hours rippin’ phat tapez. But it would have been nice to see the filmmaker consider the fate of the career artist, too.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Gaylor’s documentary, while tackling a pretty serious subject and making intellectually honest points, also manages to be wildly entertaining and at times hysterically funny. Perhaps the tone of his documentary does more to establish the validity of his arguments than the arguments themselves. The entire point of Girl Talk’s mischievous sampling and lampooning of pop music is to make people take themselves a little less seriously. In infusing his doc with an insouciant Dennis the Menace streak, Gaylor reinforces the joyful necessity of play in human culture, as well as the travesty of absurdly stringent intellectual property laws.