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Raving on the silver screen

Better Living Through Circuitry: It's not about rock and roll.
  • Better Living Through Circuitry: It's not about rock and roll.
Legal or not, raves have been going on for over a decade, but Hollywood has only recently started to pay attention. In addition to Groove, a film about the dance scene in San Francisco that's making its way to theaters across the country (but doesn't have a Cleveland screening as of yet), there's Better Living Through Circuitry, a movie about the rave scene in the States that includes interviews with both ravers and DJs. Directed by John Reiss, Better Living, which shows on July 7, 8, and 9 at the Cleveland Cinematheque (see review in Film), differs from Groove in that it's about rave culture as a whole, rather than about what happens at a party one night.

"It always takes films a long time to get made," says Reiss via phone from his home in Los Angeles, explaining why rave culture has been so slow to make its way to the silver screen. "Hopefully, there's something going on in the zeitgeist. I like to think that it's more than just a couple of asteroid or dinosaur movies coming out at the same time."

The film's producers actually had to talk Reiss into making the film. Three years ago, Reiss had expressed an interest in making a documentary, but didn't know what subject matter to pursue. In his previous films, he had explored issues of what he calls "technology and transformation." In the '80s, he directed four documentaries about San Francisco's Survival Research Laboratories and then went on to direct music videos by acts such as the Black Crowes, the Kottonmouth Kings, and Diamanda Galas. Happiness Is Slavery, a controversial video he directed for Nine Inch Nails, never aired on MTV, because scenes with sadomasochist performance artist Bob Flanagan were too sexually explicit.

Despite Reiss's interest in making music videos, he knew little about contemporary electronic music. While he says he was familiar with older electronic acts such as Kraftwerk and Einstürzende Neubauten, it wasn't until he went to the 1997 Winter Music Festival in Miami, Florida, that he embraced rave culture.

"Even though I was such a newbie, what was funny was that a lot of the kids I ended up filming had gotten into the music after me," he says. "I was filming as I was learning about it. I did that all the way through the production. I still say I'm learning about the music, but I think I have a good understanding of the culture."

Reiss says he fell in love with the culture and made the film as an attempt to find out why he liked it so much. Given the way it was a work in progress since the early stages, the film appears rather disjunctive. Interviews with ravers and DJs are interspersed with trippy computer graphics and footage from live performances. Some of the people interviewed, such as DJ Keoki and Electric Skychurch, don't make good spokespeople for the rave scene either, since their work isn't cutting-edge or even characteristic of the scene. Others, such as DJ Spooky, are too intellectual in their interviews, citing literary jargon to describe DJ culture. But the interview with Scanner, a U.K. DJ who uses a police scanner to pick up phone conversations and then creates music to fit the conversations, fares better as he speaks articulately about his art without sounding pretentious.

"We intended to structure it like The Decline of Western Civilization, which is about different personalities," explains Reiss, referring to the Penelope Spheeris documentaries about rock music. "But the topics became so strong, we had to accommodate those within the structure of the piece. I like to think that we take people on a journey, and people have expressed that that is what happens."

One of the topics that inevitably arises is the use of drugs and police interference. British DJ Carl Cox, who says his house was raided on several occasions, even admits that he wasn't allowed to perform in certain parts of London for fear of the type of crowd he would draw. But as Reiss explains, the drug use at the events is often exaggerated and merely an excuse for authorities to harass young people out to not only have a good time, but also build relationships.

"It's typical and unfortunate and somewhat depressing," Reiss says of the crackdown on raves. "It became hard to shoot a lot of events, because they were getting shut down right and left. If people really knew what was going on at these events, they'd be a lot more open about them, and you'd have fewer tragedies.

"[Raves] are about creating community, and that's helpful for kids where there's not a lot of community," continues Reiss, whose latest film, Cleopatra's Second Husband, a feature that he describes as "a study of passive aggression," will be released nationally in September. "To be shutting that down is sad. I found a surprising number of people not on drugs. There were some people on drugs, but hey, if you go to a musical event, that's the case. How many people at the opera are on Prozac? I wouldn't say I'm an ecstasy advocate at all, but I think it's hypocritical for a society that relies so much on Prozac to be pointing its finger at ecstasy."

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