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RiP: A Remix Manifesto
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by Jay Seaver

"Having a good point isn't enough to win a debate."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: I take no joy in disliking "RiP: A Remix Manifesto". I agree with many of its principles; I've done plenty of highly-derivative works for fun in my time and think U.S. copyright law is out of control. But, wow, does it ever find the most obnoxious and borderline-dishonest ways of articulating those views. It's so bad in that regard that I could almost feel my mind changing as the film went on just so that I wouldn't be stuck agreeing with the filmmakers.

There's a good chance that how an audience member will feel about the movie will be determined in the opening minutes, when director Brett Gaylor's narration over a Gregg Gillis (aka "Girl Talk") appearance asks us who the author of a song is, quickly followed up by "if you said the Jackson 5, you're wrong". If you're already on the same page, it's a relatively uncontroversial statement that establishes the filmmaker's perspective. If you're not, then this is something Gaylor needs to establish, and though he'll make an argument later on, I was not wholly convinced: That opening segment shows Gillis using a large, recognizable portion of a song, while the later demonstration involves copying a single note. The principle may be the same, but believing that everyone watching the movie will find the two activities equivalent is making certain potentially unwarranted assumptions about the audience.

It goes on from there. Toward the beginning of the movie, Gaylor describes how giving a Girl Talk album a legitimate release would be impossible by throwing some simple math at the audience: x tracks multiplied by y samples per track multiplied by z companies per sample = xyz companies with their hands out. Later on, when railing about how consolidation of the entertainment industry has led to the perversion of copyright law, there's only four companies. There is truth to both arguments, but this is not a movie willing to explore subtleties, thus leaving it looking like Gaylor is talking out both sides of his mouth.

There's whiffs of fanboyishness, too, introducing Girl Talk as his favorite musician and describing Lawrence Lessig as "the coolest lawyer in the world". And smugness; the movie occasionally seems too certain it's in the right to make an argument rather than mock those that disagree. Gaylor will also do ham-handed things like cutting to someone nodding when an interview subject makes a point he likes, making sure the viewer knows what the right opinion is. These sort of things are in large part audience-generated - once the movie rubs a person the right or wrong way, he or she will pick out things that support his opinion - but RiP seems more susceptible to it than most documentaries.

There are good points made in the movie: The line drawn between the original copyright laws created in response to the printing press (which offered 14 years of protection) to what lobbying associations have managed to get passed in the U.S. (the life of the author plus 70 years, or 95 years for corporate creations) is depicted in clear fashion, as is the way similar patent laws are threatening to severely retard scientific research. Lessig and writer Cory Doctrow make the expected appearances to argue the pragmatic side of the situation, and Dan O'Neill of the Air Pirates/Mouse Liberation Front makes an argument for copyright law strangling satire.

Without being backed into a corner, I'll readily admit that some part of my dislike of this movie comes from a philosophical disagreement; I'm not comfortable with remix artists like Girl Talk being treated as equivalent to the artists they sample from. Mashing up is fun and exercises certain creative muscles well, but as much as one of the stated tenets of the movie is that new art draws on the past, there's a difference between inspiration and cutting and pasting. That doesn't mean this movie had no chance with me; I've been convinced by good arguments well-made before. This movie is just preaching to the choir, and that helps nobody.

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originally posted: 03/26/09 10:33:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 SILVERDOCS Documentary Festival For more in the 2009 SILVERDOCS Documentary Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 30-Jun-2009



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