“We will try to talk about everything but the film,” French artist Loris Gréaud told me Monday afternoon, the day before his talk at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with Homer Flynn, who is officially the “spokesman” for the mysterious and anonymous collective The Residents. The talk couldn’t happen at LACMA’s large Bing Theater because, since Tuesday, the Bing has been screening Gréaud’s 45-minute film Sculpt. A number of the 600 seats have been removed to leave an isolated chair in the middle of the theater, and just one person at a time can watch Sculpt, a red-tinted exploration of ritual, self-obsession and legacy-building. This means four people can see it on weekdays, six on weekends. And Gréaud, who traffics in vagueness, has not set a specific end date for the project.
The Residents, who have toured as a rock band since the 1970s, always masked, scored the film, something the group agreed to do after arriving masked to Gréaud’s Paris studio and hearing him out as he laid out his vision. Flynn—who, despite co-founding The Residents’ management company, The Cryptic Corporation, has long denied being lead singer—traveled to L.A. for Tuesday night’s talk. Despite Gréaud’s previous plan to talk about everything but the film, that’s exactly what was discussed. He showed the audience an on-set video produced by Purple magazine, in which Willem Dafoe, the film’s star, says “Mobius Strip” again and again and we see, just briefly, the clown in the devil mask who will perform the Residents classic, “Rabbit Habit.”
“The Residents is a huge influence,” said Gréaud as their talk began.
Flynn had just seen Sculpt for the first time that afternoon and called it “quite lovely.” He added, “I couldn’t begin to tell you what it reveals or what it doesn’t reveal.”
Most people there had not yet seen the film, which officially opened at LACMA August 16. “Is it important to see the film?” Flynn asked. “Is it important to do anything other than breath or eat?” He concluded if people were interested, they should see it.
Ten minutes into the event, when Gréaud opened the floor to audience questions, a woman sitting near the front asked how many people would be able to see it.
Gréaud explained his ultimate distribution strategy: After Sculpt’s LACMA run, he would employ net pirates to release it on the Internet.
“Like on the Silk Road?” the woman asked, referring to the online black market known for selling illegal drugs. “So you can see the movie later on the Silk Road?”
Someone else wondered what informed Gréaud’s “intellectual and aesthetic” choices, as the film borrows heavily from pop culture, and bathes the references in a magically charged darkness and red hue. Such references are quite varied. Actress Charlotte Rampling, a friend of Gréaud’s, plays an existential version of Grumpy Bear from “Care Bears.” Voodoo Priestess Miriam Chamani, whom Gréaud spent a year convincing to participate, places ritual curses on rolls of film at her New Orleans home. Those rolls were later used to shoot subsequent footage; Gréaud explained this, the film’s literal self-involvement, before asking Flynn to chime in.
“Honestly,” said Flynn, “I have no idea what informed his decisions.”
What were The Residents working on? Gréaud wanted to know.
“Their new album is about train wrecks, both literal and metaphorical,” said Flynn, who always refers to The Residents as “they,” because he’s “not in The Residents.” The group had found a book of newspaper articles about train wrecks from the 1920s, which inspired the project. “They’re working in the studio as I speak,” Flynn added. “It will come out on Valentine’s Day.”
“Why are The Residents still hidden?” Gréaud asked.
The collective began making tapes in the late 1960s and released their first album, Meet the Residents, in 1974. Since then, they have released over 60 concept albums. In order to maintain their anonymity, they’ve memorably disguised themselves by wearing over their heads oversized eyeballs crowned with top hats.
“To be able to really kind of turn one’s back on celebrity, to turn one’s back on all of that, still works,” said Flynn. Later, he would mention the 2015 documentary about the group, Theory of Obscurity, named after the ideas of a Bavarian composer named N. Senada (whom The Residents may or may not have invented.) “Senada” argued an artist can only make genuine art when isolated from the expectations of society.
An audience member wondered about the idea of the hypersigil, a work of art with magical meaning and magical intentions. How did that play into the film?
“The character Brad, he’s trying to sell a moment,” Gréaud said, referring to the part when Brad, a tall white guy in a nightclub, tries to sell a shirtless, tough-looking Vietnamese man the description of something that has already happened: a moment in which a helicopter floats over the wilds of New Zealand (the same part of New Zealand that stood in for Mordor in those Lord of the Rings movies, incidentally) all while broadcasting the voice of William S. Burroughs. Brad describes all this, as if making a business proposition. Then the shirtless man, frustrated by the proposition, has his cronies eviscerate Brad, laying his guts out on the table.
“The ambition of my film is becoming a legend,” said Gréaud. Partly, that’s why he wanted to enlist The Residents; they’re icons. He tracked them down when they were performing in France a few years ago.
“I was with them when we had the chance to go to Loris’s studio and spend time and relax,” recalled Flynn.
“They’re really serious,” Gréaud said of The Residents.
“Even when they’re relaxed?” an audience member interjected.
“I guess they never relax,” said Gréaud.
“They’re pretty uptight,” agreed Flynn, right before Gréaud skirted a question about the film’s budget. There were numbers online, he said, but none were correct. Clearly, the film, with its Hollywood-level production value and army of staffers on set, had a steep cost. A “losing machine,” Gréaud called it, because it won’t make money. He wanted it to be an object that you “cannot define and cannot name.”
“Once it actually has a name out in the culture it kind of loses its power,” mused Flynn. “[T]his is the space between fantasy and reality that is just endlessly fascinating to me.” He told a story about going to a carnival as a child to see Grace McDaniels, the “Mule Girl,” born with a facial deformity that made her look like a mule. The hype had excited him, but his fantasy immediately fell apart. “I go in, and there’s this pathetic woman standing there with folds of skin, her face blotchy and discolored. I felt like I was part of the process by which this woman’s disfiguration is being exploited. It’s something that has stayed with me in a very strong way.”
Two years ago, Gréaud recalled, he had sent The Residents a sample of music he wanted to use in the film, a track from the acclaimed 1979 album Eskimo. “I don’t know what their first reaction was,” he said. “They were not super happy, but at the same time they were okay. Do you remember this scene?”
“No, honestly I don’t,” Flynn responded. “Eskimo, it’s a pseudo-anthropological study of the polar Inuit people […]. And to pull it out of context…” Flynn let that sentence fade. “I thought it worked nicely. There’s always naysayers in every situation, and some of The Residents have made their careers out of being contrarians.”