For more than a year, the folks who run the website “Everything Is Terrible” have been posting moderately adulterated clips from infomercials, instructional videos, and the kind of forgotten straight-to-tape movies found in Blockbuster’s bargain bin. Everything Is Terrible! The Movie puts the clips to a higher purpose. Now drastically re-edited and spliced together, these leftovers from the VHS heyday tell one concise, hourlong story about an alien society preoccupied with sex, drugs, martial arts, spirituality, diet, and stranger-danger. Everything Is Terrible! The Movie extracts the essence of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when semi-celebrities would stare at people through their TV screens and offer direct instructions on how to lead a better life by following a few easy steps. Ultimately, those secrets were all the same: Viewers were encouraged to think of themselves as products, to be buffed-up and pitched to a world cleanly divided between the well-adjusted and the doped-up perverts.
Make no mistake: Everything Is Terrible! The Movie is largely an exercise in kitsch, designed to get viewers chuckling at the absurdity of a guy “using magic to fight drug abuse,” or another one wondering, “Why did I ever buy a workout tape by a comedian?” Yet it’s also a portal into a world halfway between showbiz and real life—a look at how the people who make entertainment for a living think the rest of us saps actually live. It’s simultaneously enlightening, hilarious, and deeply sad.
Does Everything Is Terrible!’s repurposing of old footage really qualify as art? For that matter, is it ethical? For answers to those questions, turn to Brett Gaylor’s documentary Rip! A Remix Manifesto, which deals with the history and future of appropriation in popular culture. Gaylor tethers his argument to the music of Gregg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk), whose songs cram together dozens of unlicensed samples into a frenzied, danceable sound-collage. Gaylor shows the effort and creativity that goes into a Girl Talk track, then asks whether Gillis should be punished for using existing sounds rather than recreating them with instruments. Then he points to examples of copyright-defiers who’ve been sued for borrowing from artists like The Rolling Stones and Walt Disney, who themselves appropriated wildly. Rip! explores some of the fascinating quirks and loopholes of copyright law and “fair use,” up to and including the question of how much Gaylor can show and play of other people’s “illegal” work in a documentary.
Though Rip! is undeniably provocative, it suffers some from the modern documentary curse: “first-person-itis.” Gaylor injects himself into the discussion too much, adopting such a glib tone when he talks about taking on “big media” that he sounds less like a reasonable person trying to make a point and more like a cocky activist trying to score points. Gaylor also loses the plot when he starts defending online piracy. There’s certainly a case to be made for the necessity of letting information (and entertainment) be free, and Gaylor does a decent job of making it, but using other people’s art as elements of a new creation is a wholly different endeavor from distributing other people’s art without their permission. Which isn’t remixing, it’s theft.
Still, both Everything Is Terrible! and Rip! have a lot to say in their separate ways about what kind of collage-art gets singled out and sued, and what kind doesn’t. Artists who use something popular, owned by a company with deep pockets, are likely to get in trouble, especially if the new work contains an element of sarcasm or critique. But if they stick with artifacts nobody cares about, like old “edutainment” programs, then they can fiddle away, largely undisturbed. Either way, the best way to avoid getting picked on is to keep a low profile. As fair-use advocate Lawrence Lessig explains to Gaylor, the unlicensed material in Rip! may be questionable enough that Gaylor risks losing his house, “But if you don’t have a house, then you’re okay.”
Key features: EIT! adds longer clips of the videos excerpted for the main program, while Rip! throws in a Lawrence Lessig lecture, bonus interviews, video of a performance by Girl Talk’s early band The Joysticks, and a collection of mash-up videos.