By Robert Ham - Movie - Decoder (Muscha, 1984)
To understand the power that a film like Decoder can wield over the people watching it, try this experiment: turn down the brightness on your computer screen until it is completely blank (or for the low-tech version, just shut your eyes while the video plays). Even if you don't have a working knowledge of the German language, the Foley effects, atmospheric sound, and background/foreground music meshed with the tone of the dialogue should orient you to the action happening on the other side of your eyelids and disorient you in equal measure. The disgusting squish of the bottle of condiments, the sexy throb of Soft Cell's "Seedy Films," the chirpy swing of the Muzak played in the fast food restaurant, and the squelching fritz of the lead character's sonic experiments will combine to leave you feeling jelly-limbed and slightly nauseous.
Of course, if you know the outline of the film's plot, you likely should have expected something like this. After all, it's a film about a young German fighting the dulling effects of Muzak and trying to inspire a revolution of the senses. Director Klaus Maeck knows the effect that sound can have on a person and wanted to use this film to unpack that notion. As he told writer Jack Sargeant in an 1997 interview[i]:
Being in the music business and participating in the punk and new wave explosion I became more interested in music. Muzak was one thing I found. Subliminal music to influence people's moods, to make them function better, or buy more. So my conclusion was similar to that of "bands" like Throbbing Gristle; by turning around the motivation, by cutting up the sounds, by distorting them etc., one should be able to provoke different reactions. Make people puke instead of feeling well, make people disobey instead of following, provoke riots.
As he said, Throbbing Gristle had already played this out in their own experiments, particularly when the group was living in a shared home in London. Says Simon Reynolds in his peerless history of post-punk music Rip It Up And Start Again: "Around this time, TG embarked upon an experiment in totalitarian psychology that got a little out of hand. A ragged tribe of itinerants had set up camp in the wasteland behind their Beck Road home and a neighborhood crime wave appeared to coincide with their arrival. Recoiling from the squalid lifestyle of the itinerants, TG nicknamed them 'subhumans.'" TG started blasting the squatters with sound waves meant to make a person feel nauseous. A few days later, the itinerants moved on to a more hospitable part of London.
Maeck also points to the work of William S. Burroughs as influencing the kernel of an idea that would become Decoder, particularly the ideas played out in the writer's essay collection The Electronic Revolution: "Playing back recordings of an accident can produce another accident. Riot sounds can produce an actual riot in a riot situation...cut/ups on the tape recorder can be used as a weapon."
So, maybe Maeck plays his hand a little too strongly by casting Burroughs and TG founder Genesis P-Orridge for small roles in his film, not to mention making F.M. Einheit, member of the terrifyingly brilliant Industrial music pioneers Einsturzende Neubauten, the lead character. They are fine signifiers to cement the ideas that Maeck is trying to express with this film, but it could have been just as strong without these familiar faces (familiar, at least, to early '80s intellectuals and underground music enthusiasts).
In fact, the strongest statement that film makes might be completely unknown to anyone unfamiliar with the history of the production. Towards the end of the story, Einheit's character uses his tape experiments to help foment a riot. Rather than act one out, the director took to the streets of Berlin to capture a demonstration taking place during a visit from then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan. As Maeck told Sargeant:
When we came to Berlin we realized that there were actually tapes spread around, distributed around the political circles, with the instruction to make further copies and then play them all at the same time, from Walkmans, from personal equipment in the homes through open windows etc. - and it worked!! At 11.00am you heard helicopters and shooting, although there were none. You heard Jimi Hendrix, and some German political band. The police had heard of this action and confiscated a lot of tape recorders the night before - as weapons! Too bad I never heard of such an action again, although I am sure that so many exciting incidents could be provoked by that. Today the technology is so much better and smaller you could do even better!
I read that and couldn't help but wonder what The Flaming Lips knew of stories like that when concocting their Boombox Experiments[ii]. Were they trying to push the same envelope and incite some kind of action in the folks who came out to participate and listen in on these post-modern pseudo-orchestral experiments? Perhaps that went down unbeknownst to Wayne Coyne and his merry musical pranksters. If not stirring up riots in the street, maybe they at the very least left their fans leaving wobblier in mind and spirit than when they arrived.
At least, that's what happened to me when I walked away from my laptop after watching Decoder. The combined power of the images and unrelenting pieces of sound collage, music, and effects left me knock-kneed for a few minutes afterward. The film doesn't come with a warning label, but perhaps it should.