Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tall Dark Stranger from Tikisville---Welcome to Larry Wessel's ICONOCLAST!

In the world of art, archetypes are born, bred and manufactured. Sometimes by the fans, other times by assorted figures in the press and, more often than not, by the artists themselves. In the strata of fringe art, Boyd Rice is one of the most enigmatic, at times charismatic and perplexing figures. The man has been called a lot things over his 30 plus year career, with epithets ranging from genius to neo-Nazi to charlatan and innovator, Rice is unique in the way he has handled each and every one of them, embracing the dark and the light, both to art and his own persona.

  In fact, it is these light and dark aspects of Rice that are examined in Larry Wessel's 4 hour long opus, ICONOCLAST. While the running time alone will probably make a less curious and intrepid viewer run to the hills, the film actually has an incredibly smooth pace, to the extent that you never really feel the running time. I once had some drug addled academic type tell me that if a documentary was longer than an hour, then it would lose the audience. This theory is obviously swamped in bullshit for a multitude of reasons and ICONOCLAST is a great example why. (Plus, epic length never hurt Ken Burns, eh?) Wessel manages to give a comprehensive overview of Rice's childhood, groundbreaking work in experimental noise music, his relationship with Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, his move from San Francisco to Denver, etc etc. and yet leaves you asking for more. More information to be specific, which is both a testament to Wessel's skills as a filmmaker and the compellingness of Boyd Rice. In some facets of life, there are no villains or heroes, just artists. Welcome to ICONOCLAST.

The film is divvied up into three sections for each disc. Section one, Lemon Grove, goes into Boyd's childhood and Southern Gothic familial background, including his grandmother being born in a cemetery on Halloween night. His upbringing in Lemon Grove, California brought the epiphany of Rice not wanting to be like the status quo. Wonder white bread sandwiches and soul-killing 9 to 5pm jobs were a no go for he who was like no other. 

It was this impulse that planted the multiple seeds that would germinate into a long career as a musical concrete pioneer, professional prankster, fringe culture writer, tiki-revivalist and cultural agent provocateur. Boyd himself has stated that he has made a career out of doing a number of things that he is not qualified to do. This is only a half-truth. If he was plagued with mediocrity, then this article or documentary would not exist, especially in regards to his music. His first musical project, NON, still sounds as fresh and unique now as it did in the 70's. Disc One goes into excellent detail about this period of Rice's life and his captivating, surrealist yet pragmatic approach to sonic art. This in turn makes Section One the best out of all three. 

That said, the latter two are nothing to sneeze at. The second section, “San Francisco,” delves into Rice's writing, featuring his collaboration with writer extraordinaire Jim Morton for the groundbreaking cult film tome, Re/Search's Incredibly Strange Film book. (A work that I bought on my 16th birthday, changing my life and alerting me that my tribe was out there.) It's quite nice getting to see interviews with Morton, who undoubtedly warrants his own film or at least a juicy article on his notable work.

Oddly enough, the sweetest parts in the whole documentary are in this section, going into Rice's long term friendship with Church of Satan founder and carnival organist, Anton LaVey. The fondness and bond that these two controversial and fascinating figures had is readily apparent. Given all of the ridiculous hoopla, with media vermin being partially to blame, that has surrounded LaVey to this day, it is refreshing to see him painted as a man, complete with talent, flaws and a family. (Remember, kids, the only real bogeyman is your own human nature.)

The last section, “Denver,” covers Rice's transition from Tiki culture fan (starting from his early teens) to flat out scholar and his involvement with the sinisterly groovy Partridge Family Temple. There's also some keen footage from Rice and company's favorite hangout, the phantasmagorical Casa Bonita. (The now defunct Tulsa location was a mecca of my own childhood, with memories of the sopapillas and the robotic gypsy fortune teller in the game room entrance, still vivid.) All of this leads up to Rice's seemingly calm-after-the-storm life that he entertains today.

 The Casa Bonita in Denver, which is way fancier than the one in Tulsa. 

ICONOCLAST is solid proof of a my own personal theory that if you combine a captivating and layered subject matter with a talented crew, then it can be however long it needs to be. Otherwise you get the coitus interruptus effect that plagues many a documentary. Just when the going gets good, they pull back, leaving you almost irritated at the in-completion of it all. That is not a problem here. In fact, the only thing that could have been delved into a little more was Rice's musical partnership with Partridge Family Temple member, model and super go-go girl Giddle Partridge. We do at least get to hear two of their songs throughout, but no real commentary on it. Given that the the partnership has apparently come to an end already, there might be reasons for that. (There is at least some brief but cute interview footage with Giddle and lots of lovely promo photos of her and Boyd.)

The interesting thing about this film and Rice as a whole, is that even after four hours, one is not left feeling like they really know that much more about the artist as a man than they probably did going into it. You do get a more fleshed out picture of Boyd Rice the figure and artist, but the actual man? Not so much and in a way, that is totally okay. Honestly, it is sometimes better to not know so much personal information about your favorite artists. The Santa Claus is dead effect is a hazardous one, often blurring the ability for the viewer to separate the art from the artist. Roman Polanski is a predator, your favorite 30's era glamor gal was an escort and Pablo Picasso more than likely was an asshole. (No matter what the Modern Lovers tell you.) Wessel deserves multiple kudos for the stellar and creative work that he has done.

Overall, ICONCLAST is a fascinating, rhythmically paced documentary that is perfect for fans and philistines alike.


  1. Bravissimo!! This is a terrific review Heather!! Thank You!!


    Upcoming Screenings of ICONOCLAST:

    Anthology Film Archives, New York City, Saturday August 20, 2011:

    Anthology Film Archives, New York City, Sunday August 21, 2011:

    Melbourne International Film Festival, Melbourne, Australia: Wednesday, August 24th, 2011:

    Promotional Trailer for Anthology Film Archive Screenings:

    Promotional Trailer for MUFF Screening:

    Filmhuis Cavia, Amsterdam, September 29 and September 30, 2011:

  3. Excellent piece Heather! I am familiar with Rice (mostly through NON and that Re/Search book you mentioned (what a life altering series that was!) so this sounds extremely fascinating. Thanks for the post and I hope I can see it eventually.