Some great artistic achievements are based on failure — the failure, for instance, of a distorted guitar to sound like a saxophone, of the written word to replicate the stream of consciousness, of any creation to come out exactly the way it was envisioned. It takes an astute artist to revel in the fruits of failure. Maybe that's what Animal Collective's "visual album" ODDSAC is about. After all, they're a "collective" — compromising individual creative intent is baked right into their concept, and it's worked out beautifully for them.
In their own way, many vignettes in the 54-minute film, now out on DVD, depict failure: A woman vainly tries to stop evil black ooze from seeping out of a wall; a wholesome family marshmallow roast turns into a cataclysmic horror-show; a vampire gets caught in the daylight and dies an agonizing death; an irascible wraith can't keep some women from gleefully throwing food and paint at each other. In each case, failure is spectacular.
It's ironic then, that ODDSAC has been accused of failing at something it doesn't try to do: make sense.
ODDSAC was directed by Danny Perez, who made the videos for Animal Collective's "Who Could Win a Rabbit?" and "Summertime Clothes" as well doing live concert projections for Black Dice and Animal Collective's Panda Bear. It's an aptly named film, a grab-bag of imagery that variously recalls '80s B horror movies, video art you'd see at the Whitney Biennial, and a hot-rodded version of iTunes Visualizer. The imagery ranges from the elemental (a bogeyman stalking a family in the woods at night) to the idiosyncratic (the drummer bashing in the middle of a surrealistically rocky dry riverbed). Various aspects recall early '80s videos by the Residents (a band whom Animal Collective recalls in several ways), Kenneth Anger films like Invocation of My Demon Brother, Matthew Barney's Cremaster series, Elias Merhige's Begotten, and The Blair Witch Project. It also works purely as a light show.
That last reference — the light show — might be the most germane of all. Seeing as most people seem to listen to their music while they're walking around or driving or dancing or partying, maybe these days an album-length movie is what it takes to make folks just sit on the couch and listen to music. (Vinyl performs a similar function, since it also forces people to listen at home and pay attention.) ODDSAC is like the eternal stoner pastime of listening to music while watching TV with the sound off, except this time the musicians and a director, not fate, are guiding and synchronizing the imagery. The film's longest set piece, the vampire stalking the family in the forest, does have a linear narrative, but it's so familiar to anyone who watches movies that the story disappears and becomes more of an ambient piece. The thing is so enigmatic that it practically begs to have things read into it — like being a meditation on failure. Even the title ODDSAC seems like an acronym that needs to be filled in.
It seems unlikely that ODDSAC was ever intended to have a coherent overall narrative or to be something that, as one write-up put it, is something that one has to "decipher" — it's just something cool to watch while you're listening to the music, and something cool to listen to while you watch the visuals, no more and no less.
Basically, this is psychedelia — every frame of the live action imagery is digitally tweaked in supersaturated gummi bear colors for an otherworldly psychoactive effect. Then there are several hyperspeed montages, particularly an overwhelming sequence that recaps virtually the entire film in a blizzard of almost subliminal micro-cuts. Here, color isn't cheery, it's aggressive, a swarming onslaught of photons assaulting the retina like killer bees. There's also virtually no diegetic sound anywhere in the film, and that's as it should be — words have no place in the psychedelic experience.
But it's psychedelia rendered in the digital idiom, not the blobby analogue effects of yore. A case in point is the completely abstract six-and-a-half-minute sequence near the middle of the film, a pointillistic Rorschach test that, even more than the rest of ODDSAC, seems laser-aimed at tender minds impaired by contraband. The digital aspect is key. In terms of democratizing a genre, digital film technology is right behind digital sound technology. Hi-def DV cameras are getting cheaper every day and there's all kinds of user-friendly editing and post-production software out there; some of it is even free. Even at the time, people realized how visionary The Blair Witch Project was — it was obviously the future, because we'd already seen how DIY music recording had exploded. Like Animal Collective's music itself, ODDSAC demonstrates what can be done when people with good ideas have access to powerful creative tools.
Even if you stop suspending your disbelief and look at the film as people performing in front of a camera, ODDSAC still reads as, well, odd, and even a bit unsettling. After all, this is footage of a bunch of almost certainly stoned people smeared with garish, sparkling liquids or wearing funny clothes and wigs, doing very weird and sometimes dangerous things in the woods. Animal Collective's Deakin (Josh Dibb) really is thrashing around in a swamp while colored smoke and lurid geysers of glop spurt out of his head; the band's Avey Tare (Dave Portner) really is walking blindfolded while a handful of black-clad figures whirl flaming pots of kerosene around him. Perez seems to acknowledge this way of looking at the film — at one point in the climactic Dionysian food fight he draws the camera back from the action to reveal that it's actually taking place on a brightly lit, three-walled set apparently in the middle of the woods. To his credit, it only heightens the dark strangeness of the scene.
There are only six proper songs here; the film's prettiest number accompanies a sublime passage of a ponytailed vampire, like something out of a Marilyn Manson video, slowly canoeing down a digitally manipulated moonlit river. Aside from those few songs, the rest is interstitial noise. Check out the soundtrack that accompanies the ineffable imagery of a man who is little more than a faceless head of hair atop a bulbous blue suit, kneeling by a stream and cleaning amniotic gook from gigantic eggs — it's basically the sound of running water and some weird whimpering. So you probably don't want to listen to ODDSAC with the picture off; as advertised, the visuals and the sound really are inseparable.
The more abstract the visuals, the more abstract the music and the soundtrack often becomes as noisy and collagistic as what's on screen, very unlike the band's recent, more tuneful music. These more discordant passages – and they form a large proportion of the film — and the dark, even horrific live action scenes, represent a flipside to Animal Collective's often idyllic latter-day sound. You may never hear their music the same way again, which is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the movie.
And so, to quote Complete Double Rainbow guy, what does it mean? Nothing. The whole idea is to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. Then again, since there is some narrative in ODDSAC, it actually fails at not meaning anything. Naturally, it does so fairly spectacularly.