Certain inventions do scream surrealism when viewed in hindsight. Two color 3-D, with those obnoxious red and blue-tinted cardboard glasses, looks more and more like a desperate marketing ploy than an actual advancement in cinematic technology when seen sans fad. During the 40s and 50s some dope got the bright idea of fitting people for shoes via x-ray. Nothing like microwaved bunions and nuclear toe-jam to dispel the myths regarding radiation being bad for you. Medicine has seen many dadaist devices, from machines that supposedly grow hair with magnets, to something called "The Relaxerciser", which was nothing more than mini-electroshock treatments for your tired and aching muscles. From aquacars to videophones, we've had more creation catastrophes than modern technological phenomenon - and the list just keeps on growing.
Just don't lump the 8 Track tape in with the other examples of spoilt innovation, though. There is an entire legion of devotees to the dead music delivery system, many of whom were just being born as the science was being reconfigured and replaced. Those who swear by the boxy cassette concept believe that "track" is the closest thing to reel to reel (a true audiophile format) as any other portable, playable medium. But thanks to the Walkman, and more recently, the digital revolution, 8s have hit on hard times (the last titles mass manufactured for the system were made sometime back in the late 80s). Still, these obsessive collectors view sweet sonic 4x4 as the ultimate ends toward a blissfully aural means. Who cares if the tech is sketchy at best, and replacement parts are as rare as a sober priest. There are those that swear by this ancient advancement. To them, 8 track is So Wrong, They're Right.
After starting the popular 8 Track Mind magazine in 1990, editor Russ Forster stumbled upon a brilliant idea. Since the response to the fanzine had been so intense and passionate, he decided to make a documentary about the diverse group of people who proudly proclaimed this passé musical passion as their very own. With a van full of equipment and fellow track fiend Dan Sutherland along for the ride, Forster set out on a journey that would take him from New York to Seattle, Chicago to parts of America unknown. Along the way, they met individuals who lived the 8 track lifestyle, who drank in the demented joys from hearing a player plunk down to the next level of listening enjoyment. They heard from former storeowners, current connoisseurs, and people who were just pleased to know that 8 Track meant as much to others as it did to them. After 10,000 miles and 10 times as many tapes, the film was finally finished. What Forster and Sutherland ended up with was So Wrong, They're Right, a terrific testament to trackers and their obsession.
It is probably safe to say that, before the Internet boom and the popularity of eBay, So Wrong, They're Right was a major revelation. Back before the World Wide Web exposed the idiosyncrasies and obsessions of the everyday human, championing a long obsolete concept such as 8 Tracks appeared like outright eccentricity. Nostalgia was one thing, but outright nay saying of the omnipresent digital formats for the old school sonics of magnetic tape today looks like laughable Ludditism at its most misguided. People will panic when their MP3 pops, or scream in bitrate rage when their CD/DVD won't burn properly. Imagine being enamored of a format that divided up albums into four separate sections, had no (or very limited) rewind or fast forward capabilities and was prone to mechanical meltdowns at the whim of its wound tight tape loops.
Like loving Beta over VHS, the people who prefer their 8 Track cartridges over silver discs or standard cassettes sure are fanatical. But beyond their ardor is a true sense of social rebellion. These are people who proudly wear their eccentric whims like retro thrift store clothing, and can't be bothered with what the rest of the prepackaged and culturally illiterate throng say. They call themselves 'trackers' (one wonders if they get angry if referred to as "trackies") and spend their days in the endless pursuit of the elusive and enigmatic state of 8. Call them weird or insane, but they are the true individualists in a society slammed by a concerned corrosion of conformity every single solitary day. Sure, some of them could end up being the next Unibomber, but the people we get to know are erudite and emphatic first, slightly askew and scary a very distant second.
Set up as a travelogue, with title cards giving us names and places along the way, So Wrong, They're Right is not overly entertaining, at first. For many unfamiliar with the 8 Track format, the documentary dives right in without a lot of background or set up. To enshrine something so early on without a little audience understanding is likened to keeping the crowd at cinematic arm's length. But once it gets going, and we hear the stories and testimonies of these endearing and engaging folks, we quickly forget about the 8 Track and instead enjoy the equally ancient art of simple storytelling. Everyone has a tale to tell, from the girl who was banned from Goodwill for getting snippy over a lack of tapes to a store owner who was proudly paid $100 American for a copy of Never Mind the Bollocks: Here's the Sex Pistols. Each episode feeds off the other, and before you know it, a bigger picture develops.
A lot of the anecdotes are surprisingly similar. Individuals, misunderstood by friends and family, looking at society in general with an eye both jaundiced and genuine, unable to comprehend why formats must "fail" and be replaced by less friendly facets - they all seem to find acceptance and some amount of personal grace in the old fashioned 8 Track concept. It gives purpose to their particular way of life, and creates an unconscious connection between like-minded members of this batty brotherhood. While the audiophile arguments are tossed by the wayside - therefore rendering the obsession that much more outlandish - the humanistic ones come to the fore, and they are just as compelling. These are people who 'found' themselves in ideas from the past, who look beyond nostalgia and built in obsolescence and wonder why the more permanent particulars of the world went disposable and dull.
Like those vinyl lovers who lament the loss of actual albums and 45s, trackers take umbrage with the notion that modern mechanics are "superior" to the crazy 8. The difference between a pure sound wave and a digital recreation of same is shown for a far too obvious comparison, but the notion that new is always better seems to be at the center of most of So Wrong, They're Right's raison d'etra. Granted, these are people living on the outer fringes of formal society - we don't run into any investment bankers or brain surgeons screaming over the demise of the 8 Track format. Yet we also learn that these particular people are more in touch with reality because they are more in tune with the past and the present. They have what so many lack in the current cultural framework - perspective. And this is why they are so fascinating to listen to.
There is not much to Forster and Sutherland's film beyond this talking head paradigm. In the grand style of Errol Morris, these moviemakers know the inherent value of their subject matter and its proponents and let both speak for themselves. Three people in particular stand out. James "Big Bucks" Burnette runs 14 Records in Dallas, Texas and comes across as a museum guide granted the chance to show what he knows. As he sifts through all manner of odd 8 Track variations (including the 'donut' and the 'folding') he gives us more history and hilarious insight than almost anyone else here. The late Abigail Lavine is also a breath of fresh freak air. With a coquettish crackpot charm (she used to make a living as a Betty Page impersonator) and a deep devotion to track, she brings a real sweet center to the film. Finally, a now defunked band named Gumball proudly show off their mountain of tapes - 25,000 to be exact. As they run through the titles and the irregular rip-off and bootlegs, audiophiles begin to brood over the lost treasures buried in that mound of music.
In the end what we see is rebellion in its truest, most telling form. No shots are fired and no one is injured. Instead, a group of people find a common thread to bind them together and stand firm in defiance of the stifling status quo. As they are shouted down and defeated, they stay steadfast to their principles and press on. Nothing stops their momentum - not time, or perception, or the sliest subterfuge. They believe in what they feel and are willing to express it openly to all around them. One has to wonder if it's not all for naught, since God only knows the 8 Track is not coming back any time in the near future. But since they are so focused and so forceful in their opinion, it's a guarantee that the spirit of the medium will never die. Just like the technology they support, these people are indeed so wrong, they're right. Forster and Sutherland have made a bright sunshiny day of a film.
Shot on 16mm and filled with scratches, scuffs and occasional grain, the DVD transfer of So Wrong, They're Right is about as arcane looking as the concept of 8 Track tape itself. No attempt has been made to remaster the 1.33:1 full frame title, and all the faded color, bad available lighting and other technical glitches have been left intact. Aside from giving the title a real retro twist, it also signals the time and distance between old fashioned film and the newfangled digital domain, adding an additional undercurrent to the story.
In another stroke of ancient medium mannerisms, the Dolby Digital Stereo is more or less overmodulated mono, with everything coming out shrill and tinny via the front channel. No one is really expecting warmth and depth in a 10 year old no budget documentary, but the occasional distortion and lack of nuance is a tad irritating.
Other Cinema really fleshes out the feature, providing a wealth of added content for this title. First up is an audio commentary by director Forster and it's terrific. This filmmaker may have a casual, laid back way of speaking, but he is a fountain of information as to the particulars of the people and places we visit throughout the movie. He gives us interesting updates on almost everyone he spoke to for the film (some of the recent news is not very good) and discusses how certain scenes were rearranged to help clarify the concept of 8 Track tapes. From his heartfelt thanks to those who helped him along the way, to his continued devotion to the format and its communal facets, this is one of the better alternate narratives available on any DVD.
As for other features, we get a glimpse at the video version of 8 Track Mind magazine. In this installment (#100) we learn more about the late Abigail Lavine, see some street preachers trying to covert people to the one way - the track way, and a discussion of the new 8 Track Heaven website. James "Big Bucks" Burnette offers up an excerpt from his featurette In Loving Memory which features celebrity interviews with David Byrne (who laments being unable to open up and fix his 8 tracks) T-Bone Burnett (discussing the Rapture) and Tiny Tim (who shows off some of his favorites). A behind the scenes slide show, narrated by Forster, gives us a chance to see some of the movie's making, and the history of 8 Track has another interesting showcase, complete with more Forester voice over work. Along with trailers for other Other Cinema offerings and an interview with Forster in the form of a pamphlet insert, this is a really well down DVD package.
Imagine one day, some time in the not so distant future. A man will walk up to a junk store - or whatever passes for a discount mercantile exchange in the speculative space of the upcoming - and look in the window with a kind of wide eyed wonder. There, sitting on a shelf next to a collection of odd looking plastic containers will be something called a digital versatile disc player, along with a collection of said "DVDs" for playing in the machine. The individual will wrack their brain for a few moments, trying to recall past the last dozen or so technological redesigns to remember just what a "DVD" did. Suddenly, a laughable light of acknowledgment will click off in their head, and soon, a smile will cross their face. "Oh yeah, the future of home entertainment..." they'll mumble, and then slowly walk away.
Thus is the reality of our computerized and compartmentalized post-modern world. Some day the way in which you are reading this review will be considered of dinosaur-ish design. And just like those who snicker, there will be those who savor the parameters of the past. Trackers are in tune with both, never losing sight of tomorrow while helping to preserve what happened yesterday. While they may seem crazy, they are also very concerned. They don't want the world becoming one big mass-market medium. They want individuality and uniqueness to be saved and celebrated. Today it's the 8 Track that reminds them of who they are. Who knows what the next years, or eons will bring. But one thing is for sure. They will always seem So Wrong, They're Right, and that's a marvelous thing.
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