One theme running in throughout the Watch.Read.Listen. show since we started in December 2015 is the role of expectations in influencing our reaction to art. Expectations are created in multiple ways, through hype, for example, or through past experiences (as Star Wars: The Force Awakens or The Hateful Eight) with a franchise or creators. When approaching art in a more passive way, the expectations just become one more part of the whole package; the casual participant simply experiences the art and does not usually question why he or she feels a certain way about it. However, if we seek to understand the Why, we must seek to understand those influences, account for them, and decide what that means for the art itself.
A production with as long and troubled a story as the Cancer film cannot but bring with it a lot of heavy baggage. In 2012, over 750 fans, myself included, backed Showbread’s newest project: a science fiction rock opera album and film. (When I look back at the Kickstarter page for the project, I’m actually surprised that they only asked for $43K for this project.) The decision to back the project was an easy one. Showbread has always done interesting things musically, but their 2-disc concept album Anorexia/Nervosa was a brilliant combination of storytelling and music. Cancer promised something even more, and I had no doubt that whatever Showbread came up with, the end result would be amazing. The Cancer album was released about 6 months after funding, and I thought it was only a matter of time until the film would be released as well.
Going through all the travails of the creation of the Cancer film is not the purpose of this article, so suffice it to say that Showbread encountered setback after setback, the most egregious (and frankly angering) being paying for animation work that was never delivered and had to be done over again. The intervening years, financial burden, and rejection of potential projects in lieu of completing the film basically ended Showbread. The end product, thus, carries with it the weight of having killed its progenitor.
All of this pent-up expectation could not but have led to some amount of disappointment. Secretly (even from myself), I must have thought that the Cancer film would be a triumph, a masterpiece that made up for four years of no new Showbread albums or major tours. But on my first viewing, I found it hard to keep from thinking, “This is it? An extended music video killed one of my favorite bands?” I liked everything I was watching – some of it I even loved – and yet it didn’t feel like enough. A lot of this is because Cancer is not a standalone product. Despite having listened to the album many times in four years, I had forgotten much of the concept beyond its major themes. For example, the film doesn’t explain that the band Showbread is actually playing an alternate version of itself called The Protozoa; the only on-screen mention of their name occurs more than halfway through and is only there for a moment. In fact, the film does not really depict any of the plot of the sci-fi rock opera of the album in a way that provides any context.
This, of course, raises the question of authorial intention, and I think this is an example of where intent really does matter. The Cancer film is just part of the experience, and only works when combined with both the album and the liner notes. A viewer going in cold would struggle to understand why they should care. That might be a weakness – and certainly makes recommending it to non-Showbread fans problematic – but being part of the whole gives the film freedom from exposition that might otherwise bog it down: at no point does Josh Dies (lead singer/songwriter) have to explain the world to someone else, or do some awkward voiceover, or some other equally questionable narrative crutch.
Given that my biggest worry about the film was potentially bad acting on the part of the band members, the lack of narrative scenes is actually a strength. One of the weakest scenes (which is unfortunately the opening) is weak in part because of uneven silent acting from the band. The strongest scenes in the film are those that work on a primarily thematic level, such as the second sequence, which depicts the history of violence and oppression in the world through animation (even though it does briefly crib from Aronofsky’s Noah). I found this scene to be the most emotionally compelling, and the use of animation allowed the creators to draw parallels between different events in human history. I also really liked the depiction of the state’s intrusion into the church to be weirdly and fittingly funny, with the church goers depicted using black insectoid puppets.
My only real complaint after a second viewing is that I think the opening sequence, which is the song “I’m Afraid That I’m Me,” feels too long. While I think it opens strong, with Josh Dies waking up and beginning the song after being visited by a strange creature, the pace of editing when it switches to the metaphorical representation of the story (the band being tempted by the Principalities) lacks energy. Upon reflection, I think this is also because, unlike the rest of the scenes, this one is presented almost entirely instrumentally. Listening to this song on its own, I’ve never felt that it’s long, even though it clocks in at almost seven minutes. However, without the vocals of the song, the instrumentation is not enough to carry the scene. My suspicion is that, were the vocals included, the scene wouldn’t feel that long, and I would like to see a version of it with the full track.
As a companion to the album, the Cancer film does a great job representing the themes visually. One can see the band struggling against the established order of society (represented by the crab women), at times giving in, but finally rebelling. Even if we don’t know the specifics in terms of characters and events, I think this allows the themes to stand out even more. It is unfortunate that the film was not released under better circumstances closer to or alongside the album. Next time, I’m going to sit down with the liner notes and view the film in its proper context, something that I would encourage any new viewer to do. I wish that I could recommend Cancer for non-Showbread fans, but I would suggest that new listeners start with the album itself; Cancer as an album represents so much of what makes Showbread great. I suppose it is fitting that Showbread, a band never known for making things easy for their listeners, would leave us with a film that requires more work – albeit fun work – for its audience to enjoy.