SXSW Review: 'Disintegration Loops' Doc Fails to Connect the Ambient Classic to Our Current Moment Directed by David Wexler
Starring William Basinski
Published Mar 16, 2021William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops is arguably the definitive piece of 9/11-inspired art, but David Wexler's documentary of the same name has its eye on a different mass tragedy. The 45-minute film was created during coronavirus lockdowns and it makes a tenuous comparison between the terrorist attack and the pandemic. During the opening shots, the haunting "dlp 1.1" plays over images of empty NYC streets and signs warning people to stay two metres apart.
The film not-too-subtly suggests that Basinski's 2020 album, Lamentations, will become tied to coronavirus in the same way that The Disintegration Loops has become an elegy for 9/11. It's a nice, tidy parallel, but it ends up distracting from what's actually interesting about Basinski's greatest work.
The story of The Disintegration Loops, despite having been told so many times over the past couple of decades, remains fascinating. Here's the quick version: shortly before 9/11, Basinski digitized some loops from the '80s, only to discover that the old tape was falling apart as it played back, blips of silence eventually overtaking the music. This crumbling ambient soundscape became a haunting tribute to the Twin Towers, especially when paired with footage of smoke rolling over Manhattan as dusk descended on 9/11. Basinski explains how it all happened, as well as telling the story of his childhood, early artistic career and life in New York. It's a riveting story with a stunning soundtrack.
The film's commentary on lockdowns, however, is far less essential. We see Wexler and Basinski struggling with shoddy internet connections during video calls, and the director describes his alarm after learning someone in his apartment building has COVID-19. Familiar scenes, but not insightful or interesting. (Perhaps the film is trying to liken glitchy Zoom calls to disintegrating tape loops? If so, the comparison doesn't land.)
The interviews were conducted in the early stages of the pandemic — at one point, Wexler mentions it's been 21 days since lockdowns began — so it's hardly surprising that their observations now seem a little quaint. Mercifully, they don't complain about toilet paper shortages. There's no mention of death tolls or anti-vaxxers or COVID truthers — things that might have made the film a little more pertinent to our current moment.
The idea that Lamentations could be as important as The Disintegration Loops feels more like PR spin than a genuine thesis. The latest album, which came out five months ago as of the film's premiere, doesn't seem to have captured the zeitgeist like its predecessor. And that's fine — not every album needs to be a breakthrough hit that defines a generation. But, by holding Lamentations up to that standard, Disintegration Loops (the film) doesn't do justice to the once-in-a-lifetime uniqueness that made The Disintegration Loops (the album) an accidental masterpiece. (Cinema 59 Productions)