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Another Endangered Species

He's got the whole world in his hands: Hollywood takes ravers on a trip to the big screen

At first glance, poolside at South Beach's tony National Hotel would seem an odd place to interview director Greg Harrison. His debut feature Groove is a loving portrait of his own mid-Nineties head-first dive into the guerrilla-style parties of San Francisco's rave scene, a grimy spirit far removed from the South Beach backdrop at hand. The manicured shrubbery, crisply attired waiters, and unforgiving sunlight all add up to a sense of genteel propriety that stands in dramatic contrast to the film's scenes of reckless abandon amid the thumping beats of the Bay Area's all-night impromptu warehouse affairs.

Adding to the sense of dislocation, Groove's producer, Danielle Renfrew, a fellow late-twentysomething, also is striking a pose far, far from the dance floor. Craning her neck out of the water toward Kulchur, she asks hopefully: “You don't need to talk to me, right?” Smiling, she then blissfully pushes off the pool's wall and begins languidly backstroking her way to the deep end.The sight of these ravers (albeit matured ones) lounging in the heart of the high life might raise fears of Tinseltown once again working its seductive charms on bohos, but it's also an apt summation of the current state of DJ culture. Electronica is now big business, and like e-commerce, if corporate America still hasn't quite figured out how to make it profitable, it isn't for lack of trying.

#179;The honeymoon phase of raving is over,#178; concedes Harrison. “It's reached a critical mass and penetrated the consciousness of mainstream pop culture.” His brow furrows slightly and he continues: “It has been corrupted to a certain degree. You've got plenty of stadium raves where you get your $30 tickets from Ticketmaster. But the underground spirit stays alive.” After a sip of lemonade he adds thoughtfully: “All the attention is demonstrative -- it says a lot about the creative vitality of the scene.”

Harrison should know. He's currently on the receiving end of that media spotlight. Although financed independently on the fly (largely from investors who shared Harrison's experiences in the Bay Area rave milieu; several are now Internet moguls with angelic check-writing abilities), Groove found itself at the center of a minor bidding war at last January's Sundance Film Festival. The end result: Sony Pictures Classics picked up distribution rights for $1.5 million. Even more impressive than that sum is the profile of Sony Pictures Classics itself. The company may be the boutique division of Sony, but it carries with it all the marketing muscle of its behemoth parent. Thus Groove is headed not for the arthouse circuit but to multiplexes in malls across the nation (including an opening at the Regal South Beach Cinemas this Friday), armed with the promotional largess that has winged Harrison and Renfrew to SoBe for nothing more than this day's chat.

The thinking that motivates Sony execs isn't hard to fathom; it's the same logic that has fueled the music industry's ongoing fascination with electronica. According to the formula, if small independent record labels operating on a shoestring budget can sell 100,000 copies of an album, imagine what a major label could do with the same artist. It was precisely that belief that led Warner Bros. to sign R.E.M. away from IRS, and Geffen to snatch up Nirvana from Sub Pop, with multiplatinum results. Similarly if twenty-year-old promoters can entice 1000 kids to plunk down $20 to attend their rave -- all without a shred of radio or print advertising -- just imagine what well-funded businessmen could achieve.

Of course there's always the danger that all this exposure could actually kill off the rave scene; by dint of their often lawless nature, raves need a low profile to exist. So is Groove threatening the existence of the very subculture it celebrates?

“There's a point of view that as soon as a lot of people start doing something, it's over,” responds Harrison. “But I would argue that's a point of view from someone who's involved for simply fashionable reasons. There are thousands of raves all over the world now; it's been going on for ten years. Sure, there are digressions and permutations and superficial co-opting of some aspects of the scene. But I continue to go to parties thrown by people I know that still retain some of that basic openness, creativity, do-it-yourselfness, and community.”

It's on the level of summoning those attributes that Groove works best. Certainly as a narrative film it fails. Though Harrison cites inspirational predecessors such as American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, his own picture never quite captures those earlier works' visceral sense of being inserted into the tribe of youth at a particular time and place. Instead as it follows its cast through one long night at a rave, the characters remain little more than cardboard cutouts, and the plot line never moves much past boy meets girl, boy takes Ecstasy, boy gets girl.

Still, to its credit, Groove does accurately display many of the defining characteristics of raves: the DJ as auteur, the rejection of the traditional rock and roll paradigm with its spectator-sport dynamic, a nonhysterical attitude toward drugs, the notion of tapping into deeply buried primal experiences, and -- not least -- the sheer fun of it all.

“There's an experience you can have on the dance floor that's very communal and meaningful to a lot of people; it serves a basic human purpose,” Harrison notes. “I'm not sure where else in our society you can experience the emotional catharsis that comes from this music that's as participatory and open” -- he laughs -- “and isn't sponsored by Coke.” Shaking his head, he adds, “So much of what happens these days are sponsored events where you sit down and consume passively. Look at other cultures, say Carnaval in Brazil. They've still integrated that basic experience of coming together to dance.”

If Groove is guilty at all of getting it wrong, it's in presenting a version of the rave scene (circa 1996) that is already long gone. John Digweed, the jet-setting trance DJ who headlines Groove's party, currently commands $10,000 per set when he plays Miami. It's hard to imagine him passing up that fee to spin at an illegal, almost-free event.

Moreover the notion of breaking into a deserted warehouse and surreptitiously setting up shop for the night has been abandoned, not just in Miami but all across America. Rather than playing cat and mouse with the police via map points and secret locations, raves have simply been folded back into the established club structure they once stood in opposition to. Even when operating in nontraditional venues, most rave promoters have learned to play the nightclub game, hiring off-duty police officers to work their events. Now given a cut of the action, many of these officers allow the music to rage on until dawn, as well as turn a blind eye to drug use (or as allegedly is the case with one currently suspended Hialeah cop, dealing themselves).

As the critic Simon Reynolds muses in his Generation Ecstasy, the inherent danger here is that with its dissident edge sanded off, raving looks set to become nothing more than a “high-tech leisure industry, offering the paying customer the opportunity to step inside a drug-conducive, sensorially intensified environment of ultravivid sound and visuals. No sacrifices are required to participate, beyond the financial; no ramifications extend into everyday life, beyond the drug hangover.”

Harrison, however, remains unmoved by this specter of burgeoning over-the-counter culturalism. “Rave going mainstream hasn't affected the core,” he says firmly. “The underground part of the culture is still there.”

In the end the future of raving is going to be decided by ravers themselves, the bulk of whom do seem in little hurry to pack away their glow sticks. South Florida's own contingent is no less committed to self-analysis than Harrison, taking the internal debate to cyberspace and filling one local Internet mailing list with thousands of passionate back-and-forth missives. The final word may belong to “Rave Tigger” who recently wrote, “The scene is like anything else: The more you're with it, the more flaws you see in it, and the more you pick at it.”


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