directed by Doug Pray
by Walter Chaw Doug Pray's non-fiction Scratch, about the men behind the dual turntables digging new grooves into much-abused vinyl, presents a fitfully fascinating glimpse into the DJ music scene. The problem with the film is that it's more of a performance piece than a documentary, spending too much time extolling the questionable and specific virtues of the music while giving little insight into what it is that makes said music attractive to a growing audience. The picture's strength lies in the curious revelation that in resurrecting old and forgotten "breaks" (beats embedded in vintage tunes), these generally uneducated "turntable-ists" are engaged in the same process as T.S. Eliot was: the reclamation of art as it is filtered through the prism of artists who see themselves as the repository of the whole of a particular Western media.
Scratch reminds a great deal of Stacy Peralta's Dogtown and Z-Boys in its in-camera trickery and kinetic editing; the DJ phenomenon and skateboarding likewise seem to share a root in the guerrilla visual art of graffiti, though Scratch is somewhat remiss in clarifying the link. A scene in which a graffito performs behind a duo of DJ's (producing some genuinely excellent work reminiscent of the "outsider" art of a Basquiat) is so evocative and telling, in fact, that it almost forgives the lack of true insight in the moment. Also like Dogtown and Z-Boys, Pray's documentary confirms that nothing grows from a vacuum while providing a glimpse into a meritocracy that overlooks race and social status in the pursuit of what appears to be a rebellion against tradition. Supporting this, of the many artists interviewed for Scratch a recurrent anecdote concerns parents admonishing children to keep their hands off the turntable, especially when it's running.
While any sociological insights (and there are many to be gleaned from this source) seem mainly extratextual, where Scratch is successful is in its energy and its sound. Fans of "scratching" will doubtless enjoy the archival footage of their favourites at work and play. For those in search of an analysis of a practice inexplicable to most, however, Scratch is maddeningly ungenerous, overlong, unlikely to convert antagonists, and just as unlikely to educate fanatics. It lacks a hypothesis and is the weaker for it. Scratch barely does so to the surface of its subject matter; admittedly for many, a few soundbites and some cleverly-composited concert footage is enough. Especially disappointing are endless interviews with DJ's that, rather than provide wisdom, alternate between banal ("I practiced everyday for two years") and loopy (a man named "Naut Human" seems to believe that DJ's are actual aliens communicating with their mother ships). The message of such reflections--intentional or not--is that while no art grows from a vacuum, many artists exist in one. Originally published: April 19, 2002.