João César Monteiro, Come and Go, 2003, still from a color film in 35 mm, 179 minutes.
THOUGH FAR LESS of a household name, João César Monteiro was for Portuguese cinema what Luis Buñuel was for Spanish, a gleefully caustic satirist and libertine whose targets may have been the usual suspects of sexual, religious, and political propriety, but whose means of attack against them were highly unusual. Whereas, for example, his compatriots of the Cinema Novo swore by realism and the techniques of direct cinema, Monteiro’s vision was alternately baroque and crude, rigorous and anarchic, the work of a man fascinated by the purity of depravity.
Also unusual is that the most renowned period of Monteiro’s career was his last, a period in which he hadn’t so much settled into a style as begun to express the bottomless absurdity of his id. Starting with Recollections of the Yellow House (1989), the director himself starred in a series of related features as signature protagonist “John of God,” a drily pessimistic and puckish man on the wrong side of fifty with a penchant for beautiful young women and bizarre, Bataillean erotic fetishes (meticulously collecting pubic hair, soothing the posterior of an underage lover by having her sit on a horn-shaped basket of eggs, etc.). But while Recollections achieves a sustained poignancy for unsentimentally pitting “John” and his insatiable libido against the indignities and absurdities of aging (his frail, skeletal frame forming a striking contrast to his self-deprecating burlesques), in subsequent films like God’s Comedy (1995) and God’s Wedding (1998) such dark humor is literally run into the ground: By the time of the 2003 swan song Come and Go, in which “John” is recast as “John Vuvu,” Monteiro was confronting the specter of his imminent death—he passed away that same year—with gallows humor less lecherously surreal than self-parodically “naughty,” his overly deliberate line-readings and extreme long takes rendering “John” a dirty old man amid enervating caricatures of high-art tableaux.
Less celebrated earlier films prove more rewarding. Monteiro’s debut, Trails (1978), summons comparisons to Sergei Paradjanov as both an avant-garde picaresque of theatrically staged folktales and a quasi-ethnographic study in the storytelling tradition of rural mountain communities. Silvestre (1982) similarly discovers the modernist sensibility of timeworn legends, with a knight-disguised pubescent girl navigating a violent and unreal medieval world of seducers, dragons, and warriors (indeed, his depiction of female desire is more complex in these films than in the “John of God” era). Always interested in the artificial and Bressonian (Silvestre employs beautifully strange projected backgrounds and effective anti-naturalistic acting), Monteiro went as far out as a director can go when, in 2000, he revisited the heritage of myth in Snow White, a hard-core challenge composed almost entirely of black leader and a chorus of sober, disembodied voices enacting the fairy tale as reimagined by Swiss writer Robert Walser. Is it cinema, and is it worth the effort? Monteiro obviously didn’t want his films to make anyone comfortable, but the surprising thing about Snow White is that, given the director’s obsession with the corporeal, its abrasive asceticism evokes an intensely earned, intensely experienced pleasure.
Scott Crocker, Ghost Bird, 2009, color video, 85 minutes. Production stills.
BACK IN 2005, a couple of birdwatchers kayaking through the swamps of rural Brinkley, Arkansas, managed to capture on their digital video camera the fluttering white wings of a distant woodpecker. After reviewing the images, the amateur ornithologists claimed it was the first confirmed sighting in sixty years of the once-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker. American birders—and there are more than fifty million of them—were stunned.
News outlets quickly seized on the story, as did scholars at Science, who published a detailed analysis of the footage and concluded that, yes, the ivory-billed was still alive. Tourism in Brinkley skyrocketed, followed by everything from ivory-billed museums to woodpecker-themed hotels. The US government, after also verifying the footage, shifted millions of dollars from other bird conservation programs to fund a revival of the ivory-billed habitat. Bird experts headed south to spend a couple weeks out in the swamp. Here, some prominent birders quickly became skeptics: They found little evidence of woodpecker presence, and became convinced that the area was not remote enough to explain the six decades of silence. It was these skeptical scientists who returned to the original footage and, after seeing far more white on the bird’s wings than black, agreed that this was not an ivory-billed but a pileated woodpecker. Publicly questioning the conclusions of both Science and the federal government, these dissenters became the pariahs of the mainstream birding community.
In his film on the subject, Ghost Bird, director Scott Crocker proves shrewd in his slow reveal of the hysteria that descends on Brinkley in the months after the ivory-billed discovery. Beginning in the magical silence of the swamp, he unveils a network of crass commercialization. For the Brinkley Chamber of Commerce, there’s a hefty price tag attached to this rare bird. Crocker also lines the film with statistics about other endangered birds, implying that conservation funds are being siphoned away from species in need. But if Ghost Bird begins as a portrait of a quirky wildlife debate, it ultimately concludes that truth itself is under attack in Brinkley. After the Science article is published, Cornell University and the feds announce their verdict on the amateur video, and all scholarly debate grinds to a screeching halt. And when a handful of renowned academics attempt to present contrary evidence, they are not only ignored but shunned.
Far more haunting than the images of profiteering are the larger implications that truth itself has become subjective. To illustrate his point, Crocker abruptly pauses the narrative to turn to well-worn archival footage of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld as he plays a calculated rhetorical game of “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” with the press, deflecting blame for military complications during the Iraq war. Apart from an endangered bird and an equally endangered town, Ghost Bird considers the ways in which collegial debate, intellectual rigor, and a collective desire for objective truth are in danger of extinction.
Ghost Bird opens April 28 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.
IT HARDLY SEEMS like a fair contest. Of the four artists whose recent works in film and video comprise the spring group exhibition—really four concurrent solo exhibitions—at Toronto’s Power Plant, three are represented by pieces of a generally measured and meditative nature.
The fourth, on the other hand, offers content that is brash, energetic, vulgar, and unabashedly tricked-out. The works, which resemble a mash-up of Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle, MTV’s Jersey Shore, and a meth-induced psychotic breakdown, are inevitably divisive among Power Plant patrons who may not be prepared for such an onslaught. Any guesses as to which artist dominates?
Ryan Trecartin takes up a lot of space, both in terms of how much square-footage the Power Plant devotes to “Any Ever”—the first Canadian solo exhibition by the prolific Texan-born, Philadelphia-based video artist—and in terms of the brain-scrambling effects of the works themselves. For that reason, visitors might consider saving his work for last. They wouldn’t want to run out of the patience required for Joachim Koester’s “Hypnagogia”—a trio of silent black-and-white 16-mm film loops that point to the Danish artist’s interest in physical manifestations of altered states of mind—or Peter Campus’s “Reflections and Inflections,” which consists of one vintage interactive piece and one serene new landscape-based work by the American video-art pioneer. Likewise, it’d be a shame not to give full attention to Sharon Lockhart’s Podwórka, 2009, another of her single-take studies of people and their places; this time, she directs our gaze toward groups of Polish children who enliven a series of grim urban locales in Lódz.
But after some polite (and rewarding) contemplation, a foray into Trecartin’s multiverse can feel like assault and battery. Occupying a series of stylized environments that are thematically appropriate to the videos themselves (think: a dorm like the kind used by hopefuls on America’s Next Top Model), spectators can spend minutes or hours viewing loops of Trecartin’s four-part “Re’Search Wait’S” series or three-part “Trill-ogy Comp.”
Each episode runs anywhere from twenty-seven minutes to nearly an hour. They are all dense with overlapping storylines and characters, many of them played by Trecartin amid a cast of friends, fellow artists, and teenagers who clearly relish the chance to utter lines like “Yes, I was raped by my dad’s career—totally my fault!” These sagas are too complex to synopsize but the commercialization and “brand integration” of every aspect of daily experience is one abiding theme in his dense, gleefully dystopic scenarios. What with the grotesque makeup and décor, the constant barrage of hyper-accelerated edits and zooms, and the shrill Chipmunks-style voices and house beats that comprise the sound design, the contents of “Any Ever” would just be exhausting if they weren’t so hilarious and ingenious.
If the powers that be at MTV had any sense, they’d put Trecartin in charge of programming right now. This has to be better than the next season of The Hills.
AT THIS YEAR’S TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL, three documentaries about artists display varying degrees of denial and acceptance about a fact of life and art: ego. It’s a perennial bugaboo for the documentarian: How to render (or at least admit) the conflict natural to strong voices and petty disputes alike? The standard solution is celebration, and Chuck Workman’s Visionaries fits the bill with its group hug of the avant-garde film scene, mostly the New American Cinema. Presided over by Anthology Film Archives founder Jonas Mekas, the film is a warm and welcoming introduction to Brakhage, Deren, Snow, Anger, Kubelka, and Cornell, among others. Film critics (including Artforum’s own Amy Taubin) and spotlit filmmakers (a restrained Anger, a delightful Kubelka, Su Friedrich for a slightly more recent voice, and rather a lot of Robert Downey Sr.) testify to principles and influences. Pitched to a casual viewer, the profusion of clips admirably puts the goods in front of us, and also brings Visionaries the closest to any sort of comment on the boundaries of the avant-garde by citing the likes of Night and Fog, Blue, even Julien Donkey-Boy.
Barring Ken Jacobs cracking about Mekas’s taste, this wandering history is comically inert for so spirited a scene (consider the protective backbiting over, say, the 2006 Tribeca doc Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis). In the end, if the fulsomely scored montages bring to mind Oscar reels (with discussions hewing to friendly tropes such as lyrical beauty and role-playing), perhaps this makes sense given Workman’s résumé––he’s known for editing several “In Memoriam” sequences for the Academy Awards.
A critic sounds churlish in these cases, but a takedown seems downright irrelevant to Bobby Sheehan’s Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy, a tribute to the New York cabaret singer (or the “E.T. of drag”) Joey Arias. Feted with often interchangeably hyperbolic superlatives by 1980s downtown veterans and resplendent in clips of performances and appearances in television and movies, he’s a heartwarming force of nature who “wears his body like a robe,” such that his versatile singing can seem underrated. The film’s title comes from a feverishly imagined joint project between Arias and acclaimed puppeteer Basil Twist, whose artistry abruptly takes center stage for a while after the first twenty-five minutes. Both share lively creativity and an embrace of channeling and shape shifting across artistic boundaries, but the fertile tensions of collaboration are lost in the film’s wash of mutual appreciation.
What remains under the surface in Visionaries and Arias is what becomes an increasingly dolorous undertone to C. Scott Willis’s The Woodmans. A summary of the movie might already take sides: Is it about the tragic spiral of photographer Francesca Woodman viewed through the eyes of her parents and friends? Or is it about married working artists Betty and George coming to terms with their talented daughter’s death? Willis doles out Francesca’s boxed room, nude tableaux, and melancholic journal entries, while giving a sense of her self-consuming precocious genius and unashamedly illustrating her life through art (some might say reductively, and less vigorously than Elisabeth Subrin’s more experimental 2000 film The Fancy).
Several moments of the interviews—Betty’s impatience with glimmers of her spritely youth, and mellifluous George’s pleasing but perhaps devastating WASP poise—shade in a darker narrative limned with resentment and self-absorption. Their refrain of “work ethic” and focus on art paint an emotional landscape of potentially conditional love. (George cryptically muses on Francesca’s death as he himself ages: “I may not be getting a great deal of attention, but I’m alive . . .”) While Willis (a former Nightline producer) flirts with voyeurism in following Francesca to the brink of her final journal entry (albeit illuminating the decision-making involved), he gets at the struggle of wills that can emerge from the artistic pursuit, via the familiar doc template of dysfunctional family. Although withholding judgment, it’s a refreshing acknowledgment of conflicted feelings and ego-jostling.
“WHERE GOLD COMMANDS, laughter vanishes,” says the viceroy to the lusty actress, shortly before he lavishes her with his territory’s most coveted and expensive possession. Full of such delicious ironies, Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach (1952) attests that art and money make for absurd and raucous bedfellows.
The Golden Coach, the first film in what has come to be regarded as a trilogy that includes French Cancan (1954) and Elena and her Men (1956), is Renoir’s tribute to the theater, a play within a play within a film (within a film) that blurs the boundaries between life and stage. Set in eighteenth-century Peru, it stars Anna Magnani as Camilla, a hot-blooded commedia dell’arte player whose spirited performances earn her a motley trio of suitors—ridiculous caricatures of masculinity devised to question the needs of the artist and by extension the conditions of art itself. Renoir reprises this fruitful conceit in French Cancan, in which the transformation of the naive yet spellbinding Nini (Françoise Arnoul) from poor laundress to dance-hall idol delivers her a choice of archetypal lovers promising riches, fame, or fidelity. After plenty of antics and complications, both women choose the incorporeal fourth option—their craft.
The Golden Coach’s final, decidedly wistful claim, after Camilla donates the coach to the church, is that the artist has only one path to happiness and to her true self. Likewise, the climactic dance sequence in French Cancan—one of the most joyous and dazzling ever filmed—is an end that justifies all means. Girls tumble like gems in a kaleidoscope, swirling and twirling into a frenzy where everyone, including conflicted Nini, is all smiles. Here, Renoir’s newfound command of color (French Cancan was only his third color film) reaches its apotheosis, as the director manipulates the possibilities of Technicolor technology to bring movement to life—indeed to elevate it beyond life to spectacle.
Vilgot Sjöman, I Am Curious (Yellow), 1967, black and white film in 35 mm, 121 minutes. Left: Advertisement for the film. Right: Production still.
“FREEDOM’S NOT EASY, SWEET LENA,” goes a lyric in a song from Sweden’s most infamous export, the 1967 film I Am Curious (Yellow). It’s an observation that director Vilgot Sjöman would also discover to be true. Sjöman’s fact-and-fiction-mixing fifth feature, about the political and sexual explorations of twenty-two-year-old Lena (Lena Nyman), was banned by the US Customs Service, objecting to an episode in which Lena kisses her lover’s flaccid penis, in January 1968 for being obscene; it was finally released in this country in March 1969 after a federal appeals court ruled that the film was protected by the First Amendment.
A committed provocateur—earlier films include My Sister, My Love (1966), about an incestuous romance between a twin brother and sister—Sjöman is interested more in the consequences and fault lines of 1960s social upheavals than in dirty-movie prurience. I Am Curious (Yellow) (a companion piece, I Am Curious [Blue], was released the following year; the colors refer to the Swedish flag) shows the influences of Godard’s cine-tracts and Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s cinema-verité landmark Chronicle of a Summer (1961), in which random Parisians are approached on the street and asked, “Are you happy?” In Yellow, Lena, who runs the Lena Institute from her bedroom in the grim Stockholm apartment she shares with her father, makes a series of on-the-street inquiries: “Does Sweden have a class system?” “Do women have equal opportunities?” Defensive Swedes returning from vacation in Majorca, Spain, are scolded by the tiny firebrand for contributing to the economy of Franco’s Fascist regime.
Within the nonfiction interrogation of matters of state, a psychodrama about sexuality unfolds, and with it, an oblique indictment of filmmaking. Sjöman, playing a fictionalized version of himself, is a middle-aged director who casts the buxom Lena as the lead in the film because they’re sleeping together, though he clearly thinks she’s his intellectual inferior: “It’s a damned shame she doesn’t understand politics,” he says offscreen. Sjöman and his “crew,” following Lena’s adventures, appear intermittently; later, in retaliation for Lena’s affair with Börje (Börje Ahlstedt), the director tosses her over for his latest casting-couch conquest.
Börje’s own raging insecurity (and hypocrisy) flares up in response to Lena’s offhand announcement that she’s slept with twenty-three men. More clinical than titillating, sex between the two is marked by their casual nakedness, the abundant views of genitals that so outraged US Customs officials culminating in the most unerotic treatment of private parts imaginable. Freedom—political, social, sexual, artistic—isn’t easy, but sometimes it’s profitable: According to Sjöman’s obituary in the New York Times (he died in 2006), I Am Curious (Yellow) remained the most financially successful foreign film in the United States for twenty-three years.
I Am Curious (Yellow) screens April 16 and 30 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York as part of the series “Northern Exposures: Social Change and Sexuality in Swedish Cinema, 1913–2010.” For more details, click here.
THE EARLY 1970S was boom time for dystopias, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder had a go with a nearly three-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Daniel Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3. Made for German TV station WDR (for which Fassbinder had previously made a workers miniseries), World on a Wire (1973) features a brutally literal vision of alienation: a computer-enabled alternate universe filled with people who do not know they are simulations. The government project, engineered by buff scientist Fred (“I’m Not”) Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), is intended as a model for marketing and sociological trends. But, like a crisis of faith run in reverse, Stiller comes to fear that the “real world” is itself fabricated, with someone somewhere pulling the strings.
Shot by Michael Ballhaus and interior-designed by Kurt Raab, Stiller’s real world breathes a recognizably Fassbinder-style mix of narcotic and heightened states outfitted to the hilt in mirrors, globes, monitors, curvy hairstyles of Op art hypnotic qualities,’70s decor that’s ready-made lurid, and throwback touches from fedoras to a Dietrich impersonator (rounded out with Alphaville-style outer-Paris exteriors and a cabaret/club called Alcazar). Reflections, occlusions, zooms, and erratic overreactions fill out the psychically expressionistic space; justified paranoiac Stiller grabs lapels, leaps fences, ping-pongs between a pneumatic secretary and raccoon-bloodshot waif, spars with his superiors, and flees their cronies. For Germans, the casting added another layer of fractured reality, drawing as it does on both contemporary TV actors and faded stars from music and heimat-films.
In Germany’s terror decade, Fassbinder would ascend to further military-industrial complex dread with The Third Generation (1979) (which features its own ominous computer: an Apple II). World on a Wire is pioneering but ironically speaks of real and fake worlds in terms dating back to Wells and Metropolis: There are those who live “over” and those who live “under.” It’s a division that underlines the schizoid fears key to so many visions of the future across cinema, rarely so luridly embodied as in Löwitsch’s reeling and keeling Stiller.
World on a Wire plays April 14–19 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more details, click here.
Connie Field, Have You Heard from Johannesburg, 2010, black-and-white and color film, 517 minutes. Left: Members of the Leandra Youth Congress regroup after repelling an attack by vigilantes at the funeral of their community leader, Chief Ampie Mayisa, in Leandra Township, Transvaal on January 25, 1986. Photo: Paul Weinberg / Mayibuye Centre Archives. Right: Oliver Tambo with Nelson Mandela in Addis Ababa in 1962. Photo: © IDAF.
IF ANY ONE WORD could describe this epic documentary about the struggle against apartheid in the latter part of the last century, that word is exhilarating. More compelling and instructive than any fictionalized movies on the subject, the seven-part, eight-and-a-half-hour Have You Heard from Johannesburg (2010) is charged by the impassioned, clear-eyed approach of its producer/director Connie Field and energized by a cast of characters, whose names, but for one or two, are no doubt unknown to most Americans, including those who lived through the period—the 1960s through the ’90s—when the majority of the events chronicled occurred.
Field’s work is an ambitious attempt to convey the increasing international awareness of the violence, humiliations, murders, exiles, and imprisonments practiced by the Pretoria regime, which answered the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the late ’40s with its own racial segregation policy, and, under Pieter (P. W.) Botha, sustained it arrogantly and stubbornly even when that policy had become both blatantly embarrassing and economically suicidal. Field focuses not only on the ethical issues but on the economic, social, political, cultural, and religious pressures that finally led to the rescinding of apartheid policies (by Botha’s successor, Frederik [F. W.] de Klerk) and the release of four key figures from their twenty-seven-year imprisonment. By that point, in 1990, the most notable of the incarcerated, Nelson Mandela, had become a household name worldwide. Understandably, he bookends Field’s project: Part One opens with his release, then backtracks to the events that occurred during his imprisonment; Part Seven reprises that release, which is given greater meaning through the scale and depth of what has intervened. But if Mandela’s symbolic status is unquestioned, the figure who stands out as the blood, guts, and mind of the movement (and as the political savvy behind the African National Congress) is Oliver Tambo. Shown in rare interview footage, he emerges as a dynamic leader of impressive intellect and courage, exiled to England and unceasing in his devotion to the cause.
The film incorporates miles of newsreels along with material from television and elsewhere. The first three parts trace the origins of the apartheid policy, the parameters of the fight, and the establishment and outlawing of the African National Congress. The next three focus on different strands of international pressure, and the last on the wearing down, near economic collapse, and ultimate concession of the regime. Some parts seem self-contained. Part Four, “Fair Play,” concentrates on international efforts to prevent the nation’s rugby team, the pride of white South Africa, from playing in matches abroad. Part Five, “From Selma to Soweto,” recounts protests in the ’80s at universities across America, led by Columbia, demanding that the institutions’ divest from South Africa, and leading ultimately to the vote by both houses of Congress to override Reagan’s veto of economic sanctions. Both episodes in the film demonstrate Field’s talent for weaving an extraordinarily complex tapestry of historical events and international personages into a dramatic structure, complete with climax and catharsis.
But Field is no sentimentalist. Her method is neither contrived nor unearned; it underlines that the long struggle consisted of separate battles in separate arenas, each reaching a turning point that gave impetus to the next. To see only one or two parts is to miss how implied victory is tempered by the fight as it continues elsewhere.
Field assembled an astounding number of impressive individuals to flesh out this story, from heroic members of the African National Congress to enlightened government and church figures of such countries as Sweden and the Netherlands; from the tireless Desmond Tutu to Barbara Castle, the fiery antiapartheid member of British Parliament. There is not a dull or inarticulate figure among these talking heads. Those driven by pragmatism prove that only when the power of the masses is matched by economic pressure—in this case the refusal, however begrudging, of banks and corporations to do business with a failing regime—is success possible. As Tony Bloom, board member of the Barclays Bank there, soberly puts it, “getting out of South Africa was the right business decision.”
One key figure remarks that had Reagan and Thatcher not been elected, it would have been impossible for Botha to maintain apartheid. Both leaders continued to evoke the specter of Communism to ostracize the ANC. So it is especially gratifying to see a clip of Secretary of State George Schultz, following his 1987 meeting with Oliver Tambo (demonized for years by Botha, Reagan, and Thatcher as a puppet of Moscow), telling the interviewer how charming, intelligent, and informed he found the man—not at all the Communist stereotype one had thought. Tambo, gravely ill at the time of Mandela’s release, finally returned to Africa after twenty-seven years of exile, only to die a year later, before his comrade was elected president. This film, placing him once more before a new generation of potential movers and shakers, is mandatory viewing.
Have You Heard from Johannesburg plays April 14–27 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
IN ITS APRIL CALENDAR NOTES, Anthology Film Archives describes Alain Tanner as “the man who put Swiss cinema on the international film cultural map.” While that may not seem like much of a distinction given the low profile of Swiss filmmaking, Tanner deserves attention for more than being the most recognizable director to hail from the land of cuckoo clocks and expensive watches. He’s also one of the great unsung radicals to emerge during that intense, now heavily romanticized period of cinematic politicization the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Indeed, the film with which Tanner is usually associated, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), was appropriately the earliest in the Walter Reade Theater’s “1968: An International Perspective” series three years ago to look back on the era with little rose-tinted nostalgia. More critical than didactic, in the film Tanner studies the ripple effects of Geneva’s May 1968 political tumult with a sympathy and severity that make it as forward-looking as it is reflective.
As with Jonah, most of Tanner’s heroes and antiheroes are social outcasts: The graying protagonist of his feature debut, Charles, Dead or Alive (1969), abandons the leadership role in his family’s longtime watch factory dynasty to join the growing dropout generation; the teenage antiheroines of Messidor (1979) jettison family, work, and school for a vagabond and criminal existence in the hauntingly desolate Swiss countryside; Bruno Ganz’s AWOL oil-tank worker comes ashore in Lisbon only to lose himself to a lack of structure and volition (In the White City ). Tanner’s languorous style—slow tracking shots, patient long takes—matches the mood and pace of his drifting characters, often to the point of discomfort. But Tanner’s is a cinema of the ill-at-ease, the ill-fitting: A journalist and a fiction writer both fail at creating a narrative out of a young woman’s transgressions in The Salamander (1971), while a local politician and his Italian mistress discover the limits of passion in The Middle of the World (1974). The dreamy and mellow Requiem (1998), the latest film in Anthology’s retrospective, seems to suggest that Tanner has accepted balance, though not by compromise or complacency. If one theme could be said to run through all Tanner’s films, it’s that freedom doesn’t equal irresponsibility; freedom must be earned.
Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop, 2010, still from a color film, 87 minutes. Image courtesy of Paranoid Pictures.
BORN OUT OF THE NEW YORK graffiti scene of the 1970s and ’80s, street art has come a long way since Revs and Cost were wheat-pasting their block-letter foolscap names in every nook and cranny of the city. Like its sibling rap music, it has gone massive. No one was more responsible for this mainstreaming than an elusive, anonymous Bristol native who goes by the tag Banksy, with a close second going to the ubiquitous Shepard Fairey, he of the Obama “HOPE” poster. Both are featured in Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary about street artists that Banksy took over from its original auteur (and the real subject of the film), Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash.
A diminutive Frenchman who resembles a Mini-Me John Belushi with, as Banksy puts it in the film, “facial hair from the 1860s,” Guetta grew up with an obsessive need to videotape everything that happened around him. Nothing very exciting did, until he started following his cousin around Paris at night as the latter pasted and stenciled the titular creatures of the early video game Space Invaders anywhere he could. Invader, as his cousin called himself, gave Guetta a taste of the subversive thrill of illicit art, and the manic filmaholic had finally found his subject.
Through Invader’s underground connections, Guetta worked his way up through street-art royalty, including a period of following/filming Fairey (in his Andre the Giant “OBEY” phase), until he got an audience with Banksy, offering himself to the artist as a guide to the virgin walls and billboards of LA, Guetta’s adopted city. “Street art has a short life span,” says Banksy through an electronic voice distorter. “We wanted someone to document it, and Thierry was at the right place at the right time.”
After assisting and filming Banksy at work in LA, Guetta was invited by the artist to come to his studio in London and film his process there. Banksy’s studio hands, ever protective of their master’s secret identity, didn’t like the nosy, irrepressible Frenchman and his camera. Banksy disagreed: “He was cool, very human. The power of Thierry is the unlikeliness of him. He became a friend.” Inspired by his heroes, Guetta made a stencil of himself with a video camera and started bombing walls around LA. Around this time (2006), Banksy held his first big US show, “Barely Legal,” in an abandoned LA warehouse. Controversial for its (live) elephant in the room, the show was nevertheless a smash with Hollywood stars and wannabe hipsters alike.
Banksy had Guetta accompany him to Disneyland to document his placing of a blowup Gitmo detainee doll in view of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride, which caused the park to shut down in panic. Changing clothes and riding rides, Banksy got away. Guetta didn’t, enduring a Cheney-era grilling from park security. “Thierry was seeing another side of the Magic Kingdom,” chuckles Banksy. Managing to stash his videotape of the event in his sock and erase his digital still camera in the presence of his captors, Guetta was eventually released for lack of evidence.
This endeared him to Banksy even more, and the artist encouraged his sidekick to edit his endless hours of street-art video footage into a documentary about the subculture. Guetta obliged, apparently putting the hundreds of unmarked tapes through a digital Cuisinart, resulting in an unwatchably nonlinear, ultra-quick-cut image salad. “I started to think that Thierry wasn’t a filmmaker,” recalls Banksy, “but a guy with mental problems.” In order to take control of the film project, Banksy suggested that Guetta go back to LA and pursue his own art—a move he came to regret.
Assuming the identity of Mr. Brainwash, Guetta threw himself into street art with the same hyperactivity he brought to his camerawork, producing gazillions of highly derivative pieces that mash up Warhol, Banksy, Fairey, and almost every street and Pop artist who ever lived. Distinguished by their giant size and shameless stylistic thievery, Guetta’s works are emblematic of an initially inspired art movement planing out to the mediocrity of total saturation, something like the relationship between the Replacements and the Goo Goo Dolls. Undaunted by criticism, Guetta mounted a copycat abandoned warehouse show in the old CBS Studios building in Hollywood, hyped it heavily, and overnight became almost as famous as Banksy, selling over a million dollars’ worth of art in two weeks.
“Most artists take years to develop their style,” laments Banksy. “Thierry seemed to miss out on all those bits. There’s no one like Thierry, even though his art looks like everyone else’s.” Getting to the rub, Banksy continues, “Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry really makes them meaningless. I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that anymore.”
For his part, Guetta comes off at the end of the film as a vindicated Salieri without rancor or envy. “A lot of people think I’m a rabbit,” Guetta says. “Time will tell if I’m a turtle or a rabbit.” In the turtle column: Guetta was commissioned by Madonna to do the cover of her 2009 greatest hits collection, Celebration; he opened his second big show in the Meatpacking District in New York on Valentine’s Day, 2010; and he’s the subject of a documentary released under the imprimatur of his own personal Mozart. Maybe he’s really a fox.
Exit Through the Gift Shop opens in select theaters on Friday, April 16.
SERGE BOZON’S SINGULAR, extraordinary La France (2007), which never received a proper theatrical release in the US but will be available on DVD from Kino this week, might be thought of as the structural inverse of Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In Demy’s 1964 musical, every word of dialogue is sung; within this audacious exercise lies an achingly antiwar film, its hero shipped off to fight in Algeria. Bozon’s film, similarly daring, unfolds as a drama about the horrors, loneliness, and camaraderie of World War I that intermittently (four times, to be specific) blooms into a delirious, anachronistic musical.
Liberty, equality, fraternity: Gaul’s motto is dissected throughout Bozon’s movie, which laments the folly of nationalism. The straightforward title of the film is echoed in the names of the songs themselves: “England,” “Italy,” “Germany,” and “Poland.” Each, with lyrics written by the director, begins with the line “I, the blind girl. . . ,” sung by weary soldiers who come to life with their handcrafted string instruments, made from tin cans and other everyday detritus. Gender discordance runs throughout, as Camille (Sylvie Testud), in search of her fighting husband, cuts her tresses and binds her breasts to join ten combatants led by a haggard lieutenant (Pascal Greggory), who, like Camille, also hides a secret. Testud and Greggory, two of the finest actors working today, convey the depth of their characters’ despair with precise gestures, usually a shrug or a downward gaze.
Yet the dolor isn’t constant: Camille beams with pure enchantment the first time her comrades break into song—creamy, harmonious ditties that suggest outtakes from Pet Sounds and other mid-’60s pop manna. The aural magic of La France, combined with the magnificent cinematography of Céline Bozon (the director’s sister), who frequently films anxious wives and the roaming regiment at a distance, transports the viewer out of fixed notions of time and space. In its final scene, Bozon’s unforgettable war movie can no longer remain earthbound.
La France is available on DVD beginning April 6. For more details, click here.