Archive for February, 2011

Exit Through the Gift Shop – 2010

Given the nature of our digital age, it often seems like art is more disposable than ever. And really, it kind of is. Whether it’s the next great film being made on a handicam, or a riveting new album cooked up on a laptop in some dorm room – for better or worse the artistic palette has been wiped clean for all would-be artists of the generation. But how often are we allowed the opportunity to embark on something truly groundbreaking, to follow the rise and fall of art firsthand? Bumbling, inarticulate, and possibly brilliant – Thierry Guetta. the star of Exit Through the Gift Shop, is one of those lucky fools. Ambling onto the scene of “Street Art” (unsanctioned public art) with reckless abandon, the man quickly finds himself engrossed in the rapidly developing saga of outsider art.

And that’s where things get a little wonky. Like something of an acid-laced trip through the nighttime streets of LA, we see how Thierry moves from obscure clothes salesman (an early indication of his propensity for turning flights of fancy into a lucrative career) to enterprising filmmaker. Tracking the exploits of his cousin “Invader” (he puts up characters from the classic arcade game “Space Invaders”) as he works his magic, Thierry quickly gets a feel for the scene he will soon join firsthand. In fact, he becomes a sort of chronicler of the scene as it develops, adding his lens to the likes of the Shepard Fairey (infamous for his OBEY campaign) and, as he hits the big-leagues, the legendary prankster Banksy.

But what of Mr. Banksy? Certainly the most compelling figure in the film, many have suggested that the entire production is really an elaborate pop-art piece like the ones Banksy himself creates throughout the movie. Interesting stuff, certainly, and as Thierry edges closer and closer to his artistic expression lines regarding art and commerce quickly blur. As Mr. Brainwash makes his debut appearance, the film forces an increasingly pertinent question – how do we define our art?

That’s really the crux of the film, it would seem. While certainly an engaging documentary in and of itself (more a character-study, perhaps, than a truly ingrained examination of the culture) there’s an argument to be made for the film itself as a sort of companion piece to the street art genre as a whole. With Thierry as our trusty (and bumbling) leader, how could we not want to take the ride?

In miniature, that’s the film. A quick, almost hypnotic look at the move of street art from relative anonymity to searing attention. Giving a voice to the deliberately voiceless (Banksy and Co.) offers viewers the unique opportunity to probe the usually opaque genre. And while a documentary about art might not seem like your bag, I can almost guarantee sardonic humor and snappy visuals will delight even the art uninitiated (and minus a research report on Banksy in 11th grade and a G4TV special on Shepard Fairey – I’m by no means an expert.)

So, if you’ve caught the modern art bug or you like a compelling doc, here’s one to try on for size. With a compelling buffoon, a crafty second-mate at the wheel, and an awful lot of adventure, there’s a wonderfully crafty documentary here. And don’t skimp on the debate – the idea of art versus commerce is an age-old one well worth our opposing viewpoints. As one of those eternally revisited conversations, it’s a great idea to probe those questions for yourself by watching street art grapple with an entrance into the mainstream. And after all, who knows? You could be the next Mr. Brainwash. -A.R.

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Superbad – 2007

[Spoilers and such, ya’ll. I’ve tried to avoid them in the past, but I really want to discuss the end of the film. Consider yourself warned!]

I can still remember the packed theatre filled with excited adolescent energy and something, I realized a bit later, was probably pot smoke. I was sixteen years old, and seeing one of my first “R” rated films in theaters. Now mind you, I’d seen Knocked Up earlier that season, but something about Superbad seemed decidedly filthy, especially alluring. I can only imagine this was precisely what the viewers of Animal House, Porky’s, and American Pie felt, perhaps a year or two too young for the cut-off, sitting in their theater seats. Another dimension to the power of film revealed itself – it’s really fucking cool to watch stuff you’re not old enough to see.

It helped, then, that Superbad was more than it initially let on. Cresting off they hype that has pervaded Judd Apatow’s mid 2000’s work, the movie was primed to engage audiences in the ribald, adult comedy which for a while seemed to have gone extinct in the mainstream. While his star may be waning a bit (2009 and 2010 proved only middling years for the man) he was certainly in fine form for much of 2007. And as I settled into my packed theater, I can still recall that sense of genuine excitement that the best of films produce.

Beginning with a goofy, 1970s style intro, the tone from the first is clear. While there are certain modern touches (the film opens with a blustering argument over porno websites, at another one of the characters loses signal on his cell-phone to disastrous result) part of what’s so charming is its relationship with older films of this genre. But I’m getting ahead of myself… the story revolves around the age-old quest to grab snatch, as embodied by three relative losers. We’re not reinventing the wheel here, but the guys have genuine chemistry. The first, Evan (Michael Cera channeling, well, himself) is the most genuine. He’s the kind of guy who never quite gets the girl, but would never think of expressing anything but his innermost and honest thoughts. He’s partnered (kind of literally) with the buoyant Seth (Jonah Hill, appropriately foul-mouthed) and their buddy Fogell (the charming Christopher Mintz-Plasse) as they attempt to procure booze for a party. Hardly an original set-up, but the careening adventure manages to outlive the traditional premise by offering a strong mix of canny humor and genuine sentiment.

Way leads onto way, and the three end up (fake-ID in hand) ambling through a liquor store. Here, as the stories diverge, we’re introduced to Bill Hader and Seth Rogen as a pair of misfit police officers. Moving between parties and half-baked policing, our characters have the opportunity to espouse some of the angst (both sexual and personal) that comes to a head as the three prepare for college. Seth is being left behind, after all, and the shifting dynamic provides surprisingly emotive sub-text to the grandiose tale.

And that’s really the beauty of the film. Yes, it’s awfully funny (particularly in the full-theater setting where I first saw it), but it really sinks in when you consider what the film has to offer on a slightly more thoughtful level. It’s about male bonding (something you might recall was a plus for me when I reviewed The King’s Speech some weeks ago). Yet here, in miniature form, is that same magical quality. I understand that a film aimed at capturing the charm of male bonding won’t work for everyone (a recent conversation with a young lady regarding this facet made it abundantly clear that it really is an issue of gender), but for those willing to probe what is ostensibly a sex-romp, there’s plenty to be had.

Of course it’s funny, but again, surprisingly fluffy. Minus those touches that define the film as a modern work, we’re probing the same depths as American Graffiti did so long ago. And despite attempts at gross-out humor (a trademark of the Apatow style) things generally remain quite cute. Traveling along with the boys as they attempt to score the things so central to adolescence is heartening, even quaint at times. A playful scene in a grocery store and a very amusing scene utilizing The Guess Who cap off the fun the filmmakers and actors are clearly having with their craft.

Special attention must be given to the closing of the film, which really encapsulates the heart of the project. As Evan and Seth share a final sleepover (and really, what an iconic activity) they address the feelings which have been bubbling since the film began. The two go to the mall after waking up far too late (and far too hungover) and, not surprisingly, run into the two girls they’ve been chasing. They split up, Evan with Becca and Seth with Jules (the delightful Emma Stone), and share a final look back at one another. And there’s a lot to that look – volumes about how women change the friendship equation. It’s not a bad thing, it’s part of growing up – but they’ll never quite be the same. And somehow, in the midst of everything that growing up entails, they’re okay. We become adults in an instant, often without even realizing it.

It’s easy to pin Superbad as an adolescent screw-ball comedy, but it does a disservice to the deeper pangs drawn from youth. And of course, it’s an awfully funny movie. Whip-smart, often touching, and surprisingly relevant, the film succeeds on the strength of its sharp writing and the winning performances of its leads. And looking at how the years since have treated them (Hill in Funny People, Cera in Scott Pilgrim, Mintz-Plasse as a stand-out in Year One), the film stands as a jumping-off point for a new generation of comedic talent. Kudos, then, for heralding the beauty of the bro. – A.R.

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Oft discussed is the concept of the tortured romantic. So much genius, so much work, so very little shown to the public. Van Gogh, Nick Drake, Emily Dickinson… the sensitive laborer is a stereotype anyone vaguely familiar with artists will immediately recognize. But how many of these artists live that ideal out? Drake sold roughly 5,000 albums in his lifetime, Van Gogh sold, from my understanding, one painting (Red Vineyard at Aries), and Emily Dickinson published a handful of her (heavily edited) poems.  All of these artists made unsuccessful forays into the popular consciousness. All of them toiled away and worked in relative seclusion. These people are not Henry Darger.

Darger is the subject of the 2004 documentary In the Realms of the Unreal. Detailing the life of the reclusive “outsider” artist and Chicago native, the film has the remarkable challenge of documenting the life of a man who lived his life with as little fanfare as possible.

There are only three photos of the man in existence, and only a smattering of actual interviews to help draw a picture of the man. In fact, without any of the personal information that usually forms a biographical doc, Realms adopts a rather novel structure. Culling the few interviews available from those who lived near the man (neighbor, landlord, etc.) the documentary is anchored by a sort of self-narrarated mix of Darger’s life and his primary work The Story of the Vivian Girls. What follows is a wondrous journey into the mind of a fantastic tinkerer.

Darger, from the very first, experiences a harsh existence. Elements of child-abuse, sexual misconduct, and general ignorance cast a disturbing shadow over his past. Still, the man appears relatively healthy. He will carry a job throughout his life, never get into trouble, and retain a handful of small relationships. It gets stranger, though. He also attends mass four times a day and can’t be bothered to spend a small chunk of his monthly allowance on a pet. He struggles to socialize with others, and at times replays conversations with others by himself when nobody else is around. And mind you, just the iceberg here…

Being that Darger’s life is wrapped in a cloak of relative mystery, the documentary alternates between elements of his real life and those of his fantasy world (the two are inextricably linked, so the choice is appropriate and the results are confounding.) Detailing the lives of several young women (the Vivian Girls) we see how Darger’s own life produced a curious sort of art. Entirely reclusive, his art remains undiscovered until the time of his death. What follows is a sort of mock-mystery jigsaw puzzle of art. The documentary manages to suss out some very compelling (and highly debatable) claims regarding his life. And given the fact that the book can’t be purchased (it’s 15,000 pages) it gives a much larger group of people the opportunity to acclimate themselves to Darger’s uniquely compelling work.

One of the coolest features of the film is that Darger’s work is animated. While in life he made large paintings (often on both sides of his canvases) here everything is given a sort of animated motion, taking still paintings and mobilizing them. While some might cry foul at the idea of tampering with the work of an acclaimed artist, it lends itself to Darger’s DIY ethic. I’d be curious to know what Darger would think of having his art spun into life, but at the very least I’d imagine the man who collected comics and advertisements with his $25 monthly paycheck would wholeheartedly approve.

Probing questions arise as the documentary progresses. At one point Darger seeks out the opportunity to adopt children of his own, a claim made precarious by the bizarre and sexually ambiguous pictures which populate his works. And what about his extreme (and contentious) devotion to Catholicism? The man attended Mass four times a day, and his religious guilt and doubt can be found throughout his final works. Even his 15,000 page novel ends on a disquieting note, with the children he has watched over variously finding Heaven and Hell. It’s the same battle Darger seems to have fought his entire life, searching for power and meaning in a world where he remained voiceless.

There’s magic in these drawings and the documentary that details them. Darger’s life itself becomes a sort of artistic work, exemplifying those traits we so often associate with the heart of creation. Even more important, however, is the charm of the still-life documentary. With a handfull of interviews, some haunting voice-overs, and those curiously animated paintings, there’s something peculiarly emotional and primal in all of his work. Addressing the intimately human through the wildly fantastic, Darger proves himself far more than a mere reclusive magpie. Beautiful and haunting, difficult and thought-provoking, Henry Darger and his bizarre charm remain transcendent. The documentary that illustrates him, curious and mesmerizing. – A.R.

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