Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Documentary: Banksy Revealed!

Okay, I admit that it's a cheap move to get your attention with a misleading headline.  

In a sense the documentary entries are going to be the easiest to do, because in general this is the strongest category on View Instantly.  The idea for this entry came just as I looked briefly at the "Recommended for You" documentary listings; there were about 10 titles that popped out at me as candidates for this blog.  So for now, I'm going to stick to some relatively recognizable titles, and we'll dig deeper into the vault in the weeks to come.

Of course street artist Banksy is getting quite a bit of coverage these days due to the Oscar nomination for his film, Exit Through the Gift Shop.  Some of the more amusing articles have addressed the issue that the Academy is not quite sure what will or should happen if Banksy should end up winning the award.  The latest I've read about this is that the Academy has refused to allow Banksy to show up in disguise.  Other articles have addressed new work that has been popping up that people are attributing to Banksy.

To be honest, I was not nearly as impressed with Exit Through the Gift Shop as everyone else was, but I still recommend it, and I'm using it as the cornerstone of this collection of documentaries that in some way explore the nature of art and the art-making process.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, USA, 2010, 86 minutes)
Netflix: Amateur filmmaker Thierry Guetta's project to chronicle the underground world of street art takes a fascinating twist when he meets Banksy, an elusive British stencil artist, in this Oscar-nominated documentary. Unimpressed with Guetta's footage, Banksy takes over filmmaking duties while Guetta reinvents himself as a street artist and -- much to Banksy's surprise -- immediately becomes a darling of the Los Angeles art scene. Netflix link.

Don't get me wrong, I like the film.  But I do think there have been more engaging documentaries about art, art making, and the art world.  The main strength of this film is its priceless documentation of what was supposed to be an ephemeral art form.  But just as performance art of the 1960s was absorbed into the gallery art world of the 1970s and beyond, this film documents street art / graffiti art as it moves from street sensibility to art world respectability.  Sometimes the film pats itself on the back just a bit too much, which is a consequence of the film being made by participants in this transitional period. (I have a similar criticism of skateboarder Stacy Perlata's Dogtown and Z-Boys). But overall the film is compelling and at times downright fascinating.

Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time (Thomas Riedelsheimer, USA, 2003, 90 minutes)
Netflix: This astonishing documentary from Thomas Riedelsheimer shadows renowned sculptor Andy Goldsworthy as he creates works of art with ice, driftwood, leaves, stone, dirt and snow in open fields, beaches, rivers, creeks and forests. With each new creation, he carefully studies the energetic flow and transitory nature of his work. The film won the Golden Gate Award Grand Prize for Best Documentary at the 2003 San Francisco International Film Festival. Netflix link.

This is one of the best meditations on the art making process that I can think of, and at times it is absolutely gorgeous to look at.  Perhaps it's most lasting impact is the way in which it shifts the beauty of art beyond the final art object itself (which in Goldsworthy's case is most often ephemeral) and emphasizes the tranquility of making art.
Netflix: Philippe Petit captured the world's attention in 1974 when he successfully walked across a high wire between New York's Twin Towers. This Oscar winner for Best Documentary explores the preparations that went into the stunt as well as the event and its aftermath. Obsessed with the towers even before they were fully constructed, Petit sneaked into the buildings several times to determine the equipment he needed to accomplish his daring feat.  Netflix link.

This would make an interesting double-bill with Rivers and Tides, as both films explore the preparation of creating what ultimately will be a fleeting moment in time.  Of the two, Man on Wire uses more familiar film language (and even Hollywood genre conventions) to convey the mystery, suspense, and finally the exhilaration of Petit's transcendent walk between the Twin Towers.  I remember admiring the film for ending on a somewhat melancholy and ambiguous note regarding the consequences of Petit's success, despite the rest of the film clearly rooting for him. Sometimes the best documentary subjects are those whom you admire but probably would not like personally.
Netflix: This feature-length documentary from filmmaker Les Blank paints a riveting portrait of megalomaniacal German director Werner Herzog as he worked against almost insurmountable odds in the Amazon jungle to craft his epic movie Fitzcarraldo. Besides capturing the seemingly hexed production's myriad adversities, Blank's camera exposes Herzog as a man obsessed with his art and pressed to the brink of insanity to see his cinematic vision fulfilled. Netflix link.

Another take on the creative process, this time exploring its sometimes dark and obsessive side.  For those who want to follow up on the Herzog / Kinski creative relationship, you should check out the new 6 disc box set, Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski: A Film Legacy, which includes Herzog's own documentary, My Best Fiend.

F for Fake
Netflix: In this free-form documentary from the one and only Orson Welles -- his final major directorial effort -- the famed storyteller zigzags through a sardonic, fanciful tale of how art manages to amaze and fool us, often simultaneously. With faux determination, Welles examines the charismatic Elmyr de Hory -- who makes pretty good money forging Picassos -- while also offering a look at biographer Clifford Irving and even a peek into his own deceptions. Netflix link.

Since a good deal of Exit through the Gift shop deals with artistic identity and originality, and since much of the discussion of the film has called it a prank (see here and as fresh as today's headlines, here), it might be worth looking at the ultimate meditation on the nature of truth, and the fine line separating two different forms of creativity: art making and forgery making.

The Punking of Paris Hilton (UK, 2006, 4 minutes)
UbuWeb: Hundreds of Paris Hilton albums have been tampered with in the latest stunt by "guerrilla artist" Banksy. Banksy has replaced Hilton's CD with his own remixes and given them titles such as Why am I Famous?, What Have I Done? and What Am I For? He has also changed pictures of her on the CD sleeve to show the US socialite topless and with a dog's head. A spokeswoman for Banksy said he had doctored 500 copies of her debut album Paris in 48 record shops across the UK. She told the BBC News website: "He switched the CDs in store, so he took the old ones out and put his version in." UbuWeb link.

An amusing and pretty much self-explanatory short documenting one of Banksy's guerrilla interventions.

Banksy’s Coming for Dinner (Ivan Massow, UK, 2009, 60 minutes.)
Hulu: Experience the clash of celebrity, as Hollywood royalty Joan Collins and husband Percy meet Banksy, the most famous living artist in the world. Banksy’s Coming for Dinner is a film within a film and questions the very nature of 'reality' at every level. Hulu link. 
Okay, in all honesty I haven't looked at all of this yet, and all of the Hulu user reviews seem to indicate that it is pretty awful.  But let's take a look at in anyway, and see what we think.  The "story" behind the production can be found here, and you'll see that this does seem to fit into today's theme in interesting ways (and now I don't feel as bad as I did about the misleading title for this blog entry).

[Edit 3/15/11: Banksy's Coming for Dinner is now also available on Netflix Watch Instantly]

Printing Banksy: Modern Multiples Creates the L.A. Prints (Brad Beyer & Robert Dragan, USA, 2007, 15 minutes).
From PrintingBanksy.com: A week after Banksy’s Los Angeles Barely Legal show in 2006, we met with Richard Duardo of Modern Multiples to acquire a set of the LA prints.  We filmed an interview with him to document the occasion and to capture his tales of what it was like to work with street art’s brilliant mystery man. After watching the raw footage a few times, we decided that it was an intriguing story and created a short documentary.  We wrapped the project in early 2007 and submitted it to the Sundance, Tribeca, and San Diego Film Festivals later that year.  Overlooked and with our submission fee budget depleted, we really never knew what to do with it. So now we’re taking our cues from Banksy’s Oscar nominated documentary film, EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, and we’re just ‘getting it out there’.  Printing Banksy link.

Just found this moments after completing the rest of the entry.  Then I found yet another interesting article in today's Los Angeles Times.  I'm going to have to stop here because it could just keep going and going.  I look forward to your comments.  --JLK

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