The extent of my knowledge of graffiti artists begins and ends with Exit Through the Gift Shop, an exciting, inspiring and mysterious documentary that made big waves at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
I wasn't even aware that the crossover to legitimacy -- it's now called street art -- had occurred at all. Spending my first few years in Koch-era, New York, graffiti was more or less everywhere you looked. Be it hastily scrawled declarations of fidelity (gang-oriented and romantic), the marking of territorial boundaries or elaborately designed murals of disco, acid trip, phantasmagoria, it was all considered a nuisance and, more enticingly, illegal. I'd invariably hear this when I'd point out a particularly cool looking bit of work to one of my relatives.
It's been decades since we left New York and almost every political, cultural and musical shift that has since given rise to what now fuels the world of guerilla and underground street artists, all happened while I lived in a place where no such things really existed.
Billed as "The world's first Street Art disaster movie," Exit Through the Gift Shop -- a title that seems to denote the need for the occasional quick getaway -- begins as nothing more than a series of tapes being amassed by Thierry Guetta, a French expat in Los Angeles who runs a clothing resale business, and compulsively video tapes everything.
Guetta's cousin is a Los Angeles street artist called Space Invader, who's known for specializing in making mosaic plates depicting the alien ships from the classic 8-bit arcade game and tagging them in hard to reach places all over L.A.
Guetta goes out with him to document the work, and his pathological need to film every moment he sees brings him into contact with other street artists, including Shepard Fairey (known by all for designing the Obama HOPE image), and eventually leading to the internationally famed British enigma known as Banksy. They all think Guetta is a filmmaker making a documentary. He happily lets them believe it.
Exit Through the Gift Shop takes an oddly ingenious turn with Banksy commandeering the documentary and fulfilling a narrative arc that's almost too perfect to be true, as Guetta morphs from compulsive videographer into his own street artist alter ego, Mr. Brainwash.
Compiled from years of footage captured by Guetta and others -- chopping it down to the best bits alone must have been a Herculean task -- Exit Through the Gift Shop is a pure vérité (if it isn't, in fact, it's own piece of performance art). Guetta's camera is a low-fi window that takes us along as his constant companion to witness late-night raids against urban blandness, while he acts as look out or, just as often, risks life and limb in vertiginous locales to capture his mise-en-scène, as it's born on precariously high places.
While the directing credit goes to Banksy, that seems nearly arbitrary and likely an unverifiable designation. It doesn't help that Banksy is a somewhat mysterious character -- never having been photographed (in the film his face is blurred, and his allegedly Bristol accent is distorted with a voice modulator), who's identity is only known to a trusted few, and who also specializes in the subversion of politics and culture through his art. Sometimes seriously -- he did a series of images on the West Bank Barrier of children being borne skyward by fistfuls of balloons, and crafted a hole in the wall revealing an oasis on the Israeli side -- but more often with humor.
It's that air of wry amusement that makes me wonder if Banksy isn't having one over on us, though I'm pretty sure I don't really care.
Thierry Guetta is the real enigma, though, and I can't decide if his meteoric, near idiot savant rise from wannabe street artist to legitimate crossover gallery smash -- he recently created the cover art for a Madonna retrospective disc -- smells like a joke.
His work is so highly derivative of his forebears, Shepard Fairey and Banksy, as well as co-opting Warhol, yet people spend insane amounts of money for a piece by Mr. Brainwash; though what they buy is something that is merely conceptualized by him and then created by others. It feels like a middle-finger to the gauche, opinionated, art wanks that flock to spend thousands on pastiche crap that the city used to paint over. And the artists themselves all seem bemused by that, as if the collectors are missing the point. Perhaps the audience is, too.
But like Banksy, Guetta's whim-of-existence life is so fascinating and funny I really don't care where the truth ends and the joke begins -- and I'm not even sure there is a joke. The film's inertia, ingenuity and ultimate truth work brilliantly as a straight doc or the abrogation of one.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is an instant front runner for best documentary of the year, and apparently no one involved with it has ever made a film before. Amazing. And I mean that in a good way.
A Western Comic
As I seem doomed to repeat, I don't read comics. Even when I had an interest in them, the sheer amount of money one had to dish out to keep up with the characters, crossovers and goings on in the DC World alone would make your average meth head seem fiscally responsible. And DC is the Mets to Marvel's Yankees.
As a result, I usually find out about C-List characters such as Jonah Hex when the movie is announced, and I wind up getting quasi-educated in their back stories through film geek friends who also love comics.
Coming off more like an adaptation of script treatment as opposed to an actual screenplay, Jonah Hex finds Josh Brolin in the titular role, as an ex-Confederate officer who betrayed his unit to the Union after he's asked to help blow up a hospital.
The film opens on Hex as he's being crucified, watching his family burn at the vengeful hand of Quentin Turnbull (a sleepy John Malkovich) because Turnbull's son, Jonah's friend and comrade, Jeb (an uncredited Jeffery Dean Morgan) was killed by Hex in an altercation sparked by his treason.
Turnbull brands Hex's face, scarring him horribly, and leaves him to die. But the local Indians revive him and, having come so close to death, he gains some supernatural powers, one being the ability to resurrect the dead with a touch of his hand -- which not only looks cool, but comes in handy for talking to the stiffs.
Hex is bent on vengeance, but when he learns Turnbull has died in a fire, he instead becomes a notorious bounty hunter by drifting from place to place while sometimes landing in the bed of his favorite call girl, Lilah (Megan Fox).
But, like a bad penny, Turnbull turns upright again and leads a band of Confederate terrorists (complete with cloaked faces and suicide bomb vests) on a daylight train raid -- and the film's sole interesting action sequence -- to acquire a weapon of mass destruction to take out Washington and destroy the Union before its 100th birthday.
The U.S. government, in the form of the unlikely cast Will Arnett (Arrested Development), hires Hex to find Turnbull and stop him before he becomes history's most successful Tea Partier.
It sounds simple, but the film is such a perfunctory and jumbled mess that it's numbingly straight-forward plot still gets obfuscated in a flick that only runs for an hour and 15 minutes before the credits roll. I guess I should be thankful, but the ghost of a decent movie is in there -- somewhere.
Directed by Jimmy Hayward (whose directorial work should end here) from a script by the usually reliable Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (when it comes to Crank films, at least), Jonah Hex suffers not only from its direction but also some scorched earth editing, which clearly saw a chunk of the narrative hit the cutting room floor. It was, by all accounts, a troubled production. Neveldine and Taylor were originally in the director's chair until they stepped down due to "creative differences."
That it's a PG-13 film based on a notoriously violent, trippy and obscure source probably contributed.
Even when Jonah Hex struggles for some thematic aspirations, they pass quickly and go unexplored. Turnbull as an 1870s terrorist trying to destroy the Union (basically a contemporary sovereignty masturbation fantasy) is something that I'm sure had an allegorical undercurrent -- and an interesting one -- but gets dammed up by the film's need to cut, which breaks any flow or tension it attempts to generate. While Malkovich is clearly sleepwalking here, the idea behind his character is subverted more by his almost cameo-like appearances in the narrative than his actual performance.
Of course, Malkovich can cash this check unscathed, as will Brolin (who does everything he can to support this under some truly awkward make-up), and Michael Fassbender (Fish Tank) as Turnbull's insanely fun and psychopathic right-hand-man, Burke.
Fassbender was clearly having a blast here, channeling a combination of Malcolm McDowell and Frank Gorshin, melding it all into something that, like many elements of Jonah Hex, could have been good.
The visuals of the film vary wildly, sometimes looking like cheaply rushed re-shoots, and sometimes looking quite well done, particularly the aforementioned resurrection sequences. They blew up a lot to a pulsing soundtrack provided by Mastodon, who gallantly tries to emulate Neil Young's score for Dead Man, but which only makes the film seem more tonally disjointed than it already is. And I like Mastodon.
I doubt they'll have to worry; if I were Megan Fox, I would start. Fox is a void of talent in all her sweat dappled, vapidly sexual perfection. I missed Jennifer's Body, but if this is what it's like when she's not out-running Decepticons -- and she's been fired from that job -- than anyone who wants to see her look hot on in an actual movie theater should see Jonah Hex while they have their very short chance. Or, just find out where she goes to see better movies than this.
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