Friday, January 28, 2011
Banksy's best joke may be on the Academy
There's almost universal agreement, among people who've seen Exit Through the Gift Shop, that it's a terrific film.
Where people don't generally agree is the following: whether it's a genuine documentary or an elaborate hoax.
Which makes it all the more strange that the Academy has bestowed it a nomination for best documentary feature.
Every year you hear about one, or two, or three great documentaries that are not deemed eligible to compete in the documentary feature category at the Oscars. The reasons have ranged from Michael Moore's (overrated) Fahrenheit 9/11 running on TV once prior to playing in theaters, to Grizzly Man being constructed almost exclusively of archival footage (which it wasn't, actually).
But even when meeting the eligibility requirements, you always hear about famous snubs, such as probably the most talked about documentary of this year (Waiting for "Superman") getting left off the short list at the expense of two other films I'd never heard of (Waste Land and Gasland). (I'm actually lying about Waste Land -- it was the other 2010 documentary directed by Lucy Walker, who directed Countdown to Zero, which I wrote about here, while also briefly mentioning the existence of the movie Waste Land. But outside of that little bit of research I had never heard of it.)
Back in the old days, even a goofy voting system led to what is now widely considered the greatest documentary of all time (1994's Hoop Dreams) failing to secure a nomination. According to wikipedia, members of the nominating committee had a system where they would wave their flashlight at the screen to indicate that they no longer considered the film in question to be in contention. Apparently, they gave up on Hoop Dreams before it even reached 20 minutes. The system makes a certain amount of sense on some level -- if a film doesn't grab you in the first 20 minutes, it's done something wrong. My wife uses a similar system when forced to wade through hundreds of entries in screenplay competitions -- she simply doesn't have the time to read each one through to completion, if it hasn't done something interesting in the first 15 pages. I don't remember the first 20 minutes of Hoop Dreams and whether they were good or boring, but clearly that film revealed the flaws in their system.
So considering all this, it's truly amazing that Exit Through the Gift Shop found its spot, because it may not even be a documentary at all. Sure, it wears the clothes of a documentary and calls itself a documentary -- but so did I'm Still Here, which Joaquin Phoenix has admitted was a hoax.
If you've made it this far (the equivalent of the 20-minute rule???) and don't know what Exit Through the Gift Shop is, I think it's time for me to throw you a bone.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is a "documentary" by a mysterious British graffiti artist named Banksy, whose true identity and appearance are not known. Over the course of two decades, he's managed to paint graffiti (it's actually more beautiful than "mere" graffiti) in some of the strangest places, including on the wall of the Israeli West Bank barrier -- that particular image included two children digging a hole through the wall, with some kind of tropical paradise visible on the other side. He's known for the high degree of difficulty of his stunts, and the fact that he's never gotten caught. He's a true mystery.
Only, he's not even the original "filmmaker" in this film.
Much of the footage in Exit Through the Gift Shop was shot by a mustachioed man named Thierry Guetta, a French national living in Los Angeles, a man with a passion for video cameras. Guetta originally filmed almost everything in his day-to-day life, from his kids brushing their teeth to whatever he was watching on TV, before eventually latching on to the underground street artist movement, and starting to film the feats of both anonymous artists making basic tags, and near household names such as Shepard Fairey (who designed the iconic images of Obama used in his presidential campaign). This is the most level of access any one outsider has ever gotten to the street art scene, and the moving images he collects are astounding for their sheer lack of precedent.
Except, Thierry Guetta may not actually exist.
Oh yeah, there's a guy who's playing the role. But his name may not actually be Thierry Guetta, and he may not have actually done any of the other things the film claims he's responsible for, of which there are many -- I really should not reveal them here. In fact, Thierry Guetta could be a total fabrication by the great practical joker Banksy. Banksy wants us to believe that Guetta started to make a film about him, but Banksy turned the tables on Guetta and made Guetta the subject of Banksy's own film. And that's all I really want to say about it, because the film's surprises are some of its most exquisite joys.
Exit Through the Gift Shop, if actually an elaborate hoax as theorized, hoodwinks not only numerous real people (famous people) within its own narrative, but may now also be hoodwinking a group as traditionally stringent and stuffy as the Academy.
But will it win? That would be Banksy's greatest victory, wouldn't it? He'd have the last laugh and then some. Heck, he also had the first laugh, so he'd get both the first laugh and the last laugh. You might say he'd "exit" laughing.
But a win is doubtful. It seems much more likely that either Restrepo (a film documenting another kind of unprecedented access -- to military engagement with insurgents in Afghanistan) or Inside Job (Charles H. Ferguon's timely look into the financial crisis) will take home the statue. Exit may be better than both of those films -- I haven't seen Inside Job so I can't say for sure -- but my guess is that the Academy has already gone way out on a limb by nominating it in the first place. Hopefully that will be victory enough for Banksy.
And it occurred to me (in a conversation yesterday with Don -- in fact, I think it occurred to him and he shared it with me) that the Academy could actually be trying to pull one over on Banksy. In throwing his film a nomination, perhaps they are trying to lure him out of the shadows -- to appeal to some kind of vanity, which would make him unable to stay away from the Oscars. And then the mask would finally be removed, right?
Never happen. Banksy's much smarter than that. Regardless of whether the movie is real or fake, his ability to orchestrate these many different interpretations, not to mention make a film that is damn entertaining just at face value, all while remaining an enigma personally, proves how bottomless his smarts are.
If anything, he'd be at the Oscars in disguise. He'd get the job as a seat filler -- you know, the people who sit in your seat when you're in the bathroom, so it doesn't look like there are any empty seats. Or he'd be working the bar outside. Or he'd find some other co-conspirators who would allow him to show up as the 17th collaborator on their best animated short, when only 16 collaborators truly existed. He might be there, even if only he knew about it, even if only he got to laugh about it to himself.
And if Exit Through the Gift Shop actually does win, he'd have the option of rushing up on the stage and accepting the trophy in a maitre d's outfit. That probably wouldn't work -- security would stop him before he got within 20 feet of the stage. But it sure would be a glorious way to crown this achievement, wouldn't it?
Nah. Only by staying in the shadows will Banksy be able to keep thrilling and marveling us in the future.