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.


Don Handsome said...

I read about Exit Through The Gift Shop’s premiere at Sundance last year…there were rumors that Banksy was “in the audience” for the film, but of course no body knows for sure. A supposed associate of his read a supposed prepared statement from Banksy after the film showed. And supposed Banksy tags were spotted around Park City. People were buzzing. That buzz is what drove me to see the flick in the first place. I’d bet anything that Banksy wasn’t actually in Park City, but the fact he is able to insert himself into something like Sundance – the ultimate outsider, marking territory in an unconquered world – without sacrificing, and in fact enhancing, his mystique makes me very excited for the potential that this film’s nomination brings.

How awesome would it be if Banksy met the Academy’s challenge similarly to the way he met Sundance’s? Look for Banksy tags on the Oscar set. Look for a hooded bandit sneaking behind the scenes like a modern day Phantom of the Opera. Look subversively altered Best Picture clips. Look for a prank involving the Oscar goodie bags. Just don’t look for Banksy, because he wont be there. He’ll be laughing from the outside and it will be marvelous.

And IF Exit Through The Gift Shop Wins best documentary (and I agree that it wont), look for “Thierry Guetta”’s acceptance speech.

Ryan McNeil said...

Some thoughts...

I'm not sure why there's confusion as to whether or not this film is authentic.

Yes - Brainwash as an artist is totally up for debate, especially since for everything the film shows, it never shows Thierry at work in the studio or on a wall. I fully believe that it's possible that Banksy is the one responsible for Brainwash's work.


The people documented in the first half (Space Invader, Shepard Faery) are genuine. Banksy's antics are genuine. And that massive art show that we see Thierry dicking around with is genuine. This isn't the same as Joaquin's half-assed social's a real look at real artists and the reality of art commerce where names (especially trendy names) are valued more than the work they produced.

It was an amazing year for documentaries. Having already seen four of these five (with only INSIDE JOB to go) I can tell you that picking just one would be rather tricky...and if that one is EXIT, then I'd be just dandy with that.

Derek Armstrong said...

Hatter - That's an excellent point. However, I think a documentary in its strictest sense would be a film in which no portion is falsified. If Thierry Guetta is not really a person named Thierry Guetta, then that alone would disqualify it in the strictest sense. I agree that it must be categorized as a documentary because there is no proof that it isn't. And I agree with all your points about what it says about our society -- I was trying to be vague about them in the interest of letting people who haven't seen it discover those aspects themselves. (Although your comment does not in any way constitute a spoiler.) Don't mistake my comment that it might not be a true documentary as me saying it doesn't have value -- I ranked it 8th out of the 109 movies I saw this year, so obviously I love it. I just think that one of the interesting questions it asks us is what really *is* a documentary, and does it matter?

Don - I would love to see hijinx like that, but I suspect that in the age of terrorism, it would be very hard to pull off at a high profile event like the Oscars. Even Sundance with its many famous personalities does not have the intense concentration of personalities the Oscars has, nor is it the same kind of symbol of Hollywood that a terrorist group would see as the ideal place to make a statement. Any attempt by Banksy to do shady things at the Oscars would not only carry a high risk of exposing his identity, but could also get him in hot water with Homeland Security. I know you were merely "what if"-ing so my overly literal response is probably a bit out of tone. I do agree, however, that the high security level at the Oscars might be just the kind of thing he would see as a delicious challenge.

Derek Armstrong said...

Oh, and Hatter, also ... I think that if it really is a hoax, then both Fairey and Invader would have to be in on it.

Ryan McNeil said...

Good point (and again, try to chase down the others you haven't seen - GASLAND especially will freak you out).

I guess my counter-question is, if we're going down that road, doesn't that open the question on what to make of docs that editorialize as well?

They might avoid falsifying, but through narrative and editing they take a position.


Hal said...

I read somewhere that Banksy recently came out and confirmed that this was indeed a genuine documentary and not a hoax.

Derek Armstrong said...

I would argue that every single documentary ever made editorializes. Merely the act of choosing what footage to show, in what sequence -- even whether to hold the shot for 10 seconds or 15 -- is making some kind of comment that dovetails with the filmmaker's agenda. There is no such thing as absolute impartiality. A filmmaker would probably not even be attracted to a topic if he or she had no significant opinion about it. It's a fine line, but I look at it this way: Newspapers have room for "straight news stories" (which usually have an editorial slant anyway) and editorials (which have a blatant editorial slant), but they have no room for fiction/creative writing. Creating a fake artist and attributing a bunch of work to him is, essentially, fiction. But as discussed previously, this does not detract from the experience of watching the film in the slightest ... in fact, it enhances it quite a bit.

My suspicion is that we are eager to call it a documentary because the word "documentary" itself bestows a certain respectability on it. However, it HAS to be called a documentary until that day (which will likely never come) when Banksy stands up and says "It was all a joke." Then it can slide over and be called a mockumentary.

However, the percentage of real footage certainly makes it a difficult issue. In a true mockumentary, everything is fake. So this is obviously not a mockumentary in that sense. But neither is I'm Still Here (which I respect more than you do), because much of what happens in there is "real" in the sense that it involves unwitting participants who were not in on the joke. In that sense, both of these films have a kinship to Borat and Bruno -- for better or for worse.

Derek Armstrong said...

Hal - But couldn't that be just part of Banksy's master plan, to swear that it's real? Andy Kaufman never showed his hand, did he? And even the fact that he would have to delivery the statement through an intermediary means that we can't trust it.

The brilliance of this whole phenomenon is that it has blurred the lines and made us unable to determine what we should believe and what we shouldn't believe.