Noel Murray @ Sundance ’10: Day Six

Noel Murray @ Sundance ’10: Day Six

Exit Through The Gift Shop
Director: Banksy (89 min.)
Documentary
Headline: Can anyone be a street artist?
Indie type: Gallery doc
Report: After a few days at a film festival, the movies inevitably begin to run together—but not in a bad way. It’s more like the movies start talking to each other, such that one comedy about New York hipsters begins to answer another, or one documentary about paparazzi complements another, and so on. Watching Exit Through The Gift Shop—the debut film by notorious street artist Banksy—I thought a little about Smash His Camera, for two reasons. First off, the documentary is largely about whether the enduring value of a piece of art derives from the image it captures or the person who captures it. Second off, Banksy raises this question by telling the story of Thierry Guetta, a French-born Los Angeleno who has the habit of videotaping everything and everyone around him, all of the time—and thus irritating everyone around him, all of the time. (Especially any celebrities he meets, who can’t distinguish Thierry from a common pap.) One day, while visiting family in France, Thierry learns that one of his cousins is the legendary street artist Space Invader, so Thierry, naturally, begins videotaping him. Then Space Invader introduces Thierry to other street artists, and videotaping their work becomes something of an obsession. Eventually Thierry meets the reclusive Banksy and... well, at this point Exit began to remind me of Catfish, in that it tells a story with a lot of twists and turns, and it’s probably better if viewers don't know them all. Suffice to say that Banksy’s movie starts out being about the DIY impulse that inspires the great graffiti artist, then it becomes about what makes an artist great, and not just a well-meaning wannabe. The documentary also contains a lot of amazing footage of artists at work, and of their finished works, which are often removed or wiped away days later. Mostly though, it’s a surprisingly wry and analytical essay-film from an artist who rarely makes his thoughts on anything public. Here, he seems to wonder whether inspiring others is worth it if he can’t control how they’re inspired. Throughout this festival, we’ve seen posters and trailers urging us to be creative and “Rebel!” To that, Exit Through The Gift Shop wearily replies: “On second thought, don’t.” Grade: A-

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
Director: Tamra Davis (88 min.)
Documentary
Headline: Pop artist struggles to be as respected as he is famous
Indie type: Gallery doc
Report: And now here’s another documentary that’s of a piece with something else playing the fest. I saw Tamra Davis’ doc about ‘80s art world sensation Jean-Michel Basquiat immediately after watching Exit Through The Gift Shop, and it was enlightening to compare the two, both as movies and as snapshots of artistic movements. Davis’ doc is slicker, but she doesn’t have the narrative surprise on her side that Banksy has—unless there are people out there who don’t know that Basquiat died almost 20 years ago—and she’s a little too enamored of still shots of paintings, which she returns to over and over. (Like a lot of docs about the art world, The Radiant Child doubles as a museum exhibit.) But the subject matter is just as fascinating as in Exit, especially given that Basquiat and his generation of artists paved the way for the acceptance granted to Banksy. Just as Banksy’s art is instantly engaging and accessible, so was Basquiat’s, with its childish scrawling, evocative phrases, and layers of paint. Basquiat also made an impact as a black artist with a cool attitude and a messy style, at a time when the art world was dominated by, as one New Wave curator puts it, “White walls, white wine and white people.” The artist became a near-instant sensation, and a millionaire within a couple of years of his debut, but he never got the respect from critics or tony museums that he felt he deserved, and he eventually turned to hard drugs. In that sense, his story is familiar and depressing: just another unhappy burnout with impeccable style. Still, it’s cool to see Basquiat’s work in the context of its era—a context that Davis helps evoke with an awesome soundtrack of jazz, hip-hop and punk—and to contemplate that old question of what constitutes art. Basquiat worked fast and was incredibly prolific, but did that diminish the value of his work? Collectors gravitated to him right away, but was that because they loved his paintings or because they’re thorough historians (and because Basquiat represented his era well)? Like a lot of the movies at Sundance this year, The Radiant Child asks us to question our relationship with art and artists, and to consider how much our aesthetic judgment is colored by the story surrounding it. Grade: B

The Taqwacores
Director: Eyad Zahra (84 min.)
Cast: Bobby Naderi, Noureen DeWulf, Dominic Rains, Rasika Mathur, Tony Yalda, Nav Mann, Volkan Eryaman, Ian Tran
Headline: American-Muslim punks define their own Islam in a ratty Buffalo boarding house
Indie type: Subculture study
Report: Based on a cult novel by Michael Muhammad Knight, The Taqwacores follows a young Muslim engineering student who rents a room in a house filled with people who share his faith, but in decidedly unconventional ways. When Knight wrote his book, the idea of “Muslim punk rock” was purely fictional, but since it came out in 2004, actual Muslim punkers have emerged in various scenes around the country, and some of them appear in the film, in a big climactic scene that has the house hosting a Taqwacore show. That literalizing of the imaginary is one of the problems with this movie; because The Taqwacores isn’t played for farce, some of its more outrageous elements (like the sight of a radical lesbian in a burqa) come off as jarring, when they should be at least a little comic. Also, the acting and directing is often amateurish, and the story is slow to develop. But I have to admit that The Taqwacores has been sticking with me all day. I almost walked out of it after 20 minutes (and well might’ve, except that I wasn’t sure if the lunch spot I was interested in was open yet), but I’m glad I watched the whole thing, because I found the movie’s message of inclusion moving, and I liked that it didn’t gloss over the idea that even “outsider Muslims” might find it difficult to get along with each other due to differing beliefs. The Taqwacores felt impassioned, and that goes a long way to making a rickety indie film worth seeing. Grade: B-

The Extra Man
Director: Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman (108 min.)
Cast: Kevin Kline, Paul Dano, John C. Reilly, Katie Holmes
Headline: Shy young man learns how to be classy from a bum
Indie type: Wry comedy
Report: Writer Jonathan Ames’ work often reminds me of Ben Katchor’s cartoons, in that both men are paying homage to the quirks and vanishing institutions of a major metropolis. The difference is that Katchor’s visions are largely fictional, while Ames is describing the real. Like the Ames-anchored HBO series Bored To Death, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman’s adaption of Ames’ 1998 novel The Extra Man is trivial yet oddly ingratiating, largely because of its fascination with certain distinct breeds of New Yorker. Paul Dano plays a demure Jersey fop who answers an ad and becomes roommates with Kevin Kline, a dapper Manhattanite who knows all the tricks about how to live a life of luxury on a pauper’s income. Kline knows how to sneak into the opera, and how to get invited to fancy parties, where he can serve as lively company to wealthy widows. He’s also, quite possibly, gay, though he claims to find all forms of sexual deviance—and indeed sex itself—to be distasteful. The Extra Man is kooky to a fault, and Dano’s a major drag with his soft voice and blank expression. (I liked him so much in There Will Be Blood, but I’ve not been able to stand Dano in anything else before or since.) But Kline gives a wild, wonderful performance, reminiscent of his work on A Fish Called Wanda. And what can I say? I’m apparently a sucker for Ames’ sensibility. I really enjoyed Bored To Death, and I found The Extra Man a pleasant way to kill a couple of hours, in the company of a man who knows all the secrets (but is saving a few for himself). Grade: B

Tomorrow: My last day in PC brings a nature mockumentary in 3D, a Louis CK concert film, and the company of The Perfect Host.

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