CINEMA: Metaphysical Graffiti

exit-through-the-gift-shop-by-banksy.jpgEXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP (2010, directed by Banksy, 87 minutes, U.S.)

THE SQUARE (2008, directed by Nash Edgerton, 105 minutes, Australia)

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2009, directed by André Téchiné, 96 minutes, France)


The new documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop. starts off as a seemingly slight, self-promotional look at the guerrilla Street Art movement, then takes a surprisingly complex turn to look at the nature of art itself. The movement, in which stickers, stencils, spray paint and markers interact with public spaces, mixes Warhol, graffiti and anarchist ideas in ways that can jolt the urban landscape. London’s Banksy is one of the best-known artists tied to the scene and he takes possession of this film with the “A film by” if not an actual “Directed by” on-screen credit.  I’m guessing he’s playing coy about calling himself the director because most of the film’s footage was actually shot over a period of years by Thierry Guetta, an elaborately moustachio’d Frenchman who resettled in L.A. where he ran a vintage shop. He also compulsively videotaped his life and after running across the “Andre The Giant Has a Posse” art star Shepard Fairey, Thierry becomes obsessed with tracking down and filming other street artists as they sneak around after hours and apply their craft.

Since this involves scaling walls, being a look-out and running from the police, there is a natural drama in this footage you wouldn’t find in watching a more conventional artist putter in their studio. Thierry shoots a number of the scene’s big names, finally getting access to the mysterious Banksy, who goes to great lengths to keep his identity a secret. But Banksy isn’t the only one with secrets and Thierry’s hidden ambition leads him to re-launch himself as a street art star, who condenses what he learned to relaunch himself as “Mr. Brainwash.” His coming-out party is a gigantic exhibition looking to sell himself directly to the high-art crowd looking for the next big thing.

Some speak on-screen with derision at Thierry’s self-hype but the big screen loves a con man and Thierry is indeed the more colorful than the subjects he filmed. Whether he is as “legit” an artist as the people he filmed is another question (his work features silk-screened Warhol-styled portraits of different celebrities with Marilyn Monroe’s hair for example) but in a movement that is often built on re-purposing found images who can really claim originality?  While Shepard Fairey may infer that Thierry is a fraud, the film ends by mentioning that Fairey is currently being sued over the image of Barack Obama on which he based his iconic “Hope” poster. The street art movement thrives as a answer to the blizzard of advertising we trudge through in modern life, but when transferred to the gallery wall the art can quickly turn glib.  One has to wonder if Mr. Brainwash’s backlash stems from the fact that his work exposes the whole movement’s limitations?  The fascinating Exit Through the Gift Shop leaves you with a great deal to ponder (some even wonder if the whole story might be a Banksy fabrication), much of it more provocative than the work it chronicles.

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Film critics can’t resist a Film Noir, that genre of crime films the originated in post-WW2 America, where men who caved into baser desires would be square_ver2.jpgtrapped and punished by an inescapable fate.  These stories of murderous lover’s triangles have been retold ever-since, often as the fodder for sleazy pay-cable films with Z-grade stars.  Rescuing the genre from parody and self-consciousness is The Square, a recent import from Australia that dispenses with the shadowy expressionism and tough-guy patter and gets to the heart of the genre’s possibilities with a believable naturalism.

Raymond (the lanky fifty-something Dave Roberts) is a construction contractor with a faintly superior air, working on a luxury small town condo development to be called “The Square.”  He’s already bringing sin to the little suburban Eden by taking part in financial irregularities during the development’s construction.  He’s also having a carnally-charged affair with Carla (an actress with the perfect femme fatale name of Claire van der Boom), a hair stylist with a thuggish tow-truck driving husband.  When Carla discovers a mysterious bag of money her husband has stashed in their house’s crawlspace she comes up with the ingenious idea to steal the money and disguise the theft by burning down their house.  Then she and Raymond can escape to some uncharted paradise, presumably to have wild coitus until eternity.  What could go wrong?

As you might have guessed, plenty, but director Nash Edgerton unveils each complication in a beautifully modulated and exceedingly rational manner.  There are a million flaws with this simple plan yet Edgerton’s script (co-written with his brother Joel) finds some surprising twists that distance The Square from being a mere homage.  Things get deeper and deeper til it’s not lust that’s driving Raymond, just the desire to clean up the last mistake before the next one (and the next one) rears its head.  The Australian setting provides a fresh sense of place as well, with the town’s Summer-y Christmas festival providing a intriguingly off-kilter location for us Northern hemisphere folks.  But even on the other side of the globe, this sort of crime doesn’t pay, which doesn’t hamper Edgerton’s Down Under Noir from paying off exquisitely.

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girl-on-the-train-movie-poster.jpgAndré Téchiné’s latest starts off looking like a thriller then goes off into uncharted territories, like so many of his films do.  Split into two parts, “The Circumstances” and “The Consequences,” The Girl On the Train follows the title character, a restless twenty-something Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) as she seems a bit adrift in life.  With a mother who is perhaps too controlling (Téchiné working again with with Catherine Deneuve), Jeanne ends up submitting to the attentions of an aggressive suitor named Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle).  They move in together but unknown to her Franck’s caretaking job is in reality part of a drug dealing operation.  Things fall apart, and while she’s grieving the end of their romance she, somewhat inexplicably, cuts and bruises herself and falsely claims to be a victim of anti-Semitic violence.

It’s a plot twist one would never see coming and it is part of what gives Téchiné’s films the sense of real-life unpredictability.  It is also based on a recent incident that received nationwide attention in France, although Téchiné ends up making it just one corner of his film’s story.  The other involves an old friend of Jeanne’s mother, a Jewish lawyer named Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), who shelters Jeanne and her mother after the incident, hoping to get at the root of Jeanne’s deception.  Lawyer Bleistein’s family begin to take center stage as well, especially his brooding thirteen year old grandson, who has eyes on romancing the troubled older Jeanne as he is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah.

Why Jeanne falsely stages such a attack would seem to be the mystery at hand but Téchiné isn’t particularly interested in supplying a pat answer. If the film has a weakness it is not that he doesn’t tell us, it is that the fantastically beautiful Émilie Dequenne doesn’t capture the inner turmoil of a character that would commit such an act; she seems like a character with too many options to fall into such extreme behavior. Then again Téchiné spends so much time on the characters that surround her one has to ponder whether the film isn’t really about her but about the other character’s reaction to this mysteriously troubled young woman in their midst. The Girl On The Train‘s vagueness is frustrating yet its ambiguity leaves you much more to chew on than the average cinematic “open-and-shut” case.

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