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2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature – Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fascinating peek into the world of what most folks would call graffiti, but others call street art.  The film, a surprise nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, has become a magnet for controversy, speculation, and curiosity seekers.

At the heart of the controversy is the film’s director, Banksy, the Garbo of the street art world.  I have no idea where Banksy ranks among street artists, but one thing is certain, he’s the shrewdest of the bunch at manipulating his image, much like Madonna when she was still relevant.  He’s shot like a whistle-blower or mob informant on the six o’clock news with an omnipresent hoodie pulled up and his voice lowered a few octaves.  Of course, this only adds to the mystery.

The controversies have to do with the authenticity of the film.  Some say it’s a hoax.  Others say that it’s not.  Many see the film as a commentary on the relationship between artist, audience, and commerce. There’s been a claim of plagiarism that could end up being part of an elaborate PR campaign to drum up interest in the film.  Whatever the truth of the controversies, one thing’s for certain – the movie is great.

Banksy opens the film by being interviewed, and he quickly introduces the co-protagonist of the story, Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles.

Guetta is a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Ambrose Burnside, a voluble speaker with a goofy charm and infectious enthusiasm.  Guetta owns a thrift store in a bohemian neighborhood in LA, but an aimless obsession with videotaping almost every facet of his life led him to a cousin in Paris – known as Space Invader – who was part of the emerging street art phenomenon.  Guetta accompanied Space Invader on missions into the Paris night to bomb walls with his installations of mosaic recreations of Space Invader characters.

Meeting Space Invader and his friends was a turning point for Guetta, and a new obsession was born.  Back in LA, Guetta soon met Shepard Fairey, an American street artist who would become as famous for his iconic Obama poster (think the Obama-ize feature that was popular on Facebook for a while) as he was for his Obey campaign.  Fairey was a jumping off point for meeting and collecting other street artists, who didn’t mind having the friendly Frenchman along to document work that might take months of planning, hours of sometimes dangerous application, only to have it ripped down or painted over in a fraction of the time.

Artists are like trophies to Guetta, and the relationship between him and them is like observing a mutually beneficial relationship between parasite and host.  The bombing forays that Guetta documents are exciting and sometimes perilous, and that he shared in the danger earned him a place in their circle.  Over time he set his sights on Banksy, the elusive Englishman with the nerve of a cat burglar.  As Guetta pursued Banksy on his own, Shepard Fairey brought Banksy to Guetta’s backyard when Banksy visited LA and asked for a guide to help him find good walls to bomb.

It was a dream come true that led to an unlikely friendship, like Jimmy Olson and Superman becoming drinking buddies, and as the relationship is detailed, we also see the rise of Banksy as an international art commodity, having shows and being fawned over by the art world’s intelligentsia.

Guetta’s entre into the world of the street artists was that he was a filmmaker.  The funny thing is, no one ever called his bluff until Banksy finally asked him to put together the long-promised street art documentary, in part to show critics that he hadn’t sold out and that street art was about more than hype.

Guetta never planned on turning his thousands of hours of film into an actual movie.  The cassettes were merely boxed, stored, and forgot about.  Guetta’s movie, Life Remote Control, convinced Banksy that his friend was no filmmaker.  Banksy convinced Guetta to return to LA and pursue art and have a show so that he could take over the project and make a proper film.  What he made was the story about what happened when an eccentric Frenchman tried to make a documentary about Banksy.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is part shaggy dog story, part buddy film, part quixotic adventure, and finally, a snapshot of the various talents who prowl the streets of the world’s cities, leaving their mark on the walls of those cities, if only for a short while.

Thierry Guetta is as fascinating a figure as Banksy in that they are complete opposites.  It’s a shrewd move by Banksy to frame his story this way.  As secretive as he is, Guetta is like a negative image, all open and forthcoming.  Where Banksy is cool, Guetta is a dopey tag-along, a sort of kid brother to the artists he adores.

There’s one final surprise in Exit Through the Gift Shop, where Banksy seems to be making a statement about the art world that amounts to biting the hand that feeds him.  Perhaps it’s an attempt to buy back some of his street cred.  Or maybe it’s just good entertainment.  Either way, after seeing this movie you’ll never look at graffiti the same way again.

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2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature – Restrepo

Sports announcers often use military analogies to describe the athletes and action they cover.  Players are referred to as warriors and heroes, and games as battles and campaigns.  I never served in the military, so the silliness of such comparisons slip past me, most of the time, unnoticed.  Restrepo, a documentary covering a year in the life of a platoon stationed in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley reminds me of how ridiculous it is to compare pampered athletes to soldiers serving anywhere and underscores how far removed we are, as Americans, from the hardships faced by our fighting troops.

Tim Hetherington and Sebastion Junger, the film’s directors, were embedded with the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, during their 14 month deployment in one of the most hotly contested pieces of ground in our current war in the Middle East.  The footage they captured, both on their own and from the soldiers themselves, is stunning in its intimacy with the day-to-day details of soldiering in the 21st century.

The style of the film is similar to D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, which covered Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.  There is no talking head narration.  The only framing comes from interviews done with about a half-dozen of the soldiers after the tour was completed.  And so it is that we are dropped into the midst of these men and witness camp life, from the horsing around that breaks up the monotony of repetitive chores, to the chaos of the frequent ambushes that take place when squads are out on patrol.  It doesn’t get any more compelling than this.

As censorship in feature films has grown more lax and special effects have gotten more sophisticated, film makers have made movies that seem to get it right, but after seeing the real-time reactions of soldier in the midst of an ambush, without the aid of slow-motion and jump-cuts, I begin to see just how big a gap there is between the Hollywood version of war and the real thing.

The most intense scenes in Restrepo deal with an operation called Rock Avalanche, a multi-day foray into Taliban controlled territory.  Interview footage with the surviving soldiers is intercut with footage shot during the various engagements with locals and an ambush where the Taliban seemed to come at the soldiers from every angle.

One Sergeant – Rice – is shot twice, once by a rocket propelled grenade launcher, which leaves him covered in shrapnel wounds.  His descriptions of the scene and how he figured he was living his last moments are humbling to witness.

Not long after Rice is hit, another Sergeant – Rougle – is killed in action.  Witnessing the reaction of one soldier to the news of his death, I felt like I shouldn’t be seeing this – that it was too personal and none of my business.  That said, Hetherington and Junger treat the situation with respect, all the while letting us see how each of a few gathered soldiers responds to the knowledge of this loss then regroups to deal with the situation at hand.

By cutting out the familiar sounding generals, commentators, and Afghani apologists, we are left with only the accounts of the soldiers who fought in the Korengal valley – from their captain down to the specialists who followed his orders.  It’s as intimate a portrait of military life as we’re apt to get, and over the course of the film, as we hear from about a half-dozen of them as they try to process the intense fighting they’ve just experienced, it’s impossible not to care for these guys, to hope and pray that they make it back home and are able to get on with their lives and enjoy the freedom they’ve purchased for us.

Hetherington and Junger leave the spin to us, and for that we should be grateful, for the images and insights that are passed on to us would be shamefully cheapened by politics.

My rating: 9 of 10

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2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Foreign Film – Dogtooth

Doogtooth, the official Greek entry to the 2011 Academy Awards, is nominated for Best Foreign Film.  Released in 2009, and directed by Giorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth is a strikingly original film that captures a world that is at once like nothing you’ve ever seen, but oddly familiar at the same time.

The story is about a family of five who live in a beautiful walled villa in Greece.  It’s more like a compound because the patriarch (Christos Stergioglou) is the only one who ever gets to venture into the world beyond the tall fences that surround the property.  His wife (Michele Valley) and three teenaged children live in a world that at first seems oddly Edenic.

The film opens with the children listening to an instructional cassette.  They learn that the word “sea” means a leather armchair, “motorway” means a strong wind, and “excursion” means a strong, resilient material.  Anything that hints at the world outside the walls of their home is obscured.  Even the airplanes that fly in the air are construed to be toys, and when one is spotted, one of the parents will run into the house and through a toy plane out into the garden so the children will believe the lie.

The only outsider allowed into the compound is a woman named Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a security guard at the father’s place of employment who moonlights as a kind of private prostitute whom the father hires to satisfy his son’s budding sexual urges.  Christina is brought to the compound blindfolded, but on the rides to and from the family home, the father tries to engage her in small talk, which amounts to questions about her hygiene, and whether she wears the perfume he has bought her as a gift.

Much time is devoted to daily routine of the family.

We see the father at work, where he has created yet another elaborate ruse to get out of having his boss over for dinner (he says that his wife, a former handball champion, is confined to a wheel chair – the result of a tragic accident).  He’s such a cipher of a man that the boss, along with the children, buys into the lie without a hint of suspicion.

Life at home, though, is where the film really shines.  We see the kids at play.  The eldest child is the son (Hristos Passalis), who looks to be 18 or 19.  Two sisters (Angelika Papoulia and Mary Toni) look to be 18 and 17.  Though they are on the verge of adulthood, the behavior of the children is more pre-adolescent.  There is an innocence about them that is both sad and endearing.  The actors playing the kids beautifully capture the behavior and mental territory of young kids that comes through in the games they play and the way they bicker with one another and depend on their parents for all their information about the world – a world they will only be ready to experience when either their left or right dogtooth falls out.

What is a dogtooth?  Exactly.

When the son asks the mother what a zombie is, she asks where he heard the word.  He lies and says that he thinks he heard the father say the word.  The mother pauses, then tells him a zombie is a small yellow flower.  Later, the joke is paid off when the son stops in the middle of his play in the garden and yells for the mother to come and see two zombies he’s found.

Tricking children is one thing, but as they grow, certain fantasies and myths that parents create are found out to be lies.  Of course, this often happens when our kids come home with conflicting information from the outside world, which is what happens to make the artificial world of the father begin to unravel.

Christina, the prostitute, wants oral sex, which the son doesn’t like, so she bribes the oldest daughter into satisfying her by bringing videos, like Rocky and Flashdance, that give the daughter a notion of what goes on in the world her father has taught her to fear.

These videos are like the bite from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and even though the father finds out about them and banishes both them and Christina from their lives, the damage has been done.  Things will never be the same again.

The acting in Dogtooth is beautifully realized.

Stergioglou doesn’t play the father as a tyrant, but as a kind, loving, but firm parent, with only the best interests of his family – as he sees them – in mind.  This father, despite what happens in the movie, never comes across as a villain, which is to Stergioglou’s great credit.

The children, especially Papoulia and Tsoni, capture a prolonged innocence that doesn’t rely on tricks or costuming, but on finely observed performances.  What’s weird is that these are very damaged people, but until they are told so or try to live in the outside world, they’re just kids.

Because of how perfectly Lanthimos sets up this alternate world, I never once questioned anything that went on there.  It all made sense.  Dogtooth is a well constructed escape that takes a long, hard look at family and parenting and the choices we sometimes make as parents to both lock out the world and lock in our kids – and the toll those decisions sometimes take.  Sometimes sad, sometimes funny, Dogtooth is a film deserving of its nomination – and your attention.

My rating: 8 out of 10

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