Exit Through the Gift Shop

Word on the street is that Exit Through the Gift Shop—supposedly a new documentary, supposedly directed by British street artist Banksy—is a hoax. You can get your noggin in a real holding pattern lingering over this one; but the more revolutions I make, the closer I get to the debunkers’ point of view. Still, I suggest you enjoy the movie on its own terms first, before running out of fuel, and crashing into its art-world Bermuda Triangle.

But how can you distrust a face like Banksy’s? Or, more precisely, the shadow that eclipses the hooded figure’s visage—an effect complemented by the vocoder veiling his Da Ali G accent? This lack of image is Banksy’s style: anonymous, save for the skater-boy hoodie. Although he does this for legal reasons—his scabrous, caustic artwork is, by design, spray-painted on canvases that he technically doesn’t own—it’s also an affront to the art-world “establishment”: He’s Kool Aid to the cults of personality that he accuses them of enshrining. Ruefully, however, he claims responsibility for one of its newest celebrities: Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash.

As the pseudonym implies, Thierry is as opaque as Banksy’s black-out. The French emigree, living in Los Angeles, has does’ eyes and doughy cheeks, topped off with squirrel’s-tail mutton-chops that have long outlived their ironic bite, and a fedora off the Hot Topic rack. I interpret these as warning signs. After spending several years as the local street-art scene’s resident videographer—documenting Shepard Fairey and others as they went about their nocturnal raids—Thierry turned his camcorder toward the movement’s most famously elusive figure; he’d make his Banksy & Me. The Briton, however, cooperated; he’d found a Robin for his Batman. But documentarian and subject were fated to switch roles. After watching Thierry’s rough cut of the footage, Banksy suggested, in the most anodyne terms possible, that the Frenchman concentrate on another medium. The intention was to send Thierry on a wild goose chase; but the goose laid golden eggs—or, in Banksy and Fairey’s opinion, rotten eggs: Pop-art shells with nothing inside them. And yet, thanks to self-publicity, publicity, publicity, collectors and connoisseurs not only appeared in droves for the amateur’s boffo début, but gobbled up work and artist whole.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a perfect demonstration of how imagination, talent, and meaning are no match for drive, self-promotion, and networking—too perfect. The public buys up Banksys, and Banksy, renegade from his anarcho-socialist scene for selling out, sneers at the buyers; if his work is used as a commodity, then it’s been tragically misunderstood. When we see his work auctioned off at Sotheby’s, or mounted in private collections beside Picassos and Monets, we’re not shown how it’s gotten there—has it been scraped off billboards or has Banksy put it on the market himself? (Early on, if his work ended up in museums, it was explicitly without the curators’ consent.) When he holds his first show, the media is only interested in a live, painted elephant; to them, it raises questions about whether the artist abuses animals rather than what it was intended to symbolize (ironically, major issues that people tend to ignore even when confronted with them). As Banksy, ever humbly, declares, this movie is about Thierry—not himself; but his own history, used as context, is more relevant than he cares to admit. He’s using the film to rebuild his street cred. If it’s a hoax, then he’s literally Mr. Brainwash’s alter ego, counterfeiting his own work to make a statement. But even if the movie’s genuine, Thierry is still set up as Banksy’s evil twin; Banksy may have caught on with the public, but—hey guys, I’m still cool! How does someone anathema to hype learn to toot his own horn? Subliminal advertising—subliminal maybe even to himself.

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Metropolis was already a classic when Jean-Luc Godard made Breathless, in 1959. Godard would actually go on to cast Fritz Lang as himself—playing a frustrated movie director, quashed by the industry—in Contempt, a few years later. But Breathless, back for a very limited engagement, was one of the kickoffs of the French New Wave; and, boy, it’s a kick in the vitals—Metropolis feels like a museum piece, Breathless like it was made last week.

They say it’s the 50th anniversary of this, Godard’s first feature-length film, but I don’t believe ’em. For a youth movement, the nouvelle vague has aged strikingly well; sci-fi blockbusters, reissued with upgraded F/X, seem like Joan Rivers jobs by comparison. (This restoration was supervised by the original cinematographer, Raoul Coutard; it’s luminous. Considering the movie’s reputation for improvisation and innovation—deserved though it is—I’m in awe, this time around, of the filmmakers’ assured craftsmanship. But—forgive me—it’s still, by impulse, to movies what the punk movement was to the mainstream rock of its day.) Godard, already an old soul at age 29, had uncorked the fountain of mass-culture youth. One of the director’s early stateside champions, Pauline Kael, wrote that the young hero of Breathless is “romantic in a modern sense because he doesn’t care about anything but the pleasures of love and fast cars.” Not quite. Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is romantic in a modern sense because he’d rather die a movie hero than live as a human being. He apes a picture of Humphrey Bogart’s impassive mug as if fawning over his own reflection. If all the world’s a stage, then this hedonist thinks he’s the leading man. Michel, the romantic, wants to bring the house down; but it ends up falling on him.

Generally, the most fascinating movies are made by artists in conflict with themselves. Lang was of two minds about technology; Godard’s heart is torn by pop culture. Breathless is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, once an exponent of lurid thrillers that were alimentary to the director’s imagination. But he makes Michel shallow because the character’s frame of reference—cheap American fantasy—is shallow. In a panic, Michel takes out a police officer, but his fear subsides as soon as the deed is done. He decides to book it to Italy with his girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg), but doesn’t object to dallying around her Paris lodgings, looking for a lay. Godard, in a telling cameo, rats out his hero to the cops. But it’s Patricia, who’s bored with this diversion and game to begin a fresh one, who effectively sells out her hood. Michel, alas, doesn’t make it to prison. To paraphrase the showman’s eulogy of old King Kong: It wasn’t the bullets; it’s movies that killed the beast. These lovebirds aren’t malicious; they’re merely oblivious to everyone else. So it’s hardly coincidental that our femme fatale is an American.

But Breathless is no naggy condemnation of movies, and even less of movie lovers. It is, instead, the first, most immediate collision of the world outside and life onscreen; the first, or the first recognized, example of an artist’s personal voice and experience rhapsodizing under the breath of a commercial-film genre. The historical period in which it was made, so elegiacally stylized in A Single Man and beautifully rendered in An Education, is vividly revived here—so tensely present that immortality seems not just possible but proven. Rather than nail this butterfly’s wings to their historical context, go back and analyze its cocoon, or study the eggs this fertile caper hatched, I’ll just say that the film’s both an enrapturing character study and a furtively insouciant comedy, and that it may be the chillest, illest, coolest, chicest movie ever made, I don’t care what you think, it is.

The Complete Metropolis

At a time when most of the new releases (Marmaduke, Prince of Persia, Sex and the City 2, The A-Team, The Karate Kid) form the punchline to some obscene and heinous joke, it’s refreshing to reflect on some revivals, now in limited release. The first, Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis, was, in scale, the Avatar of its day; unfortunately, this German Expressionist capstone was chopped up and bowdlerized, and thus a dud with its transatlantic audience in 1927. The new version, released by Kino International, and incorporating long-lost footage that was unearthed in an Argentine cellar in 2008, is the most complete version shown since the Berlin premiere.

For filmmakers, the silent era was like college or band camp: a time for experimentation. And if you were conducting your experiments in Weimar Germany, at the height of the Roaring ’20s—well, things were bound to get out of hand. Metropolis is what can result from handing an imaginative, impassioned, ambitious nutcase a heaping wad of filthy lucre. Set 100 years in the future—or, roughly 17 years from now—it’s a parable about class rapprochement that was flayed left (for depicting the proletariats as brutes) and right (for applying Marx’s view of history to the future). A certain éminence grise, one Herbert George Wells, lambasted this shaping of the things to come for, among other things, its vertical urban planning: Why hasn’t Metropolis gentrified, depositing its dregs into suburbs? Why haven’t the efficient machines outgrown their need for human operators? (Two decades thence, Orwell might have had an answer for him.) In what sort of vision of the future do we still bop around in Packards, with biplanes in every garage? Wells shanked the movie and twisted the knife: “Originality there is none, independent thought none.” Ouch! He must have read the intertitles but stewed up his own imaginary dystopias while Lang’s visuals played onscreen. Luis Buñuel, writing two years before he picked up a camera to shoot Un Chien Andalou, was more appreciative of Lang’s balls-to-the-wall formalism:

Those who understand cinema as an unassuming storytelling mechanism will be deeply disappointed in Metropolis. … But, if to the tale we prefer the “plastico-photogenic” background of the film, then Metropolis will fulfill our wildest dreams, will astonish us as the most astounding book of images it is possible to compose.

Forty years later, Andrew Sarris neatly summed up the film’s flaws:

Fritz Lang’s cinema is the cinema of the … fable, and the philosophical dissertation. … Lang’s plots generally go inexplicably … sentimental at the very end. His characters never develop with any psychological precision, and his world lacks the details of verisimilitude that are so important to realistic critics.

Right on, with one reservation: Metropolis is saccharine-sweet and sentimental throughout, like a river of simple syrup. (The mediator between the mind and hands must be the heart? Riiiight.) But I’ve doled out all this criticism of a classic for a reason: It wasn’t a classic when it came out; Metropolis was the UFA studio’s Heaven’s Gate. Nowadays, its place in the pantheon’s assured, if only for its influence—Star Wars to cyberpunk to animé, on down. And yet, in terms of substance, in terms of “verisimilitude” and “psychological precision,” this film’s no better than Slumdog Millionaire—and if that newer movie is going to end up in textbooks, like Metropolis has, it’ll likely be in reference to multiculturalism rather than technique. In 2001, Kubrick’s characters were about as lively as Civil War casualties, but he obsessed over the details of 21st-century life; Lang has no such fixations. I have no idea what the mediator, Freder, does in his spare time—aside from running track, and being chased by an all-girl flapper production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that’s accoutered like the court at Versailles. There are no human voices like Peter Lorre’s wounded cry in M, which would have been spooky in silence, too.

But Lang’s voice comes through. Our admiration of his technique—of his indulgence in the potentialities of a high-tech medium—is mirrored in the movie. In a take off of Cubism, people literally blend into the urban landscape: The workers perform a pas de deux with their clock-like contraptions, even as the Moloch-machines suck ’em dry like industrial vampires. Kaleidoscoped eyes look lasciviously on as a femme bot makes a jive out of her conniptions. Her dance number is the most brilliant, flagrant curveball in the movie; she looks like a lady but gyrates her hips like the pistons that power Metropolis. It’s as kinky as a carburetor. And yet the rich—dressed to the nines like Gatsby’s meretricious gate crashers—fall over each other to nab Čapek’s coquette. The poor fall for her ruse, too, and even more embarrassingly. This robot is in the guise of Maria, the deposed saint who preaches pacifism; the original has been kidnapped by the android’s mad inventor, whose incomparable appellation is Rotwang. But Maria’s followers are insensitive to the switcheroo even as their Gandhi spouts off like Sarah Palin; she goes from Tolstoy to Stalin in the blink of a cybernetic eye. Clearly, Lang is enamored with technology to such a degree that his characters can’t distinguish flesh from steel; but he’s enamored, too, with the Bible, and its austere moral certitude. (As Buñuel grasps, “Metropolis is two films joined at the hip, but with divergent spiritual necessities that are diametrically opposed to each other.”) The parable that passes for a script is credited to Thea von Harbou, but Lang and his artisans (among the cinematographers was Karl Freund, who later filmed I Love Lucy) were clearly infected with its conflicting passions. Their visual aesthetic—Art Deco-Babylonian—is as retro-futuristic now as it was in 1927. The ideas are ancient, and yet the vision—the emotional extravagance—is ageless.

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