Tag Archives: i’m still here

Documentary Double Bill

15 Aug

The advent of cheap, lightweight technology has been a boon to the documentary; in the last ten years the medium has undergone a renaissance both commercially and creatively, in stark contrast to narrative cinema. Spearheaded by innovators like Nick Broomfield and Errol Morris, and thanks in large part to the success of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, the possibility of reaching a mass audience with a subject that resonates has increased exponentially; the designation is no longer an impediment.

Inevitably, this has led to some ‘creative’ uses of the format; ‘documentaries’ like ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ (2010), ‘I’m Still Here’ (2010) and ‘Catfish’ (2010) stretching the definition to breaking point. Whether staged or genuine, the new school of documentaries frequently take as their subject people who would struggle to be taken seriously if they were presented as fictional characters, such is their compelling strangeness. Though wildly different, the following films typify this approach.

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2010)

Heralding from the deceptively bucolic town of Boone County, The Whites have a fearsome reputation in the community. A prologue details their convoluted family tree; from the disciplinarian head of the clan, D. Ray, a well-known exponent of ‘mountain dancing’ who was killed in a shootout; to his grandson, Brandon, who when the film begins is awaiting trial for the attempted murder of his mother’s boyfriend. D. Ray’s oldest daughter, the redoubtable Mamie, reels off a litany of tragedy and violence as she introduces us to the rest of the family; focusing on her ailing mother, Bernie May, the ‘miracle woman’ who raised twenty-four children; her brother, Jesco, who inherited his father’s dancing shoes at a heavy price, local fame bringing with it a crippling addiction to ‘gas huffing’ that has left him with severe brain damage; and Kirk, a single mother who tries to get clean in an attempt to regain custody of her newborn. Intersecting these central story strands is an array of other family members with an equal disregard for themselves and others.

On learning that Johnny Knoxville and other members of the ‘Jackass’ crew acted as executive producers, one would expect ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia’ to be a tawdry exercise in schadenfreude; but the film actually strives to place the Whites in the pantheon of Southern rebels, outlaws pursuing a form of freedom particular to the region’s isolationist principles and traditions; with Hank Williams III as their primary cheerleader. In actuality, there is nothing remotely heroic about the Whites and their ilk, and however genuine the veneration of them may be, the Whites have embraced their standing as ‘white trash’ with commendable self-awareness, in a way that nullifies any attempt to humiliate them. Of all the family, only Kirk and Poney – the one White who got away from Boone – seem to have any inkling as to where their dissolution is leading.

Director Julien Nitzberg makes an attempt to place their fatalism into some kind of socio-economic context, briefly outlining how West Virginia has been treated like a colony, its resources drained and its workforce exploited; but this takes a backseat to bolstering the White’s hell-raising mythology. The Whites pursue a strange type of entrepreneurialism, from D. Ray’s mastery of the social security system to his progeny’s subsistence on ‘hustling, rustling and bustling’, flourishing in the shadow economy of the perennially dispossessed. In detailing the Whites’ excesses, Nitzberg has stumbled upon a family who pose some pertinent questions illustrate some striking points; asking whether the behaviour of the Whites is genetically pre-determined or a product of  their environment, and outlining that ‘urban problems’ exist wherever there is extreme poverty.

One public official points out that a local boy was recently admitted to MIT; asking, ‘why isn’t anyone following him around?’ It is one of the film’s most important questions, as we now live in the ‘Jersey Shore’ paradigm, where the least deserving members of a community are lionized for cheap laughs. ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia’ presents a milieu where ersatz piety, endemic drug abuse, petty vengeance and easy access to firearms conspire to create an atmosphere of simplistic distinctions and circumscribed identities. Though it seeks to strike a light-hearted note, portraying the Whites as lovable eccentrics, ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia’ makes for grim, if compelling, viewing. These ‘drug-addled, gun-toting, redneck hillbillies’ are not ‘Appalachian royalty’ or counterculture icons, they are people who have been ground down by generations of poverty and left behind by society, and the film is frequently guilty of trivialising that fact in its attempt to further the White folklore.

Marwencol (2010)

Mark Hogancamp was put in a coma for nine days after being brutally attacked outside a bar by five people: his face had to be rebuilt, his memory was completely wiped and he had to learn everything from scratch, looking at his old life through a stranger’s eyes. When his health insurance expired, Hogancamp’s physical and speech therapy was cut off and he was left to seek his own treatment. Losing his gift for drawing in the attack, this took the form of a miniature village constructed in his garden called Marwencol populated by warring World War II-era armies of action figures and dolls bought from a local hobby store; many of them representing his friends, acquaintances, family members, and even his attackers. Hogancamp’s painterly photographs of the ongoing 1/6-scale saga come to the attention of photographer David Naugle, and his coping mechanism is brought to the attention of the art world.

‘Marwencol’ is a poignant, understated meditation on loss and obsession, devoid of the flashy visual ticks that often plague modern documentaries. Some artfully constructed tableaux aside, ‘Marwencol’ is a joyfully shabby experience; handwritten title cards are conspicuously placed in the hands of the dolls, the lighting is often uneven and the shots have a hurried, spontaneous feel – the story is very much the focus here, capturing Mark’s actions and observations without overemphasis on technical concerns. ‘Marwencol’ is everything an effective documentary should be, placing the audience firmly in the protagonist’s life and doing nothing to detract from its authenticity.

The dolls articulate Mark’s inner combat zone, waging war with the Nazis that lurk in his subconscious; the narrative he spins an attempt to impose order on and make sense of a cruel, chaotic world, placing him as the heroic figure at its centre. In Marwencol, everyone adheres to Mark’s inunctions and behaves predictably, villains are punished and fortitude is rewarded. Mark’s compulsion  has intriguing parallels with the mood that permeates the online domain; an environment where everyone can be whoever they want to be, a godlike figure who can bend their idealized proxy world to their will, the distinction becoming increasingly blurred and the disparity more painful.

The temptation must have been there to focus on some of the more salacious aspects of Mark’s life, but director Jeff Malmberg pulls back and treats him with laudable sensitivity and discretion, keeping this as a genuine celebration of outsider art as opposed to a snide, reductive exploitation of abnormality – much like Mark’s work, ‘Marwencol’ was made for the purest of reasons. But as inspiring and affecting as the film is, it leaves one feeling a little wistful. As Mark’s work reaches a wider audience, it simply serves to accentuate his crippling loneliness and alienation, a fact reflected in the darkening tone of events in his stunningly detailed and realised empire. The film ends on a tentative note, hinting that it may have been better for Mark if his work had never been discovered and he had been left to play out the story to its conclusion in peace.

Jesco White: The Dancing Outlaw

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

18 Jan

Banksy is a divisive figure; dismissed as a huckster pedalling hipster totems to poseurs and pseuds by some, hailed as a renegade genius democratising the art world by others. Whatever your take, it is undeniable that Banksy holds a unique place in our information-saturated age. By withholding his identity he has become the world’s most fascinating and speculated-over artist, taking the consumer back to a time when every facet of a public figure’s life was not freely available at a single click, paradoxically earning greater fame and attention by stepping away from it. In cultivating this mystique, he has elevated himself above his peers and progenitors – such as the French graffiti artist Blek Le Rat, who was decades ahead of Banksy but could not break beyond the rarefied confines of the Paris cognoscenti.

Typically, Banksy is not the central figure of his own film; he hovers over proceedings, passing comment on its central figure – Thierry Guetta, a French fashion store owner living in LA who obsessively films the events of his life. On a family trip to France in 1999, Guetta discovers that his cousin has become a leading figure in the nascent ‘street art’ movement, going under the name Invader. In following Invader, Guetta meets a number of other street artists, including Shepard Fairey, renowned for his Andre the Giant ‘obey’ artwork and credited with creating ‘that’ image of Barack Obama. Guetta becomes the unofficial documentarian of the movement and resolves to make the definitive documentary. But in order to do so he must track down Banksy, street art’s leading light and a global celebrity following his controversial paintings on the West Bank. Happenstance intervenes and Guetta makes contact with Banksy in LA. He is given unprecedented access to Banksy’s London studio as he prepares for his first US exhibition, but it soon becomes apparent to Banksy and his inner circle that Guetta doesn’t know what he’s doing.

‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is a paean to process, an intriguing meta-doc that both delineates the growth and co-option of a subculture and charts the passage of a guileless enthusiast swept up in its midst. It is as much a cautionary tale about the dangers of overexposure as a celebration of a bold new stylistic development. Without giving too much away, Guetta is transformed from the Pupkin-esque hero of the piece to its ultimate villain, beginning as a confidante of the burgeoning scene and ending as its betrayer, subverting the very thing he helped to nurture. The over 10,000 hours of footage shot by Guetta is assembled into a coherent arc that details street art’s transition from social menace to viable commodity. Those who indulged Guetta recount their version of events in bemused, rueful tones, no doubt aware that what began as a necessarily transient means of expression has been formalized, becoming a set of conventions to which its slew of new followers slavishly adhere.

Though ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is a knowing attempt to mythologize the Banksy phenomenon, it has the opposite effect, exposing the ‘magpie’ aesthetic and the paucity of ideas at its heart. By transporting their work from the streets to the gallery, the clumsy metaphor, simplistic social commentary and political grandstanding are exposed as the T-shirt sentiments they are. The ideas are too slight to survive outside their original context, where they enlivened the drab homogeneity of the modern cityscape. Ensconced in the homes of wealthy collectors and reproduced for mass consumption, they have become part of the industry hype machine, their value assessed in market terms, third-hand cultural signifiers peddled to a credulous audience seeking instant credibility.

There is a distinct possibility that, like ‘I’m Still Here’ (2010), this is all just an elaborate ruse, the next stage in Banksy’s evolution as a self-styled ‘media terrorist’. Documentary is currently at a strange juncture where the line between fact and fiction has been blurred to such an extent that audiences no longer know what to believe; an uncertainty which ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ exploits with relish. If ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is indeed a ‘prankumentary’ then, like Affleck and Phoenix’s feature-length in-joke, it has backfired spectacularly, betraying more than any factual analysis ever could. As Banksy’s former spokesman Steve Lazarides tellingly opines, “I think the joke is on… I don’t know who the joke is on, really. I don’t even know if there is a joke.”

Banksy: The Obi-Wan Kenobi of wallscrawlery.