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Entries in Distant Relatives (42)


Distant Relatives: F for Fake and Exit Through the Gift Shop

Robert here, with my series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema. There's a mixed response on the internet in terms of how much of Exit Through the Gift Shop to reveal.  Some people will tell you nothing, some will give you a smattering of plot.  I'll do the latter, though I won't give away any secrets (for I know none) but I will discuss some of the mysteries.

F for Film

When Orson Welles made F for Fake in the mid-70's his reputation was somewhere between visionary director of the greatest movie ever (he'd won his honorary Oscar a few years earlier) and washed up, indecisive, expatriate.  Far removed from the War of the Worlds episode, it's unclear how many people saw him as the master charlatan he proclaims himself as the host of his film.  At the time F for Fake was a strange and new type of documentary.  More essay than narrative, Welles himself serves as ringmaster, telling us the stories of famous art forger Elmyr de Hory, fake biographer Clifford Irving, and others.  When it premiered it was, predictably shunned by a public who didn't know what to make of it, the other bookend to Welles' cinematic career.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is the first film by Banksy, English street artist, man of mystery whose identity is still unknown and whose work has sold for thousands of dollars thus legitimizing the street art movement and thus doing what to it?  The film follows Frenchman Tierry Guetta who uses his ever present camera to chronicle the likes of Banksy and Shepard Fairey before taking up the movement himself to much success, and dismay of his contemporaries.  The major debate sparked by the film is whether Mr. Guetta, who does his art under the pseudonym Mr. Brainwash and is never actually shown creating is, in fact, a creation of the film itself, meant to make some larger point about commercialization or populism.

The joke is on us

Elmyr de Hory - fake

Welles and Banksy are clearly two personalities who enjoy their self-adopted trickster status and relish any opportunity to embellish it.  But is the joke on us?  Is our deception, our infuriation, part of the point?  The idea of passing off something fictional as something true wasn't invented by Welles or Banksy.  They join a large collective which includes Michelangelo's early forgeries, P.T. Barnum's famous claims, Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita prologue, Peter Watkins' films, Andy Kaufman, everything Andy Kaufman, Jonathan Swift's misunderstood commentaries, into modern times with Sacha Baron Coen, the Blair Witch Project, or Joaquin Phoenix (though let's not get into that).
Let's talk about Werner Herzog who believes that verite truth is overrated.  In his documentaries he often stages moments and feeds lines to his subjects.  Why?  Because sometimes manufactured reality is more truthful than actual reality.  Truth is something both Welles and Banksy are going for through these films which are works of art.  This is where questions and realities begin to double back on top on themselves.  If art is a fictional representation of the world (even, as Herzog believes, the most untouched documentaries can't achieve objectivity), then what about fictional representations of art?
But is it art?

Thierry Guetta - fake?

What is art is a question that isn't likely to lead to any consensus, but it is what Welles and Banksy are asking with these movies.  If Elmyr and Mr. Brainwash have achieved success through their art (in sales, museums and galleries) then what sets them apart from "real" artists?  Perhaps success isn't how we should judge art.  Perhaps it should be up to the critic and the expert.  But as Oja Kodar, Welles' lover and subject of F for Fake suggests, what purpose serves the experts if they can't deciper the fakes?  If the experts disappeared, would the fakes?  These films leave us with more questions than answers.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of several recent films which have generated a surprising amount of controversey over just how many of their elements are fictional or not (it's hard to generate controversey these days without wading into the pools of political opinion or explicit content).  Here perhaps lies the significant difference from F for Fake to Gift Shop.  Welles' subject Elmyr was well known as a forger.  Clifford Irving was eventually outed as a fraud.  Even Welles reveals his hand at the film's finish, quite a ways after it's gone off the tracks.  But don't expect Banksy to give us any answers any time soon.  Perhaps for him, and for a new generation of charlatan artists, truth need not be revealed as if it's fact.  Truth is in the eye of the beholder.


Distant Relatives: Blazing Saddles and Hot Fuzz

Robert here, with my series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema.

Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do

It shouldn't come as a shock that Blazing Saddles and Hot Fuzz have basically the same setup: outsider comes to small town where he has a hard time fitting but eventually becomes the only man who can save the village.  It's not that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg and Mel Brooks and his co-writers all coincidentally had the same idea.  Truth is, the western and cop movie, the two genres being spoofed here, are the same genre only set 100 years apart or so.  In both cases, an outsider protagonist (not even literal outsiders, moral outsiders like High Noon's Gary Cooper or Serpico's Al Pacino work too!) creates drama by pitting the hero against insurmountable odds in an environment he doesn't know.  In both cases a lovable sidekick helps grund him and a conflict only he can solve elevates him to hero status (in terms of both his success and rare skill).

The protagonists of Blazing Saddles and Hot Fuzz couldn't be more different but they're similar in that they contradict expectations set up by their genres' more serious films.  Nick Angel (Simon Pegg) is a good cop who plays by all the rules.  He isn't exactly Detective Riggs.  Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) is vulgar, vain, charming, clever, and doesn't care to know the rules enough to break them.  He isn't exactly John Wayne.  The towns they inhabit, aren't so much contradictions of cultural portrayals as exaggerations.  The town of Sandford is comically peaceful, playing off the idea of the quaint and safe countryside of movies like Local Hero.  Rock Ridge has fun with the towns of the old west, with cows rummaging through churches, and citizens all named Johnson.

That's Entertainment

Each film skewers the genre it spoofs and eventually becomes.  How do they do this?  First by establishing a world where everyone knows the elements of that genre.  In Hot Fuzz it's easy.  Since the film is set in modern time, anyone can go down to the local store and rent a copy of Bad Boys.  In Blazing Saddles, while it seems like a good assumption that no one there has seen a western, they still know their roles, appreciating good old fashioned gibberish, getting annoyed at classic western cliche and genuflecting the very mention of Randolph Scott.  By giving everyone an understanding of how their world "should" work, they've made them extra-aware of when it's not actually working in that manner, like when a series of unusual crimes begin to unfold.

If comedy is inconsistency, then Brooks and Wright set up meta-levels of self awareness by which the characters can be inconsistent.  Each film culminates in the ultimate self-aware spectacle.  In Hot Fuzz this involves the plot actually turning into that of a generic action blockbuster.  For Blazing Saddles, the action literally spills off the lot and onto other films.

But did we learn anything?

The big difference between these two films, as anyone would note, is in social commentary.  Blazing Saddles, though often saddled itself with the qualifier "a film like this could never get made today" is an argument for tolerance, using the uber-racist town of Rock Ridge as a mirror for our reality.  While one could argue that the small town of Sandford in Hot Fuzz is a take on a "violence begets peace" mentality not uncommon in our world, it might be a bit of a stretch.  Hot Fuzz doesn't have a social message.  Is that a sign that as satire, message movies are dead?

What Hot Fuzz does suggest however is a reality in which we're so immersed in media and culture that we can no longer separate it from ourselves.  Culture is not a reflection of us, instead we are a reflection of it.  Blazing Saddles, with its self awareness and unending pop-cultural references often suggests the very same.  Both films get their laughs by creating worlds that couldn't exist without the totality of pop to be built upon.

The suggestion that the spoof film is dead is one made not without merit.  Such films still get made, just not often well.  What the evolution of Blazing Saddles to Hot Fuzz suggests is that while grand social statements aren't necessary, some statement, some observation about our reality is.  References to culture alone won't do it.  Some greater truth has to be revealed, whether it be the dark side of our society or the overbearing anti-originality tendencies of our culture.  There's truth there.  And truth is funny.

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