REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, MAY 2010
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
The product of an unquestionably singular cinematic vision, Dogtooth leaves me both awestruck and confounded. I doubt I'll see a more rigorously constructed work of narrative filmmaking all year, given that Lanthimos (a second-time director -- I have yet to catch up with his well-regarded debut feature Kinetta) has delineated a fully convincing, antiseptic universe virtually ex nihilo and peopled it with suitably convincing labrats. Some have compared Dogtooth to the work of Michael Haneke, but I respectfully disagree. There is a grim pleasure at work throughout Dogtooth that betrays a certain invitation to, if not identify, then certainly vicariously get off on the flawlessly executed torments and tastefully-appointed Euro-Modern fascism that both Dogtooth's family patriarch (Christos Stergioglou) and the director himself have labored so intensely to produce. Haneke, ever the clear-cut moralist, always eschews ambiguity; we're either culpable for watching, or we're on his side, the side of rectitude. Lanthimos is craftier, and quite possibly more morally bankrupt, since he stages acts of triangulated violence [sadist / masochist / voyeur] as if they were mere pas de deux.
What is Dogtooth? The father, an industrialist of some sort, is the sole member of his family to ever leave his large gated compound. The wife (Michele Valley) is clearly under his thumb, but shares some conspiratorial relationship with him to a degree, in terms of their highly unconventional and deeply sadistic childrearing. Their three adult children -- the eldest daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia), the son (Hristos Passalias), and the youngest daughter (Mary Tsoni) -- have never been outside the walls of the home; believe that only in a car is it safe to even cross the threshold of the gate; receive tape-recorded "lessons" that teach them the wrong words for various things; think that airplanes flying overhead are actually tiny toys, and that they sometimes fall in the yard as prizes; and think they can only go outside when their canines ("dogtooth") fall out and grow back. And, since the son is expected to have sexual urges that must be attended to, the father hires an employee from the plant, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) to come by and screw him. This regimen, Father believes, will keep his children pure, in the same manner, presumably, that not giving them names will make sure that they forever and always reflect the values of the family unit, and develop nothing approximating a personality. Naturally, this process breaks down to some extent, since even under behaviorist control at its strictest and most totalitarian, there is always a human being, who will develop according to certain imperatives. Plus, as Dogtooth makes clear in small, tragicomic ways, it's impossible to successfully shut out all outside culture. Things have a way of seeping in. Several folks have wisely observed Lanthimos's lockdown as a latter-day staging of Plato's Allegory of the Cave, although one would have to read it in a determinedly Nietzschean, minor key. (The final shot, which I'm not about to spoil, raises questions about the all-pervasiveness of illumination, to say nothing of the risks involved in its pursuit.)
But if I have other qualms and questions about Dogtooth, they have to do with the dogged (sorry....) anti-allegorical nature of what we witness onscreen, of Lanthimos's defiant (and cinematically admirable) materialism in terms of organizing, staging and presenting the facticity of systematic abuse. What we witness is so over the top, and yet so insistently there, that it virtually cries out for symbolic interpretation. (I realize it's the times, but I found myself wondering if this Greek tale could be read in relation to the economic crisis. There is a desire for isolation that can never be realized, an attempt to maintain sovereignty and fight external threats like contagion, or to turn enforced quarantine into an isolationist pride.) But Dogtooth is a film that operates according to a completely self-sufficient internal logic, such that watching its movement, and observing how each and every horrifying or absurd human action produces equally horrifying but (within context) utterly comprehensible reflexive responses, becomes its own form of meta-behaviorist "interpretation," as formalist as any abstract painting. And as masterful as Dogtooth is on this level, I find myself wondering whether there is a larger aim, beyond the rather obvious one of spectatorial co-implication. To put it in more basic terms: what does Lanthimos accomplish by staging scenes of egregious parental abuse? I find the question as provocative as I do troubling, and this is a large part of why I admire Dogtooth. Any system of abuse, within the privacy of the four walls that shield it from the larger world, develops its own internal logic, one that would collapse under the weight of public scorn when exposed to the light of day. But Lanthimos, for his part, has reminded us of an important philosophical insight. Violence is semiotic. Our bodies "speak" abuse like a language. And his film, of necessity, compromises us. We take our seats, right there, in the Cave.
WARNING: Not only will the following review contain spoilers (although I will work to keep them to a minimum), but it will also exhibit a tendency in my work which apparently has become slightly obnoxious to a few of my peers. It seems that my academic background in art history and visual culture has resulted in my inability to "properly" enjoy certain art-centered documentaries aimed at more mainstream audiences, my specialized knowledge placing my reactions outside the mainstream of both popular and critical reception. I, being the naive nerdboy that I am, truly believed down to the very bottom of my pocket protector that my unique perspective on pictures like My Kid Could Paint That or Sketches of Frank Gehry might prove valuable, rather than nitpicky and uselessly outlying. But we scholarly types are famous for living in a haze of blinkered privilege, oblivious to just how feckless we really are to those around us. Sadly, though, if there's anything that characterizes academics even more than total irrelevance in the Real World of hot-dog and popcorn consumption, it's our tragic inability to change. You don't just spend 10+ years shinnying up an ivory tower, forgetting how to think like a regular feller, and then go back to breezy watercooler chat as the need presents itself. That'd be like trying to forget how to tie your shoes. Except, having your shoes tied is very helpful, so it's kind of the other way around. So anyway, you have been warned. This review finds fault with the Banksy film on the basis of my own specialized knowledge of the visual arts. We're both just going to have to deal with it.
What a load of shit this film is! And how fortunate for the film, its shadowy maker, and the critics so keen to make hay of it that the red herring of a "hoax" has cropped up around it, so as to distract from all the ways in which Banksy promises the world but delivers self-importance with a trickle of insight. The basic facts (reported on the presumption there is no hoax, and everyone is who they say they are, for the sake of clarity): renowned street artist Banksy retroactively makes a documentary about Thierry Guetta, the L.A. hanger-on who appeared to be making his own documentary about the international street art movement (or some of its loosely affiliated luminaries) while tagging along on their late night taggings and postings with a camcorder. Guetta got in tight with folks like Space Invader, Shepard Fairey ("OBEY") and eventually Banksy himself. His footage, it turned out, was serviceable but he wasn't a filmmaker. He was an amateur and an enthusiast, and his effort to edit the footage resulted in Life Remote Control, a pulsating avant mishmash nobody wanted. (Still, it doesn't look like the work of a complete incompetent, which is the first sign Guetta may not be the buffoon Exit makes him out to be.) As Banksy plans to take Guetta's footage over and re-edit it himself, he tells Guetta to "go make art." At this point, Guetta sinks all his money into a Banksy-style L.A. mega-exhibition of shitty third-rate Warholiana (Campbell's Soup spraycan, Marilynesque silkscreens with random celebrities like Condoleeza Rice and Mr. Spock). The show, whose massive, manic, seat-of-the-pants assembly is more meticulously documented in Exit than anything Banksy or Fairey did (hoax point two?), is a hipster-douchebag mecca, running for three weeks. Guetta's artist alter ego, Mr. Brainwash, is born. Banksy, for his part, wryly comments on his disgust with the success of Brainwash and his crass, derivative art.
Of course, if this project is not a big hoax, and if Banksy and Guetta did not work together to create the talentless "Mr. Brainwash" as an artworld gag, then we have some ethical problems right off the bat. Presuming anything shown in Exit can be taken as true (a pretty big if, of course, but without that ground we have no basis for discussion at all), Guetta helped Banksy and other artists, even going so far as to take the heat when a Banksy prank at Disneyland went down badly. If Guetta really is a bad artist, don't his friends have some responsibility to, I dunno, offer him critique, or tell him he's not ready to do this huge show, or intervene in some way? And then, given that he succeeds (albeit among a profoundly non-discriminating public), do they really have nothing to offer an old friend besides vitriol? I mean, I realize the art world is filled with assholes, but as depicted, Guetta is a naive idiot, and possibly not all there. He's not some kind of street art Jeff Koons, making calculated decisions about how to co-opt a movement and sell it out. But this is how Banksy reacts to him, as though all his time hanging out with the street crews was simply notetaking for future plagiarism. This doesn't come across at all. Rather, we're seeing a man who has bitten off more than he can chew, and is in bad-idea default mode.
But this is only working backwards. We have to look at the premises guiding Banksy's project, and ask whether they're valid, especially considering they're the ones used to convict Guetta. Banksy seems to think that Guetta has the makings for the definitive documentary on street art, and since Guetta cannot put it together, Banksy will. (Or, was going to. Supposedly.) But what's really on display in Exit? This is a tiny segment of a major international community, and those we see as representative are seemingly self-selected by their proximity to Banksy's inner circle, or their engagement in a practice of which Banksy approves. Definitive documentary? Are you joking? There is nothing in Exit Through the Gift Shop that provides any historical context for why street art developed as a practice, how it differentiated itself from earlier avant-gardes, how it connected with and differed from graffiti and hip-hop tagging, who's political and who's not, what kind of street work entered galleries and museums and when, etc. No connections to earlier European and Latin American anti-authoritarian avant-gardes. Aside from brief, meaningless flashes, no Basquiat and no Haring. No consideration of crossover work, like Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, or Krzysztof Wodiczko. No discussion of the East Village in the 1980s. No Robbie Conal, for Pete's sake.
And while I will certainly defend a great deal of Banksy's work on both aesthetic and political grounds -- his stencils on the Israeli segregation wall comprise a modern masterwork, and many other site-specific efforts are similarly effective -- just as much of his work is simplistic and displays no real awareness of non-street traditions. Or, more than likely, Banksy is well aware of the high art ideas he pilfers; he just understands that a great deal of his audience won't have the knowledge base with which to compare his efforts to (for example) Leon Golub, Ed Ruscha, or John Baldessari. Keep in mind, there's no crime in an artist having a stylistic dialogue with his or her contemporaries, and in fact not doing so results in rather sterile art. And Banksy's best work is far superior to Mr. Brainwash's, no question. (Although I found Banksy's painted elephant rather fatuous.) But when Banksy fails to assimilate his influences into a mode of expression that connects beyond the immediate -- the "hit" of signage through urban clutter -- he's really operating only a few notches above political cartooning. (His gallery work is particularly weak in this regard, as is the "Vandalized Phone Booth," which resembles a minor effort by any number of YBAs.) I suppose this is preferable, in a way, to the deadening repetition of Space Invader and Fairey, whose "good" street aesthetic is solely and inexplicably defined by making slight variations on the same basic form and sticking it in as many urban locales as possible. Again, here is where Exit could have used some history. The generation of public multiples, whose omnipresence becomes the statement, has a long and substantial tradition in conceptual art. Fairey's deployment of Andre the Giant as an ever-more abstracted form, for example, could have been linked to Daniel Buren's use of horizontal stripes, or Michael Snow's public installation of his "Walking Woman" works. Make no mistake: this is not just a quibble, or asking Exit to be a different film that it is. Without connecting street art to these avant-garde traditions, what do you have when you stick the same form all over the world? You have the logic of the corporate logo. (This seems particularly of concern with Invader's work.) If the whole premise of Exit Through the Gift Shop -- not where it began, but of where it ended up, of where Banksy very deliberately took it -- is that the lousy, idea-free art-lite of Mr. Brainwash represents an emptying-out of a style and a movement that was once edgy and dangerous, if not outright political, then isn't it incumbent on Banksy to do everything necessary to demonstrate the validity of the work he and his film champions? As it stands, he doesn't. These guys are deemed okay because Guetta idolizes them, and then because Banksy considers them originators who Guetta in some way ripped off. But if Guetta's bad taste is the baseline for the entire enterprise, then we're going to need something more substantial. The great document of the street art movement that Guetta failed to deliver and the atmospheric social commentary on the state of street art Banksy salvaged from it both look discomfitingly similar: "check out my awesome friends."
I see shit like this and realize, no wonder critics think Pixar is godhead. I've always hated these films, but these folks have just turned into cynical monsters. How, pray tell, do you begin an animated movie that's ostensibly for children with a loud, angry depiction of a father's desire to escape the routinized suburban dragdown of parenthood? With a grumpy but (inexplicably) beloved character pretty much saying he wishes he'd never settled down, married the Mom and had the kids? Yes, yes, any idiot knows he's going to "discover what's important" or whatever. But this isn't some Nicolas Cage midlife crisis picture. The makers of Shrek el Quatro: Please Let It End are basically inviting the young'uns in, to tell them straight-up, "you kill our souls a little bit every day (but don't worry, in 90 minutes we'll forgive you)." This "two-layered" bullshit -- numbnuts lost-youth bellyaching for the grown-ups, fart jokes for the kids -- is based on the faulty, insulting premise that kids don't get it, like Allison Janney's vile character in Away We Go. ("In one ear and out the other. Taylor! Taylor! Taylor!") It's a cruel, bad faith lie, perpetrated by mean-spirited assholes who hate kids. Don't get me wrong. It's fine that some people hate kids. Don't have them! But those people shouldn't make movies for children. Only under corporate capitalism, friends.
[NOTE: Two points of clarification that folks have asked for on this reviewlet. 1) Perhaps I spoke in haste, but I see something unique in Dreamworks' willingness to market outright contempt on a mass scale. This strikes me as a corporate trait -- the capitalist will sell you the rope with which to hang yourself, or him / her -- but I suppose this is really just as much a characteristic of what Adorno called "administered culture," which certainly thrived under Goebbels and Zhdanov. When we're expected to take as an article of faith that our lives are shit, and there is no hope for reasonable humanist alternatives to this misery -- that fundamentalist eschatology or xenophobic lashing-out are the only options, leaving people of good will to just suck it up and hate life forever -- it's no surprise that our mass-market comedy reflects this. Hardy fucking har.
2) Yes, Nola was watching Shrek 4 with Jen and me. I never would've seen it otherwise. And she was the one who wanted to leave. She hated it almost immediately, despite her (measured) affection for the other Shrek films. It wasn't boredom. It was discomfort, and although Nola is only four years old and could not articulate her responses to herself or to us, it seemed crystal clear to me what was going on. She felt assailed by this movie. She tacitly understood that, as a kid -- someone who has unconditional needs (feeding, comfort, affection, hygienic assistance, protection, the security of routine) that Shrek 4 was holding up for ridicule -- she was being subjected to hate speech.