Tag Archives: Documentary

Kurt Cobain: Beauty Born of Pain

Originally published in April 2015.

Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over bored and self assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word

Long before Kurt Cobain displayed the depth of his hopelessness to the world by taking his own life, his fans had known he was suffering. Anyone who has listened to Kurt Cobain sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has heard the pain in his voice. Every Nirvana song is built upon a platform of angst—the music, the lyrics, the growls and wails all make the turmoil and drama inside Cobain’s head quite clear and accessible for anyone to hear. This transparency of feeling is what makes Nirvana’s music great and greatly beloved: it taps into a primordial well of anxiety, anger, longing and disillusionment in listeners and makes us feel as if our own personal, raw feelings are being scooped up, wallowed in and worn like warpaint by a rock god for all the world to see.

The obviousness of Cobain’s extreme pain was so evident to millions of people years before his suicide in 1994, so it comes as a shock to watch interviews with his friends and family and see how many cries for help they ignored, how little aid they sought for him, how limited were their resources in guiding him toward hope even after he became one of the most famous people in the world. The very elements of his psyche that made his art so powerful and meaningful to others were the parts that caused him the most misery. His charisma, stubbornness, insularity and difficult personality seem to have paralyzed those who should have seen him clearly and helped him most directly. These same characteristics and his remarkable ability to build a bridge between himself and other disaffected souls brought him a level of scrutiny that made him feel trapped in a dangerous tidal wave of success that he was constantly trying to ignore and retreat from. It’s as if he was hiding in plain sight.

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us

All of this becomes devastatingly clear in Brett Morgen’s excellent new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck currently in limited theatrical release and soon to be shown on HBO. The first film about Cobain to have the support of his daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who is also one of the film’s executive producers) and her mother, Kurt’s widow Courtney Love, this documentary could never have been made without their treasure trove of audio recordings, videos, home movies, drawings and family photos and access to Cobain’s diaries and notebooks. All of these elements come to life in stunning animated montages that make us feel as if we’re in the room with Kurt, his mom, his wife, his baby and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. Sometimes we feel as if we’re inside Kurt’s head as well.

Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As an old enemy

His violent and disturbing drawings, his remembrances of distressing moments in his personal history and the pained, sad stories of those with whom he lived and worked make abundantly clear how lonely, frightened and angry he was from a very early age. But the home movies of him as a baby and child show a heartbreakingly sweet and pretty little boy with a beautiful voice. He was hungry for attention and constantly in need of deep soothing that he rarely received. It hurts to see him so fresh and so loved, and to know that his overwhelmed parents, stepmother, siblings and friends had no idea how to deal with his enormous kinetic energy, his destructive impulses or his lack of self-control. The things he needed most—stability, understanding, unconditional love and safe ways to soothe himself—seemed nearly always out of reach, so he went for one dangerous activity, addiction or relationship after another, and that resulted in self-loathing and mental disintegration.

kurt

Two interviews really stand out among those in the film. One was with his stepmother, with whom he had a very difficult relationship. She recognized how abandoned and unwanted he must have felt when he was kicked out of his parents’ houses and moved from one to the other, then went off to a grandparent and moved back around through the family again. She expressed regret that she hadn’t recognized his pain at the time but could only be frustrated by his acting out and worried about the effect of his behavior on his siblings. Bandmate Krist Novocelic, long his close friend, expressed great sadness that he was unaware of how serious Kurt’s problems were during his life even though he saw evidence of Kurt’s rage and watched him self-destruct. He says in hindsight it is obvious that Kurt was in extreme pain and that there were numerous red flags and cries for help, but he wasn’t able to recognize their seriousness at the time.

Novocelic also noted something crucial to an understanding of Kurt’s enormous antipathy toward fame and success: he said Kurt had a huge fear of being humiliated. As we watch Kurt in films and videos and hear his words, it becomes clear that he hid his fears with bravado, dark humor, dramatic performances, drugs and acting out. He derided establishment values and behaviors and deliberately set up barriers between himself and those who might have been best able to recognize and help him. And of course, it is that raw, urgent ugliness inside of him that sometimes comes out in gruesome drawings, in his bashing his guitar to smithereens on the battered wood floor of his own house, or in refusing to bathe or wash his hair for days, or living in squalor and backing out of major tours so he could go home to do little but play guitar, have sex and shoot up for days or weeks on end.

It is that very grunginess in his personal life that bled, sometimes almost literally, into his music, and made it so accessible, thrilling and fresh to a youthful audience tired of the smooth, highly produced technopop of the 1980s. Cobain’s squalor and literal stink combined with a vulnerability, a gritty poetic streak and a compulsion to create helped him build a dirtily sexy persona, but they also pushed him into a dangerously intense public world that made him endlessly terrified of being exposed, embarrassed, ridiculed, overadored and ultimately used up. So he used himself up in a hurry before life had a chance to do it to him.

I found it hard, it’s hard to find
Oh well, whatever, never mind

The urge to create and the urge to destroy, including the urge to self-destruct, were always living side by side within Kurt Cobain, and his overwhelmed family members shunted him back and forth among houses a number of times during his childhood, recognizing his neediness but experiencing it always as a destabilizing and dangerous force that they couldn’t control and couldn’t stand. He also had a long history of serious and excruciating abdominal pains that caused extreme and frequent pain and sometimes bloody vomiting, but there was little money available until the end of his life for psychological help or appropriate medical care. So he developed dangerous ways of self-medicating with food, drink and drugs that exacerbated his ill health. By the time he had the money for proper mental health support and medical care, his dangerous habits were well ingrained, and his beloved companion and wife Courtney Love was herself so drug-addled, angry and self-destructive that she could only feed into his addictions and his rejection of others’ attempts to offer help. When her eye started to wander and he recognized that even she, the partner whom he thought understood and loved him better than anyone, was on the verge of betraying him, he lost all hope, attempted suicide, and then successfully finished the job with a gun a few days later.

Hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint
Forever in debt to your priceless advice

Why would someone want to sit through two hours of this dark story with so many regretful loved ones sitting stricken in front of the interviewer and recounting their memories with wringing hands and guilty eyes? Because the pain of his story, like the pain in his music, is compelling even as the details are sometimes repellent. Some of his memories, words and images are grim and disturbing, but watching the intimate dynamic between him and Courtney, drug-addled and gritty as it often was, shows why they were drawn to each other—admiration, understanding and humor are all evident, as is a certain pleasure in courting death and mayhem. It hurts to watch him hold his baby Frances with such loving tenderness and read and hear his words of devotion, then later  see him  barely able to hold her on his lap, so drugged-out and nearly incoherent is he in one awful scene. It is hard to watch knowing that Courtney, a friend filming the scene and another helping with the baby were all present, and, like everyone else in the film, they observed the clear self-destruction of the man but no one either would or perhaps could do anything to pull him back from the brink.

I saw the film in Seattle’s Egyptian Theater, which is right in the neighborhood where Cobain had his last meal. One block from the theater is Linda’s Tavern, where he was last seen alive on the night before he shot himself through the head. The film is currently in a few theaters around the U.S. and in the U.K., and is garnering high praise for its intimate portrayal of the man and his life and his ardent, nearly compulsive need to create. I’m glad to have enjoyed it in a cinema where the never-before-seen concert footage was especially powerful and immersive and the intimate moments felt even more immediate. I’m even gladder that it will be available to so many more via HBO television showings.

I’m so ugly, but that’s okay, cause so are you
We’ve broken our mirrors
Sunday morning is everyday for all I care
And I’m not scared

While the film has received mostly very good reviews, some have complained that it is uneven and a bit jumbled because of the lack of a narrator and the sometimes abrupt switches between interviews with those who knew him, private film footage, concert footage, images of his writing and art and montages of animation and recordings. Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film is “impressive in parts, but wildly uneven as a whole.” I found this unevenness and the montage style particularly appropriate for the story of a hyperkinetic, often drugged-out man with serious mental and emotional problems. I might have found the style more annoyingly disjointed had it been used to tell the story of a different subject, but in this case the style illustrates how overwhelming it must have felt to live inside of Cobain’s brain and body. The barrage of images and sounds approximate the cacophany of a grunge concert, a life of rock and roll excess and the disabling and endless waves of chronic and extreme physical and emotional pain he felt. All of that is shown amid reminders of how much love and admiration those around him felt and wanted to share with him alongside the frustration and confusion they felt over his extreme emotions and behaviors.

A denial, a denial, a denial, a denial.

The film, which gets its name from a musical collage made by Cobain with a four-track cassette recorder before Nirvana became famous, is no feel-good movie. It is often funny, sometimes darkly beautiful and occasionally mesmerizing, but it is also a very raw view of the life of a dangerously mentally ill and emotionally damaged human being. Even though it shows how difficult and ugly he and his life could be, it also helps us see his vulnerability, humanity and his hunger to create, and it makes clear his devotion to his wife and child.

This film helps to humanize Kurt Cobain without lionizing him. Seeing how far back his deep emotional illnesses went also helps us to empathize with him and feel sympathy along with the disgust his actions sometimes inspire. The film shows how off-puttingly, determinedly filthy, squalid and unhealthy his lifestyle often was (though he and Courtney did sometimes live in luxury hotels in Seattle and elsewhere once they became wealthy), and interviews with his mother and his widow give some glimpse into their own sometimes impaired ability to see how much of a part each of them played in his feeling unsupported and betrayed.

He’s the one
Who likes all the pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun

David Fear of Rolling Stone described the film as “the unfiltered Kurt experience,” noting that Cobain is shown “not [as] a spokesman for a generation,” but as “a human being, and a husband, and a father.” Frances Bean Cobain said at the documentary’s premiere in Los Angeles, “After seeing it, I thought I could only watch it once. But the film that [Morgen] made—I didn’t know Kurt, but he would be exceptionally proud of it. It touches some dark subjects, but it provides a basic understanding of who he was as a human, and that’s been lost.”

I agree.

Eight Days a Week: On Tour with The Beatles

Tonight I indulged in an evening of nostalgia inspired by a viewing of Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, the satisfying and enjoyable new documentary about  directed by Ron Howard. Though no one can doubt Howard’s ability to present stories with energy and enthusiasm, I have often found his films too mawkish and obvious for my taste. Happily, it turns out he has a knack for creating a crackerjack musical documentary. He’s put together a jaunty but detail-rich story with the full cooperation of (and incorporating recent interviews with) living Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and with help from the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison.

Growing up during the 1960s and being steeped in Beatles music from birth, as I was, I have always seen The Beatles as my band and my musical family members, and I’ve viewed their music as a personal treasure that I just happen to share with the world. This film brings back the best moments of my childhood, reminds me of just how fresh and delicious their music was (and still is today). This documentary is a bright, shiny reminder that no, their power, talent and influence haven’t been overblown: they really were that good and that important to world culture in the 1960s. There was an open lightheartedness and sincerity about them which this documentary displays lovingly, but without treacly reverence or false heroism. They were a force to be reckoned with, but what they wanted most of all was not to be legends to millions of young girls or to worry about what their cultural legacy would be years hence; they just wanted to create really great music and bring joy. And they did.

As meaningful as my own relationship with The Beatles’ music feels to me, I know that I share my all-time-favorite band with a literal billion other people who love them, too, and this film makes that clear: the enormity of Beatlemania, the record-breaking crowds that showed up to see them, hurled themselves into fences and onto stages, and even broke through doors and windows to get to them are all on display here. But the nature of The Beatles’ electrifying and original music, as well as their enormous personal charisma and warm connection to each other and to their fans, is that we feel an intimate connection to them and to their music. After all, their songs have been part of our personal soundtracks for over a half-century. This film makes their charisma, their discipline and their energy feel fresh and palpable, and the large amounts of color footage and clever use of still photos and black-and-white film, along with surprisingly well restored audio tracks, makes them feel breathtakingly contemporary.

The Beatles were joyful, bracingly honest, and so cheerfully rowdy that they turned all stereotypes of British primness upside-down. They were also egalitarian, working class and, when it came to race, colorblind. In Eight Days a Week, Whoopi Goldberg, who has been a huge Beatles fan since childhood and who saw them at Shea Stadium when she was a girl, says in this film that when she saw and heard The Beatles, she felt like they were her friends, that their music spoke to her, that she didn’t feel like an outsider when she played their records. She felt like they would welcome her into their world if they knew her, which was unusual and deeply touching for a young black girl to feel about a group of white English guys in 1965. And she was right; when they went to the South, they were told they could only perform to segregated audiences, and they refused. They put an antisegregation rider into their contract, and once they broke the color barrier at their concerts, those stadium concert venues stayed desegregated for other performers who came after them. When they decided to augment their recordings with an outside keyboardist near the end of the band’s life, they chose megatalented black funk star Billy Preston to play keyboard for them, creating those iconic keyboard solos in songs like “Get Back.” You can see Preston, who was the only non-Beatle ever credited for performing on any of their albums, performing with them at the end of the film as they played their last-ever live concert together on the top of their office building, as can be seen in the concert film made of their final album together, Let It Be.

Those of us who were born in the 1960s grew up with Beatles music being a constant presence in our lives, and we who were most deeply touched by them can still sing dozens, even hundreds of their songs by heart, so catchy and fresh and powerful were their tunes, their lyrics and their arrangements. (And the documentary makes clear that they owed a great debt of gratitude to producer George Martin, who died this year and to whom the documentary is dedicated.)

To the people of the United States who were introduced to the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and on the radio in early 1964, The Beatles seemed to come out of nowhere and to be overnight sensations. Of course, we all know now that they’d spent years honing their craft in the underground bar in which they were discovered in Liverpool, The Cavern, and in the seediest nightclubs of Hamburg, Germany, where they polished their performance skills, practiced and performed for up to eight hours a day, and all slept in one room together with their shared bathroom down the hall, like brothers. By the time they came to the U.S., they saw each other as brothers, as the film makes clear.

The overwhelming, relentless, exhausting quality of their life on the road is displayed and narrated by The Beatles themselves in this film, but their resilience, wit, energy and powerful loyalty to each other are also evident. The excellent footage and recordings, some only discovered recently after the filmmakers put a call out to Beatles fans via social media, are masterfully arranged and edited, and despite the extremely public nature of their lives and careers, the film feels quite intimate at times.

Ron Howard is known for being somewhat obvious and superficial in the way he treats historical subjects, and that holds true here: there are few, if any, surprising facts or original insights in this film, though hearing Paul and Ringo (and George and John, in long-ago interviews) recount their stories with some pleasure is a treat. In Eight Days a Week, Howard does what he is particularly good at, and that is creating an energetic, buoyant piece of visually attractive entertainment (with enormous help from talented editor Paul Crowder) that feels immediate and real, and that leaves the audience feeling hopeful. I saw it with a full house of people aged 18 to about 80, and the college-aged people laughed at and delighted in the Beatles’ talents and antics at least as much as those of us who have been listening to Beatles music for 50 years or more. The college students in the audience were the first to break into applause at the film’s end.

If you love The Beatles as I do, make sure to stay seated throughout the end credits so you don’t miss the huge bonus at the end of the film: a newly restored, half-hour-long edited-down version of their 1965 concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, which was at that time the largest rock concert in history. Their fan base was so enormous, and the risk to safety from the huge gatherings of fans was so great, that their U.S. tours eventually had to take place only in giant stadiums. Indeed, police forces across the U.S. were regularly overwhelmed when The Beatles came to their cities, so unprecedented were their appeal and the enormity of the crowds they attracted.

During the Shea Stadium concert Paul and Ringo say they couldn’t hear a thing over the deafening noise of the crowd; Ringo had to stay in sync with Paul and John by watching them for visual cues, primarily by watching their hips. Concert footage shows what enormous stamina and determination were necessary to perform on that scale and at that pace for years on end. Every day meant hours of being rushed through hordes of screaming fans who were trying to bash in their car windows; being dragged around to photo shoots or film sets; being grilled by reporters; having perhaps 90 minutes at a studio with George Martin to test out a just-written song and bring it to full fruition on tape; and then going off to play a concert. The lack of private time was wearying. In between all the very public appearances, they would often be stuck together in a hotel room to avoid having their hair snipped and clothes ripped away by mobs of fans should they go out in public. This film shows the weariness and joylessness that this kind of life ultimately elicited, and makes clear why they decided to stop touring in 1966 and spend all of their remaining energy writing and recording rather than touring for their final five albums together.

While my lifelong love of The Beatles keeps me from being impartial in evaluating this new documentary, I can say that I felt it captured their spirit, freshness, talent and liveliness in a more visceral and emotionally stirring way than any other documentary I’ve seen about the band, and that I’ll be able to hear and enjoy their music in a deeper and even more appreciative way as a result. Many thanks to Paul and Ringo and Ron Howard for making this lively, lovely appreciation of The Beatles’ early years possible.

The Robin Hood of the Art World

poster

[This article originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Is graffiti art? And if it is, is the defacement of others’ property ever justifiable in the service of art? When is graffiti (or “guerilla art,” or “street art”) okay? When it says something meaningful? When it’s well done? When it’s pretty? When famous people say it’s art?

Let’s suggest for a moment that it’s always wrong to deface others’ property. After a graffiti attack, once a property has already been defaced, is there ever a justification in leaving the defacement/art in place? What if it’s really great-looking, astonishingly intricate, brilliant in its message: would those circumstances justify the illegal (and some would say unethical) action that created it?

These are important questions to consider when discussing or viewing graffiti art or “street art,” and a documentary that addresses them would be fascinating. However, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the excellent new documentary on street art, doesn’t address any of them. And it doesn’t need to. Subtitled “The world’s first Street Art disaster movie,” it’s a fascinating film on its own merits, even though it leaves the ethics of all the principal characters in the film essentially unexplored. The film itself may be at least in part an elaborate hoax. If it is, it’s still worth seeing.

The most famous graffiti artist in the world, and certainly one of the most talented, is a Briton who goes by the pseudonym Banksy. Banksy is a wily and elusive character who has been creating graffiti art, first in England and then internationally, since the early 1990s. He began as a common tagger but after too many run-ins with the law, he decided he needed to develop a new style that would allow him to prep a public outdoor space, create his art as quickly as possible, then disappear before cops could show up and arrest him. He developed a system in which he created a series of stencils, then smuggled them to various spots around Britain and used one or more of them to build up intricate and often sophisticated images, sometimes adding freehand strokes to the stenciled areas. His pieces often feature wry comments spray-painted next to or within the images. Subjects have ranged from small single-color rats (a frequent motif) to huge murals of policemen in riot gear dancing with daisies. He’s often created life-sized people or animals, including policemen kissing each other and children in surprising situations. His messages are usually usually anti-war, anti-capitalist or anti-establishment.

Over time, Banksy’s wit, talent and cleverness at hiding his identity made him a cult figure, and his art became so desired and in such great demand that people began removing his works from walls, cutting chunks out of tagged buildings and selling them at auction, even on eBay. He has created a number of pieces on canvas as well, and they now sell for grand sums at no less august an institution than Sotheby’s.

Banksy often paints works that mimic the style and subject matter of old masters but which show clever twists, such as a 17th century village scene in which the buildings are covered in modern graffiti. He has repeatedly smuggled his paintings into major art galleries such as the Tate in London and New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum, then hung each piece, complete with fancy frame and descriptive placard, among famous masterpieces. Sometimes museums have taken weeks to discover the subterfuge before removing his works. In 2005 his version of a primitive Lascaux-style cave painting depicting a human figure hunting wildlife while pushing a shopping cart was hung in the British Museum. When it was discovered, the British Museum, home to such important pieces as the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon’s Elgin Marbles, wisely added Banksy’s painting to the permanent collection.

Despite his remarkably varied artistic talent, Banksy fits well into the graffiti artist or “street artist” genre because of his guerilla-style illegal forays into public places, which he then vandalizes, albeit wittily and with great skill, leaving evidence of his cunning alongside artistic talent. Many street artists have more swagger than technical skill, and the “Screw you, society!” anarchic message their graffiti announces to the world is usually more compelling than the actual art they produce. Banksy is not unusual among graffitists in his desire to remain anonymous and avoid arrest for his illegal activities, but he does show particular skill, subtlety and cleverness.

Some of his ruses, such as cutting a red British telephone box in half, reassembling it and welding it so looks as if it’s been hacked in two and bent, and then burying a hatchet in it, take not just daring and skill but some major resources to create, transport and maneuver into place. For fun several years ago, he counterfeited a million pounds worth of British currency with the face of Princess Diana taking the place of Queen Elizabeth II, but the results were so believable that attempts to spend the faux currency were all too successful, and he ended up with boxes of funny-money that he didn’t dare distribute for fear of being prosecuted for a federal crime.

Banksy’s story is perhaps the most compelling one in the world of graffiti art, but it takes an unexpected back seat to the story of his videographer in the Banksy-made film Exit Through the Gift Shop. The documentary made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is packing arthouse cinemas around the world just a few months after its debut. The gist of the story is this: In the 1990s, Thierry Guetta, a French-born entrepreneur, ran a successful LA clothing boutique which sold vintage rock-and-roller and punky clothes which he bought for almost nothing in scrap bundles and sold for obscenely high prices. On the side, he began obsessively videotaping everything, including the illegal activities of his cousin, a French graffiti artist who made small mosaics based on bit-mapped Space Invaders videogame characters. His cousin, who called himself Space Invader, allowed Guetta to film him gluing his guerilla-art mosaics around Europe and America, and Guetta’s videotaping obsession finally had a focus. He started documenting almost all the top players in the street art movement to the exclusion of doing almost anything else throughout the 1990s and most of the 2000s.

One artist who allowed Guetta constant access was Shepard Fairey, first famous for spreading over a million images of Andre the Giant‘s face on stickers and posters around the world, all atop the word OBEY, as if he were the ubiquitous Big Brother of Orwell’s distopian classic 1984. Later Fairey became famous for the red and blue poster of Barack Obama above the word HOPE that becames an official image of Obama’s campaign and has since been endlessly parodied. Fairey is now being sued by the Associated Press because he didn’t have permission to use the AP photo he based the poster on. A likeable guy who gets around, Fairey had become friendly with Banksy. Fairey was impressed after seeing Guetta’s obsessive compulsion to document graffitists and Guetta’s willingness to put himself in harm’s way and spend his own money and time helping Fairey and other street artists create and hang their work. According to the documentary, he felt Guetta could be trusted to meet and even videotape Banksy when Banksy came to Los Angeles. Guetta proved himself an extremely willing, friendly and helpful assistant, driving Banksy around, showing him the best public walls on which to ply his craft, and making his life and his art easier. Banksy soon allowed Guetta to film him at work, trusting that Guetta would keep his identity safe, which he did.

Here’s where the questions of who is an artist and what is art get confused. If you want to keep the upshot of the documentary a mystery, you might want to skip the next three paragraphs.

Eventually, Banksy felt it was time for Thierry Guetta to edit his huge collection of Banksy videos into a documentary, something Guetta had said he would eventually do but for which he had no training or experience. According to Banksy, after six months Guetta had cobbled together a headache-inducing, chopped-and-diced fiasco of a film without any narrative at all, a barrage of undifferentiated random images from his thousands of uncataloged videotapes of Banksy and other graffiti artists. Upon seeing this mess, Banksy suggested that Thierry give over access to all the videos and Banksy himself would create a movie out of them. To distract Guetta, Banksy suggested that Guetta should go off for six months and create art of his own and then have a little show. This made some sort of sense; the videographer had started doing some stencils of himself around LA and signing them MBW, which he said stood for Mr. Brainwash. Banksy thought Guetta would have a small vanity show someplace and the distraction would get him out of Banksy’s hair while Banksy put together a reasonable documentary out of Guetta’s frightening mishmash of videotape.

However, Guetta, now consumed with the idea that he was an artiste who could make a fortune and have a giant, splashy, expensive solo show that would wow the world, mortaged his house, hired a cadre of actual artists, prop designers and contractors, and rented a huge, expensive space in downtown LA. He told other artists to make largely unattractive knock-offs of Andy Warhol-style pop art pieces and spray painted silkscreen images of pop culture icons, claimed and signed them all as his own work, and relentlessly hyped himself around LA as the next big thing. Seven thousand people lined up to see Mr. Brainwash’s opening and his hundreds of derivative paintings, many of them created by others with almost no or no input from Guetta at all.

LA loved him. He sold a million dollars worth of “art” in two weeks. So many people flooded the gallery that what had been expected to be a two-week show stayed up for two months. Madonna asked him to create a Warholesque image of her for her latest greatest hits album. Mr. Brainwash has his first New York show this spring. And the joke was on Banksy. Or was it? While it illustrates the phoniness of the art world that he’s always reviled and parodied, a significant contingent of art world critics and followers believe they recognize the clever guiding hand of Banksy himself behind this cynical, clever and amusing film; they believe he put up the money for Guetta’s show and is using Guetta as a frontman for his ruse.

Whether this is a clever con or simply a wild situation that spun out of control while Banksy was distracted by the editing down of Guetta’s archive of tapes, it is a perfect illustration of the sort of art world nonsense Banksy has always opposed. Banksy has staged it as the story of an authentic (if anarchistic) hermitic artist who hides out among us and goes by a pseudonym vs. the faux-artist con-man entrepreneur with little if any talent for art and no insight into what makes it good, important or inspiring. Even when Banksy has created art meant to be sold to the throngs angling to pay real money to own a genuine Banksy, he has happily bitten the hands that feed him.

In 2007, Sotheby’s auction house auctioned off three of his pieces for a total of over £170,000; to coincide with the second day of auctions, Banksy updated his website with a new image of an auction house scene showing people bidding on a picture that said, “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit.” In his quest to meet and videotape all the bright lights of the street art movement, Guetta, on the other hand, became so hungry to be seen as a creator and star rather than part of the supporting cast of the art world that he created a huge show out of nothing but borrowed money and chutzpah, and, horribly, pulled it off.

The question of whether what guerilla street artists do (trespassing and defacing property that is not theirs) is ethical or justifiable is never addressed in this film. That’s understandable; Banksy is an outlaw hero who probably sees himself as akin to Butch Cassidy or Robin Hood, someone who points out the flaws in the system in an outrageously public way while remaining essentially invisible, only popping out often enough to build his legend and prove his existence. There’s no reason why such a person would want to draw attention to the dark side of what he does, especially when he doesn’t appear to recognize any darkness in it.

A film this cleverly and entertainingly made adds to his allure and stature while presenting his actions in the best possible light. Without ever explaining or justifying himself, he wangles his way into the audience’s affections and makes the story unfold in a way that builds sympathy for the characters, all of whom are literal outlaws. We find ourselves rooting for them to get away with their trespasses without ever feeling like we’re being manipulated or spoonfed with obvious and unnecessary explanations or justifications. Banksy really knows how to tell and sell a story, and, like a sleight-of-hand master, how to distract us from many of the important issues without our stopping to think, hey, what about the elephant in the room?

Speaking of which, there’s a great scene in which Banksy places an actual live elephant in the middle of a gallery show in order to prove a point. Of course, the point is lost on the media; they report that PETA (and LA Animal Services) didn’t like him painting an elephant with children’s facepaints and putting it on display, which is indeed newsworthy, but they seemed to have no concern with what the point of his painting the elephant was. This example of his disdain for people who don’t think about the meaning or point of art is astute, but it also shows his arrogance in thinking that, because others don’t share his sophisticated ideas and opinions on art, their own tastes, questions and concerns about what he does and how he does it are not just debatable but abominable proof of their philistinism. While I share his disappointment that people are so happy to accept pop culture simplifications of art rather than develop opinions of their own, I find his open contempt for people who don’t share his worldview distressingly self-absorbed and arrogant.

Banksy shows himself to be a witty and articulate man, both via his art and in the speeches he makes to the camera in this documentary. He speaks and gesticulates while wearing a dark hoody that obscures his face and and has his voice altered digitally. He could have been interviewed off camera and had the documentary’s narrator Rhys Ifans, the dryly entertaining Welsh actor, repeat his words to ensure that nobody could recognize his speech patterns or accent, but Banksy clearly enjoys scooting out of the shadows just a bit, providing blurry-faced proof of his escapades to the world via Guetta’s videos, letting people hear his accent, albeit in altered form. He is playing with his anonymity here, heightening the drama yet again, just as he does in his art, working the darkness and spray cans and stencils until he’s constructed a shadowy version of himself that he can carefully control access to.

Banksy appears to have a strong system of values (often fine ones, like looking out for the little guy and avoiding governmental tyranny), but seems to have little respect for the rights of others whose values differ (such as those who own property which he would like to cover in examples of his self-expression). This places him squarely alongside other heroes of the anarchistic British punk movement who have determined that destruction and defacement of things that they don’t value is justification enough for ignoring laws which seek to respect property and and which respect the needs of a society based on the rule of law.

In an attempt to focus attention on exploitative flaws in the capitalist system, socialists or, even further to the left on the political spectrum, anarchists like Banksy sometimes feel justified in ignoring property rights entirely, saying they are an artificial and damaging construct which enslaves the poor and empowers the rich, thus denying basic human rights and dignity. If you believe that an entire system is wrong, it can be tempting to determine that you will no longer acknowledge its rules or its power over you and decide to do things your own way. But just as unfettered capitalism can lead to great selfishness and a lack of awareness or concern for the needs of others, unfettered socialism can lead to societies which refuse to give incentives or rewards for exceptional efforts or remarkable talents, and which can be perverted into unhealthy organisms which stamp out originality or innovation. Fortunately, hybrid societies with capitalistic bases and strong (though imperfect) social safety nets exist in several nations around the world. They show that a respect for the innate worth of every individual and the responsibility of society to look after its weakest members can be balanced with respect and recompense for exceptional talent and effort. They also show that respecting a person’s property rights is an important component in respecting the person herself. No nation balances these opposing needs perfectly, but it is encouraging that millions around the world still strive to perfect their systems.

A healthy and safe hybrid society runs on respect for all the people in it, as well as for their legally-obtained possessions. And while Banksy has often shown himself to have a certain integrity, pointing out flaws in the art world and questioning the values of modern society, he has also shown a willingness to profit (sometimes enormously) by engaging in the same art world he mocks. To have true integrity, one could argue that he would have to turn down chances to make money off his art, but by selling works directly through Sotheby’s, even as he mocks the process, he has become a part of the system he claims to disdain. On the one hand, I want to see someone so talented and original, someone of his wit and insight and great skill, benefit from his ability and be able to make a good living as an artist. On the other hand, it saddens me to see him revel in becoming rich off the sale of his own private possessions while feeling no compunction about messing with the possessions of others and mocking the owners in the process. He then makes those whose property he has vandalized look bad when they seek to remove his art, even though, if they leave it in place, they give a message to all graffiti artists and other vandals that if you’re famous and clever or do a good enough job at it, the rules of respecting other’s space and property no longer apply.

A society which makes exceptions for disrespect of property and laws of trespass invites evisceration of the social compact. Sad as I am to see some of Banksy’s work disappear, I cannot blame the owners of the defaced spaces for showing their resolve not to let themselves become victims of vandalism, even clever or attractive vandalism, without a fight. Furthermore, Banksy knows that much of his work will be defaced or destroyed; he has chosen his medium and locations for precisely this reason. The impermanence makes seeing it as quickly as possible imperative, and that makes him an extra hot commodity and burnishes his oppressed outlaw image. It makes him a romantic figure of brash mystery.

Banksy can act as cynical about the superficialities of the art world as he wants, but he’s making huge sums of money off that very world nowadays, so he’s benefiting from the system he finds so corrupt. His hands aren’t clean, either.

My Architect: A Beautiful Documentary

architect

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) was one of the 20th century’s most influential and well-regarded architects. He designed such important structures as the Exeter Library at Philips Exeter Academy, and the Capital Complex in Dhaka (Dacca), Bangladesh, and his work was revered by high-flying architects such as I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry. But his habits of overwork and overextension, bidding for too many projects and becoming obsessive about his all-consuming passion for architecture, led him to die of a heart attack, bankrupt and alone, in a Penn Station bathroom as he was on his way home to Philadelphia from New York. When he died, he left not only a wife and their daughter, but also a mistress and his second daughter, as well as a second mistress and his third child, his 11-year-old son, Nathaniel, who made a beautiful documentary about his father, “My Architect: A Son’s Journey.”

Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary visits and discusses the works of his father, some of which Nathaniel had never seen before, and shows the emotional and artistic impact that Louis Kahn and his work made on others, both architects and clients. But more than being a simple homage to his father and his works, the film shows Nathaniel’s search to understand his secretive, mysterious father’s compartmentalized life and to strengthen his connection to the father he lost so early. Louis Kahn’s charisma and charm, his love for his children and the feelings of great love and loyalty he engendered in the women in his life are all made clear, as are his self-absorption, his need to make every commitment in life secondary to his commitment to his work, his flashes of arrogance, and his lack of empathy for others. The question which underpins the whole film is whether the gifts of an artistic genius whose work engenders tears of appreciation from his clients and fellow architects can justify his remote, selfish, and disconnected life.

To his credit, Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t try to answer any of these questions once and for all; he interviews his two half sisters and talks with his mother, who still nurses the belief that Louis Kahn was about to leave his wife and come to live with Nathaniel and his mother before he died. He asks difficult questions and presses his mother to be honest about his father’s failings and selfishness. The responses are at times surprising and always sad and touching.

Although he admires his father’s work, Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t like every one of his father’s buildings. As he makes his pilgrimage to each one, he asks the people who live with and use the buildings how they feel about them, and admits when he finds one cold or impractical. When he visits the Exeter Library or the Institute of Public Administration at Ahmedabad, India, or when he goes to Bangladesh and sees how the Capitol and Parliament Buildings in Dhaka are enjoyed and made into the center of life for the local people, he is clearly moved. Sometimes the technical mastery of his father’s work, its appropriateness in shape, form, and function and its original and spare use of light and materials awe him, and we see him surprised and touched by the effect that his father’s work had on others.

It’s difficult to express what makes this film so watchable, moving, and fascinating. I suppose it boils down to three things I find endlessly illuminating: artistic masterworks, biographies of unusual and influential people, and bad family dynamics. This documentary is worth watching on any of those counts; as a work of art encompassing all three, it’s extraordinary.

I found a lovely site with beautiful photographs of Louis Kahn’s work; do check out “The Works of Louis I. Kahn: A Visual Archive by Naquib Hossain.” Hossain describes Kahn’s work elegantly as “A purposeful knot of complements and contradictions in a rich fabric of brick, mortar, and concrete, woven to being by natural light.” “My Architect” is a purposeful knot of complements and contradictions, too, and a lovely work of art in its own right.