Saturday, 27 August 2011

Film Reviews | Catfish (2010); Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010); I'm Still Here (2010)

Catfish, Exit Through The Gift Shop and I'm Still Here all have quite a lot in common. Not only are they documentary films, but they are also all documentaries that have had similar criticisms levelled at them at various points through their creation and release. The criticism focuses upon whether or not each film was genuine in what it purported to document. Whilst each hasproponents for both sides of the argument, two conclusions that seem to be arrived at by critics fairly regularly are:

i) that a documentary film not being "true" links in some way to the quality and aesthetic worth of what has been made;

ii) that the makers of a documentary not being entirely transparent about the levels of factual and fictional content in their film again impact on its quality and aesthetic worth.

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Looking first at Catfish, reviewing the film's content is tricky as a fair amount of the impact that the film will have on its audience rests on finding things out as the film progresses. The film focuses on photographer Yaniv "Nev" Schulman who strikes up a friendship on Facebook with a young girl called Abby after she sends him paintings of some of his photographs. This online friendship soon spreads to Abby's extended family, including her mother Angela and her half-sister Megan, and the film continues documenting the unexpected directions these relationships take.

Since its release, the truth behind the events of the film has been questioned from a number of directions, including opinions from others in the film industry ranging from the relevant (Morgan Spurlock, most famous for making Super Size Me) to the not-so-relevant (Zach Galifianakis, most famous for playing an idiot in The Hangover). Some seem merely unable to believe that the events of the film could be anything other than fictional; others have analysed the way in which the film's events are related and the timescale over which they are purported to have happened, and concluded that the film can't be relating real life events. Nev and the makers of the film, his brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost, have continually insisted that the film's story is completely true, although they have admitted to recreating a handful of elements after the event for the benefit of the film's narrative. For many, this is enough to call shenanigans on the whole film.

However, opinion on whether the film's events are "real" often takes over the entire view of the film. From armchair critics to professional journalists, the focus regularly returns to how truthful the filmmakers are being about how much (if any) of their film is fiction. This is undoubtedly a great shame, as Catfish has a huge amount going for it in terms of style and craftsmanship. The way in which modern technology is seamlessly integrated into the way the story is told is fantastic; using Google Earth to illustrate long distance travel and Google Streetview to produce establishing shots, for example, are simple yet inspired touches. The style of cinematography is matched perfectly to the tonal shift of the film as it progresses, beginning with a personal handheld style, moving to a more sinister quasi-horror style as events take a more unsettling tone, and then a cleaner, relatively more polished feel for the film's closing act. Schulman and Joost know their stuff when it comes to documentary style, that much is certain. The narrative is engaging and kept me hooked until the very end. Nev is presented as such an amiable character that you feel an immediate attachment to him and his life. And none of this hangs on whether or not what we are watching is true. Moreover, does it actually matter when the film is as enjoyable and masterful as it is?

I'm Still Here is, in almost every way, the counterpoint to all the things that make Catfish a great documentary. The film chronicles a year in the life of Joaquin Phoenix as he unceremoniously retires from acting in order to pursue a career as a rapper. And that's pretty much it. Phoenix's reasons for leaving acting are never entirely clear, other than boredom on the actor's part, with him essentially coming across as a conceited Hollywood brat. His rapping is awful, although his intention to become a serious rapper seems entirely genuine most of the time. Phoenix's meetings with P Diddy to get advice and try to jumpstart his new career move provide some of the film's most compelling scenes. The uncomfortable edge they have is comparable to that seen in Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm or Ricky Gervais' Extras, although never to such an entertaining degree.

Other than that, the film is filled with Phoenix and his entourage ordering hookers, getting drunk, taking copious amounts of drugs and generally behaving appallingly towards each other. Many of these scenes quickly become tedious and regularly unpleasantly uncomfortable. Phoenix himself comes across as highly unlikable and obnoxious to be around for most of the film. The way he treats those around him is abhorrent. By the end of the film, not only is it hard to care about Phoenix's struggle to break into the music business, but also that he left a promising career in film to do so. I just wanted him to go away.

Having insisted all along that Phoenix's tumultuous attempt at a career change was entirely genuine, soon after the film's release (and in what many have seen as an attempt to boost unimpressive box office returns after mixed reviews) director Casey Affleck admitted that everything seen in the film is entirely set up. Phoenix was playing a fictional version of himself the whole time, remaining "in character" during public and promotional appearances whilst the film was being made. Phoenix and Affleck have explained their desire to comment on people's willingness to believe everything they see as true when it is labelled as "reality". But this desire never comes across through the film, nor does coming clean about the manufactured nature of the film's events make it any more obvious. There is never a clear message behind the film, despite bookending the events seen with references to Phoenix's childhood and relationship with his father (also set up: the home video footage is fabricated and the man seen in the film is actually Affleck's father, not Phoenix's) possibly to imply Phoenix straying from his roots. This lack of clarity is not due to subtlety, but simply poor filmmaking.

Whilst there are moments that are made slightly more impressive by knowing they were set up (the scenes with P Diddy, for example, and an uncomfortable altercation between Phoenix and Ben Stiller), for the most part the revelation just serves to make Phoenix come across as even more self-indulgent. He has moved from a self-important actor failing to make it as a musician, to a self-important actor who apparently thinks watching him fail to make it as a musician will be entertaining for others. A film of this type needs to be shot through with either genuine humour or satire, and it is sorely devoid of both. Affleck too does not come off well. The revelation of the documentary's fictitious nature doesn't matter; either way, his directorial style throughout the film is uninspired, lacking in panache or storytelling know-how. Compared to the effortlessly stylish Catfish, in terms of craft this is pedestrian at best, downright amateurish at its worst. Affleck may be a highly promising acting talent, but based upon I'm Not There, I'm not looking forward to his next outing as a director.

Banksy's Exit Through The Gift Shop treads the ground somewhere between Catfish and I'm Still Here. The film begins by introducing Thierry Guetta, the man behind the camera and an obsessive camcorder user who stumbles into the world of street art almost entirely by accident, becoming the unofficial biographer of the underground movement. Guetta becomes obsessed with tracking down Banksy, apparently considered the most elusive of all street artists, and eventually their paths cross. However, events take a twist for the bizarre once Banksy sees Guetta's documentary and decides to take control of the film himself.

The main problem with ETTGS is that, very simply, a lot of what it shows you isn't actually that interesting to watch. After Guetta himself is introduced, a lot of the first act of the film is comprised of footage of street artists doing their thing. It's just that, whilst street art as a cultural phenomenon is interesting, watching people creating the street art just isn't as compelling as looking at the finished product. For around ten minutes or so, I found myself genuinely interested in watching Guetta's footage of the intricate painting and stencil work that goes into creating street art; but there are only so many times you can see shady figures spraying walls or putting up giant images of André The Giant or being questioned by the police before it all begins to merge together.

Things perk up a bit once Guetta has teamed up with Banksy. The sequence chronicling Banksy leaving a "murdered" red telephone box on the streets of central London is a particular highlight, as is footage of Banksy's infamous Disneyland Guantanamo Bay prisoner stunt, which becomes as tense as a scene in any thriller worth its salt. There is quite a bit of street art creation footage in between these however, which still failed to truly ignite my interest in the film. In many ways the film's running time of under ninety minutes is a blessing: had it been much longer, the less enthralling segments may have ended up as my lasting impression of the film.

Thankfully, the film's final third vastly improves upon what has preceded it, with the camera turned on cameraman (and by far the most fascinating personality on show here) Thierry Guetta and his own attempt to break into the street art scene. The result is a truly excruciating finale - a car crash of epic proportions waiting to happen that you can't bear to watch but at the same time can't possibly look away from, with a conclusion truly unforgettable.

It is largely the film's final act which drew skepticism from many, which is essentially the same criticism that Catfish received. Many refused to believe that the events of the film could be anything but fictitious, the greatest elaborate prank from the street artist who is almost as famous for his elaborate pranks as he is for his pop-culture-bending stencils. The makers of the film - or at least those involved who are happy to reveal their identities - have always stated that the story the film tells, and all the people depicted, are genuine. Out of all three films here, ETTGS probably has the most evidence outside the film to prove that at the very least a significant portion of the film's events actually happened. At the same time, however, it probably has the biggest reason for people to be wary of its claimed credentials. After all, you can't ignore that above the title on the film's poster appears the phrase "A Banksy film".

Essentially, these three documentaries together show that it doesn't really matter how candid the makers of the film are about the truth (or lack thereof) in the film when it comes to the quality of the film as a whole. I'm Still Here is the only film discussed here where those involved have unequivocally stated that the film's content is staged, and it is by far the poorest of the three. In fact, these three films are more revealing about the people passing judgement on them. Catfish and Exit Through The Gift Shop in many ways prove the well-known adage that "truth is stranger than fiction", but also that many people today would rather dismiss something remarkable as fabricated than stretch their belief to accept an unlikely truth.

Whilst I'm not saying that everything should be accepted at face value, there's being inquisitive and then there's trying to reveal the man behind the curtain for no reason other than spite. When I'm Not There was first revealed as a "mockumentary" rather than a depiction of real life, there were even those who poured scorn upon that admission, seeing it as an attempt by Casey Affleck to save face for Joaquin Phoenix. Essentially, the skepticism was reversed: critics claimed that Phoenix's actions were all completely real, and the claim of it all being a set-up was the hoax. To be that cynical must make life a constant struggle against disappointment. In the end, it is of course an entirely subjective decision as to how much of what you see in these films you actually believe. Just make sure this decision has no bearing on your aesthetic enjoyment of the film.

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I'm Still Here

Exit Through The Gift Shop

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