Saturday, June 26, 2010

Realist Cinema: Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone by Debra Granik, 2010

God knows I love a good documentary, but of course I indulge in different types of film. Therefore I have decided to dedicate a section of this blog to Realist Cinema. Although there doesn't seem to be a specific definition for this genre, I see any film with a docu-drama feel fitting this category.

There have been some prominent realist American films over the past few years that are set in the hostile, rural terrains of the American landscape. Ballast, Frozen River and the films of Kelly Reichardt (maybe less so, due to their warmer climates) fit the bill. This renaissance of simplicity over spectacle has aroused great interest in me. After seeing notices for Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, I knew that I had to check it out.

17 year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in the Ozark Mountains, taking care of her young siblings and ill mother. Ree struggles daily to provide, hunting for squirrels in the forest and counting on neighbours for provisions, even for the family's horse. When Ree is told her mostly absent, drug-abusing father put up the Dolly home as his bail and failed to attend his trial, Ree makes it her mission to find him before the property is taken away in a week’s time.

This is when Ree’s adventure of sorts begins. In a desperate search for her father, Ree treks to the homes of various neighbours she knew he was in contact with. She speaks with Teardrop (John Hawkes), her uncle, who is infuriated with Ree every time she brings up the subject of her father. When she is told in confidence to seek out the home of one particular resident, her resistance to find answers is met with fierce caution. A search for a missing man becomes a life or death situation.

Winter’s Bone is both terrifying and beautiful. The landscape is stark, but the blues and greens of the forest and mountains are magisterial. These characters inhabit a world that at once offers nothing, yet is surrounded by infinity of discovery. The cinematography plays up the landscape, and the absolutely beautiful soundtrack that utilizes the music of the local inhabitants gives the hardships seen in the film a poetic resonance.

Lead Jennifer Lawrence is fearless in her depiction of Ree. She is hard-nosed and authoritative, and Lawrence doesn't shy away from any gruesome characterizations other actresses may have found too dirty. John Hawkes is also a great discovery, giving Teardrop a spectrum of emotions - he is at once despicable and caring. I knew I recognized Dale Dickey, who plays the convincingly brutal Merab. She guest-starred in a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, playing a witch-like crack addict to great effect. Another stupendous and rangy portrayal.

Although I did enjoy the film, I felt it was repetitive when Ree traveled to the various neighbours' homes in search of answers. Another trek to another location. I understand that it displayed her need to persist, but it felt a bit redundant. A dream sequence including squirrels also seemed a bit out of place.

Winter's Bone is a film of brutality and the struggle to survive amongst an austere locale and people (a scene where Ree confronts some of these people is one of the most terrifying scenes I have seen in a while). It isn't shy in this sense, and I applaud the film's vision and honesty.

3 1/2 out of 5

Monday, June 7, 2010

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Exit Through The Gift Shop by Banksy, 2010

I would not call myself a street art aficionado. Although the movement and talent interest me, it has never grabbed me the way other mediums have. I respect the work and lengths these artists go to in order to produce their pieces, and the secretiveness of it all is exciting, but for whatever reason, I haven't explored the art further.

I was introduced to Banksy's work a couple years ago when my roommate received a book of his work from her uncle. As soon as I saw the cover, he became familiar. It was like a song playing on the radio that you know, but you don't. His iconic images are seen everywhere - all over the world - his style recognizable. Painted silhouettes of rats and kissing British policemen now have a name behind them.

Hearing about the release of this film, Banksy again became familiar to me. I remember recalling my roommate's book, thinking "oh, it's about that guy." After being released here in Toronto for a couple weeks already, I finally went to a screening yesterday, maybe more to enjoy the medium of documentary (and to see what all the buzz was about).

But Exit Through The Giftshop's main subject, surprisingly, is not Banksy. It is a man named Thierry Guetta, AKA Mr. Brainwash, a man obsessed with filming everything on his camcorder. Running a vintage store in Los Angeles, Guetta begins to befriend various street artists. He claims to be collecting footage for a documentary on the movement, filming these artists making their marks in different cities, spray-painting and stenciling their signature images on the most daring pieces of wall and billboard.

The filming of these acts becomes an obsession for Guetta, and he travels all over the world with his new friends to capture anything they do. He befriends the most infamous street artists, but one evades him. The most elusive, yet well known street artist out there: Banksy. It becomes Guetta's personal mission to find Banksy and film him creating his pieces. When Banksy needs an assistant during an LA visit, someone suggests Guetta, and to Guetta's utter shock, the two meet and eventually become friends and accomplices.

But is Guetta actually a filmmaker? What are his motives for following and filming these artists, night after night, day after day, city after city? A bigger concern arises when Guetta decides to become a street artist as well. He wants to do big things, and fast. How valid is his work when there is too much too soon, and all of it looks very familiar? Is Mr. Brainwash an artist, a copycat or both?

These last questions are what made Exit Through The Gift Shop so much more interesting than I expected. While I was surprised by the film's focus, I was also glad for it, as Banksy's need to keep himself a mystery would have grown tedious if the film were just about him. Guetta's rise to fame, and how he achieved it really make the viewer wonder how easy one's status is gained. My friend made a good point when he said that after the screening he wondered if the whole film was a ploy by Banksy to just show how much of the art world is really a joke. As Banksy is the director, his access and tactics seem a bit self-serving. He keeps himself hidden, but uses Guetta's own footage against Guetta. Was the interview footage of Guetta filmed by Guetta, or did Banksy concoct it all?

At first, like Sam over at Wonders in the Dark, I was taken aback by the use of voiceover. God knows a terrible voiceover can ruin a film for me (Vicky Cristina anyone?), but I quickly looked past it's overt sarcasm, and became really involved with the story. Images of street artists grappling over bridges and climbing out windows in order to create their art were intense. Since these acts of artistry are purposely done while no one is around, it was like seeing your pets talk while they think you're not home. The narrative was also fascinating, unraveling the story so we are hooked and shocked in the appropriate places.

If Banksy directed and edited this film to serve as a commentary on our consumerism and the shams of the art world instead of a portrait of an artist (the title fits this perfectly), he completely succeeded in hooking me into this strange little world. Assuming the film would be all about Banksy, I became very involved with this unexpected commentary. Maybe now I can borrow my old roommate's book and look at this medium a little differently.

4 out of 5