The ordinary rules don’t apply here. Pulling this double feature on an unsuspecting audience — people with no prior experience of the French New Wave, or essay films, or mockumentaries — would produce not a few walkouts. On the other hand, tell those same people that they’re about to be treated to a couple documentaries about art, and they might not stay at all. It’s not that these movies are impossible to sell. The subject matter — forgery, hoaxes, egomania, graffiti, pranks — makes for two or three very interesting stories. It’s just that these movies have no interest in being bought. Quite the opposite, in fact. The driving theme throughout both films is that when art becomes a commodity, it makes fools of us all. To pry the audience’s eyes open, these films call attention to themselves, expose their own trickery, and directly address the people on the other side of the screen. If you’re into that sort of thing, this double feature is Christmas.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary about another documentary, but more on that later. Its primary subject matter is graffiti, or as it’s come to be known in recent years, street art (just as the funny papers came to be known as graphic novels, and peepshows came to be known as cinema). The movie contends that the street art movement can’t be dismissed as simple vandalism, that street artists have political and social statements to make, and that they do so with creativity and skill. None more so than the film’s ostensible director, Banksy, the anonymous global celebrity who has managed to put his work in such unlikely places as Disneyland and Israel’s West Bank wall. Vandalism it surely is, but Banksy’s work always displays a strong sense of humor. It challenges and invites at the same time. So does the film, which, if nothing else, serves as a useful record of these ephemeral and illegal works of art.
But then the film goes a step further by showing us the man doing the recording. If everything in Exit Through the Gift Shop is to be believed (and, Banksy being such a trickster, it’s been suggested that it’s actually a hoax), then most of the footage was produced by wannabe documentarian Thierry Guetta, who proved incapable of editing it together coherently. Thus, the tapes passed to Banksy’s hands. Meanwhile, Guetta followed in his idol’s footsteps. The final half-hour of the film documents Guetta’s successful attempt at piecing together an exhibition of original artwork. Here the film’s potential author becomes instead an object of ridicule and perverse fascination. His febrile, gaudy pop art excretions, while imaginative, are patently empty, and yet his work is a sensation with the art lovers of Los Angeles. The satire is double-edged. Banksy is bemoaning the commodification of this once anarchic art form, but he seems to acknowledge that he played a part in that process. The main point appears to be that regular people can’t tell the difference between innovative art and cheap imitations. They lap it all up.
So, expertise is required to discern good from bad, valuable from cheap. But wait. In comes Orson Welles’s F for Fake to complicate matters further. This film is a giddy hall of mirrors: a documentary about frauds, frauds who document the fraudulence of other frauds, and one or two fraudulent frauds perpetrated by the documentarian himself. If that confuses you, wait till you see how the film handles these three threads. But first of all, the movie is about the art forger Elmyr de Hory, who had an impressive run fooling the experts and getting his copies of important paintings into art galleries. This raises the question: if a particular painting can be perfectly reproduced, where is the value of the original? In the art market, the signature in the corner is of paramount importance. What if that signature has no meaning?
Above all else, F for Fake is a triumph of film editing, and not the “invisible” kind, either. Like Exit Through the Gift Shop, it pieces together a number of specific film projects. Initially a documentary about de Hory and his biographer Clifford Irving, the film’s focus shifted when Irving was exposed for his fake biography of Howard Hughes. As Welles cheekily suggests, if Irving was a liar, maybe his book about de Hory’s lies was itself a lie. Rather than making a straightforward document of this fascinating story, Welles made an essay film (a category that didn’t exist at the time) about “trickery.” He inserted himself into the narrative because of his history as a magician and because of the hoax that made him famous, the notorious War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Pauline Kael had recently made the controversial claim that the true authorship of Citizen Kane belonged to Welles’s co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, lending one more reason for Welles to ponder the question of ownership in art. His quest ultimately led him to Chartres Cathedral, one of humanity’s most beautiful and majestic accomplishments — a work of art that could never be forged because its “author” is unknown.
Nothing weaves art and commerce together like a movie. That’s why, in questioning what makes a work of art attractive to buyers and sellers, these movies had to kick so fiercely against the commercial aspects of cinema. These films are rough, personal, and self-aware. They even challenge a more critical approach to cinema. If authorship doesn’t matter so much in the grand scheme of things, what’s left of the auteur theory? How ironic that this assertion should first come from one of the most revered auteurs in cinema history, a man whose enormous personality permeates every frame of his work. With F for Fake, Welles proved he could spin gold out of someone else’s footage. His unlikely artistic descendant? A hoodie-clad British man with a can of spray paint.