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August 4, 2010

What is life?

A dedicated fan recently brought it to my attention that I ruined his ability to enjoy one of Hollywood’s finer recent entertainments because I revealed some significant detail from the proverbial third reel. It continues to bother me, because it is central to my approach that prior knowledge of various plot details should be of little consequence to the enlightened film viewer.

Yes, there are some movies that hang upon an unknown, late-revealed detail. Most of these are based on Agatha Christie novels, and, yes, knowing that everybody on the train took a stab at the decedent in “Murder on the Orient Express,” for instance, might render that ancient, star-studded classic somewhat tedious, but maybe that’s why few people remember it. Oh, I guess I could have said “Spoiler Alert,” but you weren’t going to watch that one any time soon. You should thank me; I just saved you two hours.

Recognizing that each of us must take responsibility for our own actions, I avoid reviews of movies I want to see. Sometimes, as with the recent hit “Inception,” I tend to believe that a “cold” viewing may be a waste of time. The narrative of this movie is so acrobatic, one needs a guidebook to fully enjoy it. And while some of my smarter friends acted like I was stupid for being confused after seeing it once, with no advance warning or explanation, my appreciation of the conclusive ambiguity was confounded by a collection of inconsistent details. I have been told the filmmakers intended for there to be a single, obvious explanation, but I find this to be disingenuous.

And while I thoroughly enjoyed it the first time I saw it, I absolutely fell in love with it the second time. Sadistic to the end, I shan’t spoil it for you any further. (Then again, merely pointing out that there is an overt central ambiguity might be a spoiler.)

Between my two viewings of “Inception,” I caught “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” a documentary about the golden age of “Street Art,” that illegal hybrid of graffiti and Warhol-ian pop art. While it follows a number of the most famous street artists, like Shepard Fairey and Banksy, the movie ultimately focuses on the work of an arguably unbalanced expatriate Frenchman named Thierry Guetta, whose particular brand of OCD, at one point, drove him to start videotaping his every waking moment. Thereafter, his introduction to street art is somewhat incidental, and his claim that it was his intention to compile the footage into a documentary was debunked as he had made no effort to organize his footage, had no idea what would be required to complete such a project and, worse, didn’t seem to have the mental capacity to understand that movies actually tell stories.

About two-thirds into the film, Banksy takes over the documentary and advises Guetta to “go make art.” Thereafter, Guetta mounts a huge exhibit of hopelessly derivative schlock and makes an obscene amount of money. Banksy and the rest of the street art community are disgusted, but it comes across as sour grapes. The argument that legitimate art and social commentary should not be commercially viable has long been abandoned by all but the most juvenile of creative minds.

Meanwhile, like “Inception,“ the documentary has something of a dual nature. Its intensely snarky spin upon the “facts,” apparently applied by Banksy, tends to derail its veracity. It made me think of Orson Welles’ overlooked masterpiece, the utterly unique “F for Fake.” Ostensibly a documentary about fakery, Welles’ exploration begins with a denunciation of the totality of narrative film as deceptive nonsense and ends with two segments focusing on art counterfeiter Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving, the author of a notorious fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. The overall effect, oddly enough, points in the same direction that “Inception” suggests, a strange “Twilight Zone”-inspired reality where the lines between reality and deception are hopelessly blurred, where we are granted the unique opportunity to craft our own realities from whole cloth and disregard any and all unwanted objective circumstances.

 

For next time: Joni Mitchell sounds nice during the dog days of summer. Check out her early, underrated album Clouds, or the later, overlooked masterpiece The Hissing of Summer LawnsBonus: Don’t miss The Black Keys at Iroquois Amphitheater on Wednesday, Aug. 11.