Archive for the ‘Films’ Category

Trainyard still from Style Wars

Like most people, I had always thought that Style Wars, a documentary film about the hip-hop culture of the early 1980s, first aired on PBS in 1983, was the first to deal with the graffiti scene in New York City. But, also like most people, I hadn’t heard about the movie Stations of the Elevated, released in 1981. Stations of the Elevated is a independent film produced, directed, edited, and photographed by Manfred (Manny) Kirchheimer. Presented by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1981, it’s set to the music of legendary New York-based experimental jazz musician Charles Mingus and the sounds of urbana (such as the shrill screech of the trains, horns blaring in traffic, police car sirens wailing, and the indistinguishable sound of crowds) lend itself to the authenticity of the work.

Elevated bombed train stopped still from Stations of the Elevated

This was perhaps one of the first cohesive attempts to document the phenomenon of graffitied trains in New York City and present it as a cultural phenomenon rather than an act of vandalism. Because there is no commentary, it tries to create a narrative about the urban environment using the elements of the urban visual landscape as brief respites from the monotony of everyday city life. Footage of painted trains rolling along the elevated lines are interspersed with shots of Technicolor billboards and stern brick facades inherent in the corporate landscape, as well as the decaying urban neighborhoods and ghettos that spawned the youngsters who partook in the movement. Stations of the Elevated attempts to give its viewers the experience of living and moving through New York City by relating sights and sounds that are common to its urban setting. The images, experiences, and juxtapositions that tend to stay with viewers at the end of the film are the same that those that would remain at the end of the day walking about town.

Heaven is Life train still from Stations of the Elevated

Earth is Hell train still from Stations of the Elevated

Because it was never widely released, Stations of the Elevated is incredibly difficult to get a hold of, especially in its entirety. Despite my extensive combing of the internet, I’ve only been able to download a 27 minute version of it, and if you do as well, I strongly advise that you DO NOT watch it because it’s a total hack job (as in, it features very abrupt cutaways) and a pain to get through because of it. Rather, watch it streaming in five parts starting here. Although I tend to abhor watching streaming movies, especially in parts, Stations of the Elevated is definitely one worth seeing, especially if you want to experience New York City in the early 1980s.

Crime train still from Stations of the Elevated

Style Wars was a documentary film co-produced and directed by Tony Silver, and co-produced by Henry Chalfant, who provided the background research as well as photo-documentation throughout the movie. It’s almost as if Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant wanted to expand on the idea of Stations of the Elevated. In actuality, Chalfant had been taking pictures for three years and had probably not known about its development. Rather than presenting assumptions and drawing conclusions about the spawning of a new expressive art out of urban decay, Silver and Chalfant worked to present graffiti as the controversial form of expression that it is, providing viewpoints from all sides, including then New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Head of MTA Richard Ravitch, various MTA personnel, parents, random citizens, conventional artists, art collectors, as well as the graffiti writers and graffiti artists themselves.

Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch looking at graffiti proof still from Style Wars

Style Wars works to introduce its audience to the entire blossoming hip-hop culture of the early 1980s, not only graffiti. If graffiti was chosen means of written communication, then rap was a new means of verbal communication, and break dancing served as the new means of body language. Style Wars moves seamlessly between these the branches of the hip hop movement, and documents them as a new method of communication developed by the youth population to communicate with each other.

Convening at the writer's bench still from Style Wars

Much like Stations of the Elevated, Style Wars opens in a train yard under the cover of darkness (much like graffiti). Poetically, an elevated train passes under a lone street lamp, first at a distance, then closer, illuminating some indistinguishable markings on the side. However, instead of jazz, Style Wars opens the movie with a Wagner orchestral composition which had been made popular by the movie Excalibur, released only a few years before. This choice is a rather poignant one (that may not be appreciated as much by the film’s younger audience), as the composition was one that could be associated with glorified action and adventure. And admittedly, glory and adventure were the two objects of the graffiti game in the 1980s. Then, in the full light of day, tagged-up trains burst forth into the full and the music cuts to hip hop.

Streetlight spotlight on bombed train still from Style Wars

There is no doubt that Style Wars is a well-made film. It is both informative and appealing, both graphically and audibly. It is also exciting, following graffiti writers into underground tunnels and into train yards. The film follows and features interviews and works from graffiti writers and artists such as Iz the Wiz, Seen, Zephyr, Skeme, Mare, Case, Doze, Mean Dez, Duster, Dondi, Min, Case, among others, and perhaps most controversial, Cap (a toy tag bomber). Additionally, Style Wars comments on the importance of knowing the roots of graffiti writing (Taki 183) and predicts the future of the movement and its appeal to the art world. Not only does the film explain the incredibly diametrically opposed philosophies of the government and the graffiti artists and writers, but also the difference of opinions between those who consider themselves graffiti artist and those who write/bomb/tag. This dynamic documentary draws the viewer into the tensions that exist between the differing viewpoints exhibited in the films, creating a plot worthy of any feature length film.

Going into the tunnels still from Style Wars

Dondi painting a train in the yards still from Style Wars

Perhaps among the most poignant of questions the viewer might have once they’ve watched these two awesomely engrossing films is “why did it take so long for the next graffiti/street art documentary to be produced?” Over the next 20 years maybe only half a dozen mainstream feature-length films based loosely on graffiti writers or crews have been made, and it wasn’t until 2005 that appreciation for graffiti and the documentation of the movement was renewed in full force. In fact, in 2005, no less than six graffiti documentaries were released, including Infamy, NEXT: A Primer on Urban Painting, Piece by Piece, Rash: Scratch it and it Spreads, Friendly Fire, and the Stolkholm Subway Stories.

Writers admiring handywork still from Style Wars

However, it is no coincidence that over a generation had to pass before the retrospective importance of the roots of the graffiti movement, now global, could be realized. Even after numerous government counter-measures attempted to stifle the creative expression of the first generation of graffiti writers out of Northeast America, the movement nevertheless spread throughout America and the rest of the world. Since the 2000s, a new generation of graffiti artists and street artists, inspired by the urban visual landscape of the 1980s (especially that of NYC), have taken up the mantle and are continuing the self-expressive tradition of graffiti in the urban setting, and the importance of the movement is being recognized by the main stream contemporary art world. In fact, Kirchheimer returned to broach the subject of New York City graffiti in his 2007 documentary Spraymasters, which featured Lee Quiñones, Zephyr, Lady Pink, and Futura, who reflect on their own youthful adventures, their development, this new generation of writers and artists, as well as the world-wide interest in the graffiti and street art movement.

Seen just a kid growing up still from Style Wars

An interview with Stations of the Elevated’s Manny Kirchheimmer can be found here and an interview with Style Wars’ Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant can be found here as well as in the extra features of Style Wars. Check out my featured films page for more documentaries and films about graffiti and street art.

Police in bombed train still from Style Wars

I first heard about Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop earlier this year, when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in February. I was really excited to watch it because I was sure it would provide a glimpse into the life and thought process of the incredible infamous and equally elusive British street artist Banksy, whose works have appeared everywhere from his native city of Bristol to the wall that divides Israel and Palestine. His repertoire does not just include stencils and spray but playful installations and elaborate hoaxes. In fact, in 2009, he gained additional notoriety by pirating the walls of a public Bristol museum, where he hung his own artworks and captions, as well as through his dolphin ride installation, which had been done in response to BP’s oil spill. Most recently, he has even been credited with directing the opening sequence of the October 11, 2010 episode of The Simpsons.

But this is not a post about Banksy, nor is this a film about Banksy. “What?” you may ask, incredulously, “but it’s A Banksy Film!” At first, I was a little disappointed too, but to be honest, viewers knew that this would be the case fairly early on, when a hooded Banksy with altered voice gave a brief introduction to the film. Think of this film more as a Banksy project, if that helps you wrap your head around the massive amounts of disappointment that I’m sure you’re feeling right now. But take solace in the fact, dear reader, that although Banksy and his own art appear only sporadically throughout the film, Exit Through the Gift Shop still serves as a wonderful introduction into the world of street art, and its message makes this film a prime example of a Banksy project.

So yes, although this film was not what I had originally expected, it was still incredibly enjoyable and informative. Aptly termed “the world’s first street art disaster movie,” it definitely provides a rather candid glimpse into the nocturnal adventures (both failed and successful) of a variety of street artists. Aside from Banksy, big names such as Space Invader, Monsieur Andre, Zeus, Shepard Fairey, Neckface, Sweet Toof, Ron English, Dotmasters, Swoon, Borf, Buffmonster and their works all made appearances in the film. And although it was a movie originally intended to be about street art and Banksy, it soon becomes quite clear how and why it developed into a documentary about the eccentric man behind the camera.

Meet Thierry Guetta, a French ex-pat living in Los Angeles, who ran a vintage clothing store and developed the rather peculiar obsession of filming absolutely anything and everything on his camera. While on holiday in France, he began filming the work of his cousin, street artist Space Invader and was soon drawn into the burgeoning street art scene. Upon returning to L.A., he continued seeking out the rising stars of the street art scene, a process that was aided greatly by his cousin, then by Shepard Fairey, who though reluctant at first, accepts Guetta as first a tagalong who happens to have a camcorder and then lookout on his nighttime wanderings. Guetta dives into his role with enthusiastic incompetence and films everything with a blundering sense of awe. His filming, finally having been given the direction and focus that it had previously lacked, leads Guetta to inadvertently take up the task of documenting this ephemeral genre of contemporary art.

Eventually, Guetta develops a desire to meet the infamous Banksy, an artist who he believes will complete his comprehesive record of street artists. Fate somehow brings Banksy to the West Coast, and Shepard Fairey introduces him to Guetta, who has developed the reputation of the man for out-of-town street artists to contact to get everything from supplies to information on the best walls to a nighttime ride. Soon Guetta is faithfully shadowing the elusive Banksy, even traveling with him to England to record his workshop and capture his projects.

Spoiler alert!! For those of you who want to find out for yourselves how this movie unfolds, and are only interested in the critical review and analysis, please skip ahead to the paragraph after the Life is Beautiful wall picture!

Meanwhile, inspired by the works of the artists around him, and eager to take part in what looked like a good time, it is revealed that Guetta has started experimenting with the mass dissemination of images via stickers and wheat-pasting under the psuedonym Mister Brainwash (MBW) and it comes to light that Thierry Guetta had been accumulating thousands of hours of footage with no real intention of editing it together to create a comprehensive documentary. Meanwhile, Banksy is preparing for his big debut show in L.A., Barely Legal. After this monumental US show, the commercial market for street art in contemporary art collections started to boom. It was at this time that Banksy decided that the time was right to show the world that street art was a messy business and that it had never been about the money. Faced with Banksy’s challenge to finally create a film, Thierry Guetta finally starts to edit his accumulated tapes.

Six months later, Guetta flies to London to show Banksy his almost-complete film, Life Remote Control. Banksy is absolutely flabbergasted and slightly terrified with the result, saying that the film was like someone with ADHD had gotten a hold of a remote control and was flipping through TV channels for 90 minutes. Keeping the tapes in an attempt to create a more complete and accurate documentary which would better portray the importance of street art as captured by Thierry Guetta, Banksy gives Guetta an assignment designed to distract: go home to L.A., create some art, and put on a show.

Thierry Guetta throws himself into this project, fully adopting the MBW persona, and invests in a production line of artists and assistants, working to churn out prints of altered pop culture icons in a thoroughly Warhol-esque manner (but with none of the Warhol irony). Eager to please Banksy, MBW excitedly prepares for his huge gallery debut, appropriating a huge studio for installations, prints, and other assorted projects. Meanwhile a change is occurring in this central character: the blundering but otherwise endearing Thierry Guetta slowly transforms into an art world douchbag. Constantly on his cell phone, he becomes concerned mostly with hype, and attempts to become the biggest and hottest commodity in L.A. He sells pieces ahead of the show with arbitrary price tags, most of which are dependent on the object’s size, and often in the tens of thousands of dollars. Hours before the show he transforms into a control freak who is concerned with only interviews and handshakes. But despite the massive amounts of disorganization and procrastination, manages to pull off a critical success of a show that is attended by thousands of people. After the exhibition, he appears arrogant and self-satisfied, pleased to have finally established his place among the legendary street artists he had been filming for the past decade. Meanwhile, Banksy and Shepard Fairey show a certain amount of disdain for the pointlessness of MBW’s art, and seem uncertain as to what to make of the public sensationalism surrounding MBW.

Directed and produced by a notorious and mysterious trickster, this film has been widely called nothing more than an elaborate hoax, and has even been classified as a “prankumentary” by New York Times film critic Jeanette Catsoulis. I personally disagree with her assessment because it’s absolutely possible for someone to fall into a career over the course of a year and a half and create massive amounts of art when they’ve hired a production line of assistants. Some have even speculated that MBW was created for the purpose of the documentary. But the question as to whether or not Exit Through the Gift Shop is a case of life following art or art following life is irrelevant, because it’s the introduction and message that’s important.

The first act of Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary about street art, as seen through the exuberant eyes of Thierry Guetta, and the second act of this film becomes a documentary about Guetta as MBW. MBW becomes the perfect juxtaposition for street artists like Shepard Fairey, who has spent years finding his style, and Banksy, who is very thoughtful with his projects. While most artists spend their time developing their technique, finding their style, and thinking about the meaning of their works, MBW found his style quite quickly and almost accidentally, and uses repetition and gigantism without too much thought. Interviews taken during MBW’s debut exhibition show viewers praising the work as revolutionary, and assigning value to objects that clearly have none.

So perhaps this film isn’t so much a documentary, but more of an exposé. More than that, this film highlights the relationship between the world of street art and the world of contemporary/pop art in its second act. With a note of irony that only street artist can provide, this film raises questions regarding issues such as the monetary valuation of artwork, the commercialization of street art, and the appropriation of images. Perhaps most interestingly, Exit Through the Gift Shop underscores the pretentiousness of the contemporary art scene. So yes, this film makes you think. And, more than that, it successfully does what it was meant to do: provide the viewer with a glimpse into the chaotic world of street art and give them a good time while doing it.

Exit Through the Gift Shop will be digitally available for both rent and purchase on iTunes and Video on Demand channels beginning November 23, 2010 and available on DVD (with awesome extras, like a version of Life Remote Control) on December 14, 2010. I definitely suggest watching this film with some friends, not just because it raises a lot of quite interesting questions and topics that you’ll most likely want someone to talk to, but because it’s just that good of a ride. And the best part is that you don’t need to be a street art buff to love this movie. For all my analysis, it’s simply a great introduction into the world of street art, and just a lot of fun to watch.

For those of you who want more background on the film, here’s a wonderful interview with the producer and editor of Exit Through the Gift Shop with Movie City News about the documentary that never really existed. And, here‘s an interesting interview with Shepard Fairey about the film as well.

Contemporary society is greatly affected by our interaction with everyday visual culture; this is to say, the things that we see everywhere everyday. The movie Helvetica is a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design, and global visual culture. It takes a look at the proliferation of Helvetica, one of the most used typefaces in the world, as a part of “a larger conversation about the way typefaces affect our lives.” The film also works to “explore urban spaces and the type that inhabits them,” and intersperses these visual examples with interviews with renowned designers, who discuss Helvetica, the creative process of their work, as well as the aesthetic choices behind their works. This allows the viewer to see very clearly the rift between modernist and postmodernist designers, with the latter expressing and explaining their criticisms of the famous typeface.

This film makes the claim that the first problem that arises with a higher demand for more impressive space within the clutter of the visual landscape is a company’s desire to appeal to more people than its competition. In the 1950s, there was a demand for a more rational, legible, and “modern” typeface, which would simultaneously appeal to everyone and have “all the right connotations” (that is to say, none at all). The creators of the typeface believed that it was the social responsibility of designers to create order by use of a grid system and uniform spacing (as the spaces between the letters are as significant, or more significant, than the letters themselves). Modernist designers believe that Helvetica is the solution to all problems; that is, it works as the universal logo. This is because they believe that a font should be like a crystal goblet: the font itself should not communicate anything and a reader should not be aware of the typeface, except in its efficiency in communication.

However, postmodernists designers are unhappy with the way that Helvetica has become almost the typographic “default” of designers and is therefore leading to the decay of urban landscape. This has led to a swing back to subjective typeface designs as well as other experimental designs. Designers from this school of thought believe that typeface should display at least some degree of vitality and personality. This is because many post-modern designers believe that just because something is legible doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s worth reading. Therefore, they believe that in this sense, Helvetica’s legibility and overuse has led to overcrowding in the modern visual landscape with useless and often irrelevant information. Borrowing lettering design ideas from graffiti, stencils, grunge, and other hand-lettering styles, this film demonstrates how certain elements of street art have been appropriated and ruthlessly added into the corporate visual landscape. It’s rather ironic when this happens, because graffiti is widely considered a method of reclaiming public space or to display one’s art form.

This film gives those studying the corporate visual landscape important insight into the uses and connotations of typography. It leaves its viewers to question how typography affects them and their consumer behavior. But more than that, it shows how elements of the visual landscape will eventually be capitalized upon. Definitely a must-watch for anyone interested in learning more about graphic design and the corporate visual landscape.