Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Corpse

Renee and I saw Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop yesterday and it was pretty funny. It was so appropriate that the crazy shit he talks about went down in LA, probably the goofiest place on earth.

One clarification; people seem to forget that there's history. In reading some of the reviews on ETtGS, you'd think that Shephard Fairey and Banksy had created street art. But I really don't like it when reviewers say things like this:

This self-conscious Post Modern sort of cinematic device--which, of course, reached new heights in the fiction-non-fiction films of Charlie Kaufman--works really well in this film and within the street art context. Street art itself turns reality into fantasy as its creators transform public places into unlikely and often illegal canvases and impromptu galleries. So, while narrators and voiceover are usually loathed devices in film, they seems to give Gift Shop an appropriately fable-esque magical sensibility.
-Shana Ting Lipton (in the HuffPo!)

First, Charlie Kaufman as "new heights in the fiction-non-fiction films" is as a kid compared to Welles' achievement.

Second, the great thing about Banksy is the taste of subversion that sometimes peeks its head up. When he hung up his own paintings in museums for instance, it was the act itself that eclipsed any artistic merit the painting itself might have had.

Aside from ignoring history in the form of the early hip hop graf crews and before them, LA's own king of the streets Robbie Conal and the barrios of East LA, today's generation takes subversion and makes it an in-joke. I get it, you're hipsters, okay?

As a young person I got lucky and hit the lottery in my discovery of Surrealism. Coming up as I did in the 60's/70's, I was at first attracted to the "far out" quality of their paintings. But I stuck with it, and because of my amateur sleuthing and fate, I discovered that Surrealism was a movement, moral in its philosophy, poetic in expression and subversive in tactics.

This is a picture of one of the titans of Surrealism, Benjamin Peret, insulting a priest. Coming up in a thoroughly Catholic environment I found this picture astounding; the spell was cast. These dudes had balls the size of which wouldn't be seen again until the 60's.

Subversion's cousin, scandal, was also an oft used Surrealist weapon. Their public hanging of Nobel Laureate Anatole France - the man of French letters - is legendary.

The first pamphlet, arranged largely by André Breton and Louis Aragon, appeared in response to the national funeral of Anatole France. France, the 1921 Nobel Laureate and best-selling author, who was then regarded as the quintessential man of French letters, proved to be an easy target for an incendiary tract. The pamphlet featured an essay called Anatole France, or Gilded Mediocrity that scathingly attacked the recently deceased author on a number of fronts. The pamphlet was an act of subversion, bringing into question accepted values and conventions, which Anatole France was seen as personifying.

Some of the details of the Wiki on "Un Cadavre" can be misleading, but I'll leave that for now.

Irony and humor were founding principles and strategies as well. When Surrealism's "Pope," Andre' Breton, performed what would become one of his customary excommunications from the ranks, his butt got bit on more than one occasion.

That's Breton in the pic, of course, the target of some of his victims.

All of this is to say that while I enjoy some of Banksy's stuff, I particularly relish when he's subversive. Trouble is, in this post-post-modern world full of hipsters, something's been lost. When Banksy hangs one of his pictures in a museum, it comes off as a self-conscious prank, a joke, as opposed to dadaists and Surrealists who would pass out pamphlets inviting the public to attend a theater performance. Upon showtime, the audience would be greeted by the young subversives reading off tracts, insulting and scandalizing everything from French politics to cookie-cutter morals. Perhaps it's a sign of the times that we live in an era when priests are fucking kids but the world looks away, and back in the day the Surrealists got right in their face and cursed them out.

The young Surrealists in the golden age of the Left Bank and their dada forefathers understood one thing; they'd just come out of devastation in the form of WWI, and being writers they knew what to do; get busy. Their logic was impeccable; if it was rationality that had shit out the war, then in true dialectical manner they deduced ir-rationality must have something worthwhile to combat it. As rationality was a necessary component of life their conclusion was a fusion and transcendence of a world that did its best to exclude "the marvelous" in life and reduce living to the mundane. "Where contradictions cease to exist - sur-reality."

That their golden age was framed by two miserable wars is not lost on students of the movement. Fast forward and Vietnam becomes the catalyst for the counter-culture of the 60's and 70's. Today, with two out of control and un-winnable wars raging away and EM08 relentlessly wood-chipping the world, the feeling is of utter hopelessness. As Bunuel, a Surrealist to the end, famously said; "Where is the kindness and intelligence that will save us?"

Meanwhile, Banksy makes bank and incites no one except to pull out their pocketbook, as he himself documents.

Last, the Surrealists loved Paris, famously documented in Aragon's classic Paris Peasant. They reveled in late night walks around their beloved city, thinking and planning ways to further scandalize what they saw as a lost society. So in parting, here's Richard Hawley's song that opens and closes the film, The Streets are Ours.