Oscar time is almost here, and there's mischief in the air. In the documentary category, much of the buzz surrounds what will happen if Exit Through the Gift Shop, a quirky film directed -- allegedly -- by the mysterious and elusive British graffiti artist Banksy, wins. Will Banksy himself accept the award? If so, will he be disguised in his trademark monkey mask? Has his crack publicity team been working overtime to generate this hype? And should we care?
Exit Through the Gift Shop purports to tell the story of Thierry Guetta, a slightly unhinged vintage clothing store owner-turned-filmmaker who falls in love with street art, meets and compulsively films its iconic and secretive creators, and then, in a film within-a-film shot by Banksy, supposedly discovers his own artistic potential. His new alter ego is known as Mr. Brainwash, and his derivative "art," manufactured by assistants, is a huge commercial success. Banksy and Shepard Fairey (known for his Obama Hope poster) chuckle over their friend's good fortune even as they gently mock him.
Exit is a reasonably clever send-up of the art world, and provokes a conversation about art and reality and commerce and whether or not "truth" exists. Audiences have lapped it up. Viewers congratulate themselves for being so postmodern, and so very smart. Plus, it feels vaguely subversive to rally around graffiti artists. (Though only of a certain type: graffiti art of rats = cool, of gang tags = scary.) Critics have largely propagated this view, enjoying the mystery surrounding the film's creators and dismissing concerns that it's scripted and contrived. Even those in the Academy have fallen for the hype and put it in the running for best documentary film. Some in the know believe Exit will win.
Let's hope the grown-ups regain their senses. There are enough questions about Banksy's role, the real identity of Guetta, and whether this is all an elaborate piece of performance art to drop it from consideration. Exit Through the Gift Shop no more deserves the best documentary film award than A Million Little Pieces, that clever memoir-cum-fantasy constructed by James Frey, merited a Pulitzer for nonfiction.
Nonfiction work has its own creative category in literature and media because it is a distinct intellectual and artistic endeavor, and veracity is its main claim to legitimacy. When The New York Times or The New Republic find a plagiarist in their midst, alarms go off and heads roll. When bogus Holocaust survivor Misha Defonseca allows that her little story about being raised by wolves has been fabricated, the publisher sues her. When Davis Guggenheim admits to staging a scene in the documentary sensation of the year, Waiting for "Superman", the film is passed over for an Oscar nomination and media experts accuse him of betrayal. Critics are similarly appalled when Alex Gibney uses an actress to read the transcript of actual interviews with Spitzer's publicity-shy escort in Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. Why does Exit Through the Gift Shop get a free pass?
All documentaries, of course, are representations of reality constructed by the filmmaker. Often the real stories are discovered along the way, as the filmmaker asks questions and meanders down unexpected paths. The best combine trenchant investigative journalism with compelling characters and a well-crafted narrative, shining a light into unexplored corners and challenging us to think about the world in a new way. We hold documentary filmmakers and other purported truth-tellers to a higher standard because sometimes what we learn drives us to change how we think, feel and live. We have to trust them.
The Academy has seemed to recognize this responsibility, and at least for the last decade has awarded the Oscar for best documentary to those films that have sought to do more than merely entertain. Last year's winner, The Cove, focused international attention on the annual slaughter of more than 20,000 dolphins and porpoises off the coast of Japan; once you've seen the film you'll never swim with dolphins again. An Inconvenient Truth made CFC lightbulbs sexy, and turned us all into obsessive recyclers. Taxi to the Dark Side opened our eyes to the horrific, ugly effect of CIA torture on one luckless cab driver in Afghanistan, and compelled us to reconsider how far we'll go to stop terrorism. These films captivated audiences while opening our minds to problems we didn't know existed or didn't want to see. The apolitical Man on Wire, which chronicled Phillipe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers, told a poignant, lyrical story about the boundlessness of man's audacity and passion.
It's hard to imagine how Banksy's escapades might bring about a similar expansion of our world view. Shall we stop going to MoMA?
Perhaps the worst unintended consequence of nominating Exit for best documentary is the passed-over films we're not talking about because Banksy has stolen the show. The Tillman Story, for one, explored how the Army concealed Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire to avoid embarrassment and use the football player's star power for its own propaganda. Last Train Home offered a melancholy look at globalization and the changing social landscape in China, where millions of workers -- the fuel for the global economy -- leave their families in search of a better life. Client 9 examined the corrosive effects of sex, power and hubris, and uncovered evidence of a larger political conspiracy. But because the Academy has been seduced by Banksy, the handful of Americans who actually watch documentaries will most likely devote 90 minutes to a loopy faux-filmmaker instead. What's they'll miss are thoughtful inquiries into abuses of power and an appreciation for the real costs of cheap t-shirts and flat-screen TVs.
It's hard to make sense of this film's nomination in the documentary category, except as a ploy by the Academy to remain relevant with a younger audience that is presumably indifferent to truth and sympathetic to guerrilla graffiti artists. The rest of us are left with that uncomfortable emperor-has-no-clothes feeling: that there's an inside joke we're not quite cool enough to understand, and if we just keep quiet and laugh at the right moments we'll be accepted by the right crowd. Here's hoping the documentary that takes home the prize actually deserves it.