Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fake documentary artfully mixing staged and true realist documents that represent the art market’s inability to–or need for–discerning talent, value, honesty, and “truth” given its insatiable need for new product and its crushing love of charlatan self-promoting wunderkinds. As I’ve written elsewhere, that’s already been done (Orson shoulda won the Oscar!): “bad-boy, Euro-trash pranksters bite their thumbs at the art-world that feeds them by playfully manufacturing a hoax-star doppleganger forger from thin air, then selling his misbegotten wares for millions: gotcha! But really, guys, Orson Welles did it all before, with better craft, crazier detours, and actual genius. F for Fake (1973), also a film about (male) authorship, authenticity, and the value of art—as warranted (or not) by modernist masters like Howard Hughes, Pablo Picasso, and Orson Welles—runs intellectual, artistic, and charlatan circles around the pomo school-boy thrills of wheat-pasting and the endless whirlpool of appropriation.”

So why do I proclaim Banksy should win the documentary Oscar, especially given that I didn’t even think the film was that great?

-For taking to the public the truth that all documentaries are fake.

-For forcing starry eyed viewers to see that partially scripted, highly edited, fully artificed depictions of (the ideas of) our lived world are manufactured, are not the world, are documentaries.

-For making the move that all good fake docs make where the viewer feels reality slowly drop away, a queasy moment of vertigo: oh my, this is a movie! What is reality?! What is a documentary? (or when is a documentary, Dirk Eitzen’s essay that explains that it is only when we think it is).

-For reminding us (and the Academy) that all the reality programming we crave and love sits in this impure space (see my recent YouTube work for more on this line of thought), the documentary space of “the creative treatment of actuality.” Yet only a small sampling of reality programming is interested in examining this mixing in a way that produces thoughtful response: like a Documentary Oscar that would prove to be self-knowing of the changing register of documentary’s current cultural truth and value.

While Catfish presents as a convincingly real fake-documentary (currently awaiting its BIG reveal), I’d suggest that it is even more interesting to think about this already interesting work as a horror film. In Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover carefully draws out the unsettling binaries that create the discomfort and unease that produce horror, and one of these is the city/country divide also then gendered male/female, respectively. This complex observation makes Catfish seem simple. The arty, Jewish city boys arrive late-night to an abandoned horse-farm in Michigan, and get pretty creeped out: all those dark pastures. At this moment, we are cued to think the movie might shift to the scary fakery of its creepy user-generated cousins, Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, but things stay more benign and less bloody, or more techy and networky, for these lucky city slickers. Facebook, and social networking more generally, are the invention and would-be provenance of urban effete geeks (see Social Network), who must eventually open the network up to the whole world, and then—scary!—uneducated, unstylish, overweight plebes (and their grotesque offspring) can join the conversation (no longer restricted to Harvard), and then, even more horrifying, they can pass for their masters by expertly making use of this self-same technology, cell phones and fake friends, and you might even enjoy sexting with one! YUCK.

What makes Catfish so convincing as a “documentary” is our disbelief that the hideously red-state Angela Wesselman-Pierce could be played by an actress (her grossly retarded sons, and nearly retarded husband serve as ethical anchor to her “real”), while it is much more obvious to the art-film viewer’s eye when Banksy or Joaquin (in their glamorous, urban, sophistication) act the part. Here the slow-witted husband’s astute commentary about the wily, provocative catfish provides the generically pleasing twist on the city/country divide, where the bumpkins prove to be more sophisticated and worthy then their movie-making masters, imminently more qualified to produce alternative personalities on-line (Tara’s alters are the metaphor we all need to understand life on the net), given the all too self-evident bankruptcy of their mundane daily lives off-line.

Banksy v Welles

May 4, 2010

I liked Exit Through the Gift Shop well enough. Its bad-boy, Euro-trash pranksters bite their thumbs at the art-world that feeds them by playfully manufacturing a hoax-star doppleganger forger from thin air, then selling his misbegotten wares for millions: gotcha! But really, guys, Orson Welles did it all before, with better craft, crazier detours, and actual genius. F for Fake (1973), also a film about (male) authorship, authenticity, and the value of art—as warranted (or not) by modernist masters like Howard Hughes, Pablo Picasso, and Orson Welles—runs intellectual, artistic, and charlatan circles around the pomo school-boy thrills of wheat-pasting and the endless whirlpool of appropriation. Banksy ends his film explaining that the experience has led him to doubt his earlier idealistic belief that all people should make art, supporting instead, by inference, that only the truly gifted (like that clever artist who thought up telling his own story of art-world deception through a fraud, think of it!) should be heard or valued in our brave new cacophony of DIY expression. With this I agree, in part. While everyone can and should make art, if I was forced to choose between overly-lauded male whiz-kids, I’d go for that full-figured man, Welles, every time…

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