Last weekend I watched two disparately art-centered movies in a row, “Black Swan” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” and the viewing experience created quite the dialectic. Not only do the flicks feature two art forms that couldn’t be more different, but the films themselves are from two very different genres: “Black Swan” is a horror film about a tormented ballerina, while “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a documentary about contemporary street artists. This means one is a professedly low-minded genre piece that focuses on the high art of ballet, and the other hails from the stereotypically stuffy documentary camp yet features an art form that is often considered no more than vandalism. Both films have received critical acclaim and relative commercial success, which makes me wonder if the mixing of high and low art has anything to do with their appeal. Following is my rundown of the movies and a superficial attempt to answer this question.
“Black Swan” might best be termed a psychological thriller, because it follows an ambitious ballerina as she spins out of control trying to balance perfection and passion in preparation for the role of her dreams. It is not a high-body-count movie, so the horror elements of the film come from the main character’s hallucinations and self-inflicted injuries. All these scary moments don’t exactly add up in the end, however, and this left me a bit disappointed; in any horror film, the frightening events (be they dreams, murders, hauntings, etc.) should all come together in the end – like pieces of a puzzle – and serve as answers to the narrative’s central mystery. In the case of “Black Swan,” the film’s mystery is: is this girl losing her mind, is someone out to get her or is something supernatural at play? I won’t give away the ending, but I will tell you that while the mystery is clearly solved in the audience’s eyes, the questionable murders, body horror, and explicit sex scenes we witness throughout the movie don’t make any more sense in the end than they do in the beginning. This is all to say, I think most viewers of “Black Swan” are so happy to see this visceral movie genre treated artfully that they neglect to notice that the film’s makers didn’t take its plot or the conventions of its genre seriously. Despite these significant flaws, I still recommend seeing the film for its suspenseful moments and the great performance from Natalie Portman.
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” was suspected to be a complete farce when it first came out, which is for good reason considering it was produced by an acclaimed street artist who rose to fame performing pranks. The documentary has since widely been recognized as genuine, however, making it one of the funniest pieces of nonfiction to hit box offices in a while. It chronicles a quirky Frenchman’s adventures filming some of the most notorious street artists of our time, including Shepard Fairey (the guy behind all those Andre The Giant “OBEY” stickers and monochromatic Obama posters) and Banksy (the Brit who is most famous for covertly hanging his own paintings in major museums without getting caught). The Frenchman’s footage exposes audiences to a behind-the-scenes look at how all those beautiful pieces of graffiti make it up onto our overpasses and brick walls, and I must say seeing this arduous process (not to mention all the risks these folks take) gave me a newfound respect for street art. In addition to the film’s ability to make viewers change their perception of the spray paint they see on passing trains, it also dares to pose bold questions about what our society considers high art vs. low art. To top off all this heady subject matter, the film as a whole also tells a distinct story about some incredibly vivid characters, so I’d say, regardless of whether you think it’s a farce or not, watch “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and thank me later by buying a t-shirt on your way out.