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The Documentary Fictions of Spalding Gray and Banksy

The Documentary Fictions of Spalding Gray and Banksy

Through a fortuitous coincidence, I watched Steven Soderbergh’s new Spalding Gray film “And Everything is Going Fine” and the new Banksy doc “Exit Through the Gift Shop” on consecutive days this week. While the two films couldn’t be more different, there was an interesting undercurrent about the fictionalization of reality in these two films, where what’s “staged” and what’s “real” are not so clear-cut, and the fact that maybe that shouldn’t matter.

At the opening of Toronto fest programmer Thom Powers’ Spring edition of Stranger than Fiction, the weekly Gotham nonfiction showcase, Steven Soderbergh and crew unveiled the New York premiere of “Fine”–a posthumous affecting tribute to the poignant storyteller and monologuist in his own words, cut together from some 90 hours of tape. For Gray novices, the film boldly gives little context or background into the famous performer who made a splash in 1987 with “Swimming to Cambodia,” the Jonathan Demme film of his performance.

Soderbergh proudly called his film an example of “inside baseball.” “If you didn’t know him, you’re out of luck,” said the director, who made a film version of Gray’s monologue “Gray’s Anatomy” in 1996. But what struck me about the film — in the context of all of these docs that blur the boundaries between doc and fiction — is that Gray was way ahead of the game, crafting this kind of hybrid fictional memoir way back in the 1970s. And no one was getting on his case, a la James Frey. According to Powers, “And Everything is Going Fine” will find a wider release this fall.

The more I think about “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the more brilliant I think it is: with its multiple layers and doubling of meanings and authors and questions. The British street artist Banksy supposedly “directed” the film, but, of course, he is not the sole auteur behind the film, certainly no more that the film’s main target Thierry Guetta is the single author of his own work (a kind of mass produced spectacle with several collaborators). But I digress. What I like about “Exit” is that there’s some confusion about what is the truth here: Even though Guetta is a real-person, with a family and a career, people continue to doubt the veracity of his existence, but no matter: His story is a good one. In interviews since the film’s premiere, Guetta doesn’t downplay this ambiguity either: He told the Wall Street Journal “Maybe I am Banksy. Maybe not.” Guetta is, in a sense, performing his reality–something that I think Gray would certainly understand. “Exit” will be released in theaters on April 16.

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