Monday, November 22, 2010

Mysteries of performance: John Cazale and Thierry Guerra grace a pair of must-see DVDs

He always seemed tormented, but what set his performances apart were his painstaking efforts to
hide that torment. With those alternately dewy and reptilian eyes peering out from below a looming forehead covered by a sheath of skin so thin as to make its contents look unnervingly susceptible to direct sun or strong winds, John Cazale probably wasn’t anybody’s handsome, but given time he surely would have found the leading roles he desrved. Take a look at the younger actors lining up to sing his praises in Richard Shepard’s I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell, and of course Steve Buscemi, who’s obviously closest to some kind of cinematic heir. You can tell a lot about Cazale by the actors who still revere him more than 30 years after his untimely death at 42. They include not just the talents listed above, but also Meryl Streep, who met him when they did Measure For Measure in the Park, quickly fell in love, and stood by him through his losing fight with cancer, as well as Al Pacino, who looked up to him as a thespian, let him steal a few scenes in their movies together, and who says for Shepard’s camera, “I think I learned more about acting from John than anyone.”

You might not recognize the name, but if you don’t know that face you either weren’t watching movies in the 1970s or haven’t yet caught up with that magnificent decade and its “New” Hollywood. The oft-cited factoid about Cazale is that he was only in five movies, but every one of them was nominated for Best Picture. Now, maybe that means something and maybe it doesn’t, but whether adding texture to the already claustrophobic world closing in on Gene Hackman in The Conversation (1974), or having the world close in on him via a fraternal stranglehold in Godfather II (74), Cazale left unforgettable traces of pathos, desperation and endearingly awkward acts of ingratiation in his wake—qualities not so different from some of those we attribute to Warren Oates, another great, though very different sort of character actor who had a much longer run than Cazale, but who I bring up because he also had a mid-length documentary made about him called Warren Oates: Across the Border (93) that, like I Knew It Was You, is a pretty standard sort of made-for-TV profile yet is elevated by its inspired choice of subject and the genuine affection bestowed upon him. I Knew It Was You, now available on DVD from Oscilloscope, is worth seeking out as an introduction to Cazale or a friendly reminder of what he achieved in such a short period. Among its supplements is an extended interview with Pacino that’s both enlightening and very touching.

Another documentary profile (maybe) of an artist (maybe) on the margins of the mainstream,
Exit Through the Gift Shop is also out on DVD from Mongrel, and if you didn’t catch it during its theatrical run last spring, do yourself a favour. Attributed to Banksy, the mysterious English street artist who rose from standard tags to audacious pranks of wry social commentary to six-figure sales at Sotheby’s, the film’s about a guy named Thierry Guetta who ostensibly wanted to make a film about Banksy, but through a combination of incompetence and colossal enthusiasm became instead the subject of Banksy’s crazy, clever, and very, very funny work.

Thierry is a 21st century variation on the obsessive-compulsive image archivist we find in the stories of Italo Calvino and Javier Marías, or in
Camera Buff (79), the brilliant early feature from Krzysztof Kieslowski. Once Thierry gets hold of a video camera he can’t stop shooting for fear he might miss something—a foolproof way of missing out on an entire life. After Thierry logs countless hours of street art in action, and gains the trust of the ruthlessly camera-shy Banksy, he finally churns out a virtually unwatchable documentary about the whole movement that seems to take its designs from Lou Reed’s legendary noise manifesto Metal Machine Music (75), though without the sense of purpose. (Truth is, I kind of like Metal Machine Music.) Banksy, basically as a way to get of him and re-work the footage on his own, talks Thierry into trying his hand at street art instead, and while Thierry seems hardly better with this new medium, his concept-free, wildly appropriative pop art becomes a smash. It’s been pointed out that Thierry’s entire story might be complete bullshit. All I know is, whatever the facts are, the absurdly inarticulate but relentlessly game Thierry gives what’s easily among the funniest performances of the year.

Exit Through the Gift Shop’s coolest extra is probably the postcards and stickers in its sleeve, but there’s also a pretty good short about Banksy that more straightforwardly describes his progress as an artist. It features glowing appraisals from not only the late actor and collector Dennis Hopper, but also art world superstar Damien Hirst. But, just so you don’t get your hopes up, you still don’t get to see Banksy’s face.

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