While it’s a nice, egalitarian notion that anyone can be an artist, it’s hard to ignore that some people seem more qualified than others. And driven. Whether due to hard work, sustained passion, the ability to manifest inspiration or a combination of all three things, some artists stand out even among their brethren. While there are plenty of fictional films purporting to present realistic views of the lives of artists, it’s hard to beat the documentary for eye-opening insights into the thoughts and processes employed by those of a particularly artistic bent. Here are seven such documentaries.
1. Exit through the Gift Shop (2010)
The premise of Exit Through the Gift Shop takes a bit of explaining, but it’s worth it (and doesn’t spoil the viewing experience at all). Thierry Guetta is a pudgy, mutton-chopped Frenchman living in Los Angeles, obsessively filming nearly everything he does. As he begins documenting graffiti and street artists, he meets artist Shepherd Fairey, and through Fairey he meets Banksy, the Babe Ruth qua Deep Throat of the street art world, eventually convincing him to approve a documentary based on his legendary work. But the source tapes of Guetta’s film are soon lost in the sea of unlabeled and unfiled tapes of his life; when he eventually submits an unwatchable mess to his subject, Banksy seizes the camera and tells him he has to now go out and make art of his own, becoming the new subject of the documentary. Against all odds, Mr. Brainwash, as Guetta christens himself, puts on the largest and most profitable street art exhibition in history.
Those are the bare bones of the story, and it’s a fascinating enough narrative on its face. But there’s so much more to Exit Through the Gift Shop. It’s delightful to watch the hyper-reclusive Banksy actually give commentary on film’s events, albeit in almost total silhouette and with a disguised voice. (His commentary is very, very funny.) It’s also fascinating that the film never quite takes a side on the Warholian question of whether Guetta/Mr. Brainwash is actually a legitimate artist or has merely convinced enough people that he is (or whether those are one and the same, or whether it even matters). But the most compelling theme of the film is its cinematic exploration of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle—that a phenomenon cannot be observed or measured without simultaneously changing it. Guetta never puts spray can to wood until he’s being documented by Banksy. Does that mean Banksy made him what he is? Destroyed, in some sense, what he was? And is that good or bad, or neither? —Michael Dunaway
2. Crumb (1994)
Robert Crumb, one of the most controversial cartoon artists of the late ’60s and ’80s, continues to impress his fans with his eccentric persona and borderline gross perspectives even today. Starting his own Zap Comix in 1968—printed by filmmaker and Beat writer Charles Plymell—he’s since dedicated his time to creating his own work (notably, Fritz the Cat). He also managed to merge his passion for music with his illustrations, as can be seen in his artwork for bands like Big Brother & The Holding Company, Blind Boy Fuller and of course his own musical formation, R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenades. Crumb tends to mix his own personal fetishes and obvious sexual preferences into his work without ever losing face with Freudian clichés.
Anyone who has ever studied his comics and other illustrations must have noted that this is not just a man who is evidently hung up on some satirically sexual identification with his characters—derived squealing from his Id—but a man who must depend upon his privacy. A documentary about himself and the people closest to him … Who could be trusted enough to be granted such an intimate insight into his family? There was only one man for the job: friend and fellow cheap suit Terry Zwigoff, who ended up spending nine years on this project. Crumb might make you blush uncontrollably at times—it will definitely leave you with a bit of a gabble in your throat—but as a piece of totally DIY insight into artistic genius, it’s achingly personal. —Roxanne Sancto
3. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)
Alison Klayman’s loving portrait of China’s dissident artist Ai Weiwei may strike some as hagiographic, but how can it not be? This is a man who would be a major artist no matter what his national origin. Yet both his art and his story are made infinitely more fascinating by the incredible courage and steadfastness he shows in openly defying and mocking one of the most evil regimes on Earth. He’s smarter than them, he’s more talented than them, and he’s more charismatic and popular than them. Of course, they have the guns. That the fight seems evenly matched may be the greatest tribute of all. —Michael Dunaway
4. This Is Not a Film (2012)
In December 2010, renowned Iranian director Jafar Panahi (Offside) was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making films for 20 years. His crime? Supporting the opposition party during Iran’s highly charged 2009 election. Three months later on the eve of the Iranian New Year, while his wife and children are away delivering gifts, Panahi is home alone in his apartment. He turns on a camera. What follows is a document of the day-to-day life of a man under house arrest: He spreads jam on bread. He brews tea. He feeds his daughter’s pet iguana. He calls his family. He checks in with his lawyer. But it also evolves into a provocative meditation on the nature of filmmaking itself: Although he has been barred from directing films, writing screenplays, leaving the country and conducting interviews, Panahi’s sentence says nothing about reading or acting, so this is what he does, explaining what his most recent film would have been about had he been allowed to make it. Like René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, in which the artist scrawls the words “This is not a pipe” under a painting of just such a smoking device, this is not a film but a representation of one. —Annlee Ellingson
5. Cutie and the Boxer (2013)
Great artists are often forgiven for flaws in their personal lives, but such forgiveness usually hinges on success. Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Heinzerling’s fascinating documentary about Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko, depicts a man who is entering his 80s, but still dreams like he’s 20. Heinzerling leaves open for debate whether the old man is an important mind or a bum. —Jeremy Mathews
6. Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters (2012)
Many photographers work meticulously for ever-more-true depictions of physical reality. Not Gregory Crewdson. His deliberately conceived, meticulously constructed, artificially lit scenes are more like paintings; they just happen to be captured with a camera. Ben Shapiro’s documentary isn’t a particularly deep dig into Crewdson’s background or psychology, nor is it a linear story with conflict and climax. It’s really just an exploration of the work itself, as we look over Crewdson’s shoulder while he prepares, shoots and opens his monumental “Beneath the Roses” show. It’s a fascinating, unforgettable ride. —Michael Dunaway
7. Pina (2012)
German director Wim Wenders’ 3D documentary tribute to the German dancer, choreographer and teacher Pina Bausch began in the mid-eighties when he saw Bausch’s Café Müller for the first time. Afterwords, he suggested to her that they one day make a film together. It was not until 2009, however, that this dream really began to take shape. After working with Bausch for almost half a year, and just days before they were supposed to begin shooting the first 3D rehearsal, Bausch suddenly and unexpectedly died. After a mourning period, and encouraged by friends and family of Bausch, Wenders decided to forge ahead with the film, believing that Pina’s life and personality were so tied up in her work and her dancers that, through the presentation of four of her choreographed productions, he could pay proper homage to this influential artist.
Pina shows excerpts from performances of Café Müller, Le Sacre du printemps, Vollmond and Kontakthof—both in the theater and outside of it—mixed with archival footage of Bausch and solo performances done by her dancers. The 3D approach of the film, rather than being a distraction, allows the audience to experience art, life and the blurring between the two in a completely new and unique way. As a result, Pina is an elegant and poetic demonstration of everything 3D technology is capable of. This is 3D at its most sophisticated and subtle—no massive explosions, no aliens or CGI, just beautifully choreographed and exceptionally performed modern dance. —Emily Kirkpatrick