Film Reviews Of Her Name Is Sabine, Exit Through The Gift Shop, And Buck

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/31/12


  It used to be that film documentaries were in the purview of professional film directors, editors, and producers, and that certain standards of artistic integrity and journalistic objectivity were observed. However, in this age of Netflix and instant streaming video, there has been the rise of the far too often noxious vanity documentary film, wherein the filmmaker essays a subject near and dear to them, with little import to anyone outside of whom they know, and try to propound that is artistically or culturally significant. On a recent morning I watched three such highly lauded films: Her Name Is Sabine, Exit Through The Gift Shop, and Buck.




  Her Name Is Sabine (Elle S’Appelle Sabine) is a 2007 French film by famed actress cum director Sandrine Bonnaire, and details the descent into severe retardation by her younger sister, Sabine. This 84 minute color film, made in 2007 is shot and edited like a poor home movie. It starts off with filmed images from Sabine’s life, mixed and matched with no apparent reason behind them, but quickly attempts to shift into polemical mode, and fails, for the film never makes any persuasive arguments that Sabine’s degenerate state is the fault of anyone, save for bad luck.

  Bonnaire tries to blame the French healthcare system, doctors, nurses, and a mental institution her family ships Sabine off to for five years, with apparently limited contact with her family, then bemoans the fact that Sabine is nearly mute, violent, and self-destructive. Yet, we never see nor hear anything of where Sabine was nor how she was treated- we have to rely on Bonnaire’s claims alone, and do this knowing that Bonnaire is a wealthy celebrity. She could have afforded to get her sister the help she needed, although, in truth, it would have obviously done little good, for Sabine was not as she is described: talented, creative, outgoing. The very home films of youth show a troubled young girl (eventually diagnosed with psychoinfantile autism) who can play the piano (poorly) and descends from being a thin, pretty weirdo to an obese, violent, retard, locked away in a home that Bonnaire got built, with other retards- most of whom are fat, as well.

  That this film, which ends with Sabine still rotting inside herself, is lauded as some courageous document shows how ludicrous even the supposedly more culturally advanced European cineastes are, and the whole film has the not so subtle stench of exploitation written all over, as Bonnaire, who seems to have- along with her clan- written Sabine off, now sees her tale as a business venture. Ka-ching! There simply is no reason for this film, other than personal profit, since we learn little of Sabine’s early environment, hear from none of her doctors in depth, and get no sense that things could have been substantively better for Sabine in another timeline- for the violence (and other negative traits) that Bonnaire attributes to her sister’s institutionalization are clearly in evidence from both the film and early narration.

  Technically, the only portion of the film visually memorable is a saturated scene of a young Sabine riding in on a wave at the beach. The white subtitles are often unreadable in daylight scenes. Cinematographer Catherine Cabrol’s handiwork is elsewise uninspired, as is the scoring by Nicola Piovanni, Jefferson Lembeye, and Walter N’Guyen. The film lacks direction, purpose, and, in all honesty, it offers nothing. It’s simply a bad film, and seemingly a dishonest one, at that- and while the former is the greater concern of the critic, the latter is a taboo in documentary filmmaking, for it violates the implicit claims of the documentary as a form of journalism.




  Exit Through The Gift Shop, by contrast, is a bad film, made by bad filmmakers, on bad art, and most definitely dishonest; although the controversy over whether or not the film is a hoax, satire, or real is superfluous, for this self-indulgent piece of bilge is a perfect example of Poe’s Law, which posits that it is nearly impossible to delineate the satirical nature or not of a work of art that portrays extreme points of view, for someone will always believe the parody is real, and the real thing is parody. And, at two minutes longer than Her Name Is Sabine, this 2010 film, supposedly directed by bad British graffitiist cum ‘street artist’ Banksy, this film runs about 80 minutes too long.

  It follows the supposed life of a man, Thierry Guetta, obsessed with videotaping and filming his whole life, who meets up with street artists, films them for years, then makes a bad documentary, Life Remote Control, on the behest of Banksy, his friend, who then sees the film as a disaster, takes it away from him- feeling only he can document the street art movement, and unleashes Guetta to become his own street artist named Mr. Brain Wash or MBW, and then both manipulate the gullible LA Press into believing that Guetta is a genius, with his own high profile ‘art show,’ even though he clearly is a man with no vision, talent, nor anything, save a desire to be famous. He is, de facto, a male version of Kim Kardashian, and, as such, just as dull. Poorly narrated by actor Rhys Ifans, the film garnered an Oscar nomination, but, as in the case of Her Name Is Sabine, this is, at best, a dubious distinction based upon what the film supposedly depicts- the birth of street art, even though most of the film depicts 21st Century street artists, not the birth of graffiti as street art in the 1970s and 1980s.

  The film is littered with uninspired pseudo-artists who bear names like Shepard Fairey, Space Invader, Seizer, Sweet Toof, and so on, yet, despite their supposed street cred, there is little surprise that these are mostly bored upper middle class white guys trying to act ‘gangsta,’ for their ‘art’ is nothing but self-promotion- it is almost wholly void of any deeper meaning- as temporal as the vandalism itself, and if this film were really documenting a cultural phenomenon it would show poor white, black, and Latino kids in schoolyards- not vainglorious mall rejects doing piss poor imitations. The film really documents the manipulation of persona as art, and the rise of faux street art into galleries as million dollar hoaxes. Then Banksy, in disguise with voice altered, claims to not want to be making money off his ‘art,’ even as a glimpse into his warehouse-sized ‘studio’ shows how bogus such a claim is, considering he has to maintain a huge staff of apprentices (yes, he doesn’t even create his own ‘art’) to pull off his increasingly vapid, but large, stunts.

  Like Her Name Is Sabine, this film is a technical disaster, with poor cinematography by Guetta and Banksy, and scoring by Geoff Barrow. Yet, the film does one thing of import, it shows how gullible so-called art lovers are, for the art shows depicted show zombified sheep who will spend millions on ugly, vapid junk about celebrities- and 95% of all the so-called ‘art’ in this film revolves around celebrities. In this manner, it has truck with another bad documentary- the exploitive My Kid Could Paint That. But, overall, it is still a bad film on bad art (which Banksy calls a bit of a joke), and this sort of ‘hoax art’ has been around since Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, for the reality is that street art is merely Pop Art gone ghetto, and not an outgrowth of graffitti. Regardless, it still sucks.




  The third vanity documentary I saw was also highly lauded, and also way too bloated. There is a good half hour long PBS documentary waiting to get out of novice film director Cindy Meehl’s highly lauded Buck, a profile of professional horse whisperer Dan ‘Buck’ (or ‘Buckshot’) Brannaman, for whom Robert Redford’s 1989 film of the same name was modeled (Redford also appears as a talking head, and the film was financed by his Sundance film company). The film runs 88 minutes, but there is little to say about the man’s life- he is highly paid to teach horse owners how to be kind, not harsh, to their horses, travels the country nine months a year, grew up a celebrity roper, with commercial endorsements and television celebrity but, the film focuses on the lone negative in his life: a drunken and abusive father. Geez, let’s see- a bad parent? That makes him just like, what?, 90% of the rest of the world?

  Other than that, there are some nice scenes of Buck doing his thing- a sort of Occidental Zen, and there is gorgeously filmed scenery, but, again, this hour and a half film could easily lose two thirds of its mass and been better. The fact of the matter is that Buck is simply a nice guy who is not that interesting; yet, to Meehl, he was, and it was this interest- not anything of depth for a potential audience, that motivated her. Yes, of the three films, it’s easily the best one, and a solid little film that does show potential for Meehl to grow. A quick comparison of this debut film to Errol Morris’s debut, Gates Of Heaven, shows it’s clear that Meehl’s film is far more polished and engaging. She simply needed to a) find a more complex and compelling subject, or b) learn to edit more judiciously, for too often it seems as if Meehl is hammering the handful of nostra Buck is capable of plumbing over and again, as if by roteness it will increase in meaning. Probably the most vapid of these is the canard that a horse is a mirror into the soul of its owner, or variations thereof. This is especially silly when we, late in the film, see an extended scene of Buck’s failure to train a wild horse that was supposedly deprived of oxygen. Buck claims that it was basically an equine Sabine, from the first film tackled in this review, and that with love and patience, it would have been a good horse.

  Yet, as evidenced in Her Name Is Sabine, even a retarded human is not able to be swerved away from destruction. Then Buck humiliates the female owner of the horse as a person who inflicted her problems on the horse, even as it attacks, bites, and severely wounds her husband. The owners, thus shamed, slink out of the horse clinic, determined to ‘put down’ the bad horse. Buck simply says nothing, even though gelding the horse or just setting it free to join a herd of wild horses, would seem the more humane thing to do. That I, an amateur, see these options, whereas professionals like the owners and Buck do not, shows how much deeper Meehl could have and should have dug into this material, rather than settle for a well made hagiographic vanity documentary. Nonetheless, if I were to lay odds on which of the three filmmakers has a real future in film documentaries, it would be Meehl, for she is leagues beyond the other two, in terms of technical proficiency. She just needs a subject worthy of her time and talents.




  Of the three films- Her Name Is Sabine, Exit Through The Gift Shop, and Buck- the only one worth seeing is Buck, and that mostly for the potential of the filmmaker, not the subject matter. If that seems to not be a strong enough recommendation, consider that there are worse reasons to engage art, after all, as Exit Through The Gift Shop so amply demonstrates.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]


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