Judge Adam Arseneau is the evil midnight bomber what bombs at midnight, baby!
"It's not really like an addiction; it's more like a sickness. You cannot control yourself once you start."
If you live in a city with more than a hundred people in it, odds are you know all about the subject matter of David Pray's new film. From the director of Scratch and Hype! comes Infamy, a documentary about the art and culture of graffiti artists. But will anyone besides taggers and bombers find this film worthwhile?
Facts of the Case
>From New York to Los Angeles, Philadelphia to San Francisco, Mexico to Cleveland, Infamy features interviews from six scene-leading graffiti artists: Claw, Earsnot, Enem, Jase, Saber, and Toomer, as well as noted anti-graffiti activist Joe Connolly, examining the culture of graffiti and the obsession that drives normal individuals to go out and risk their livelihoods and their lives by tagging everything in sight.
"Every single graffiti writer is a manic-depressive insecure person, because that's the only thing that makes you want to go out and write on somebody's #$%@."
Though many have come to appreciate it as post-modern art of the highest caliber, for many in suburban or urban lifestyles, graffiti is as ubiquitous as advertising or leaves in the wind. The crap is everywhere you look; whether you find it abhorrent or barely notice it in your journey from point A to point B, it gets put there by somebody trying to leave a mark. Infamy is a movie about just such people.
Composed of interviews and demonstrations of graffiti art, most of the artists featured in Infamy are well-spoken, articulate, and righteously defiant of authority to the point of juvenility. Most feel that taunting the authorities and flaunting their disregard for public behavior constitutes a good time. It also becomes immediately clear that the majority of serious taggers have some interesting personality and emotional issues at work that drive them to obsession with the idea of leaving their mark on the world around them, literally. Amazingly, almost all of them are fully aware of this personal flaw and actually embrace it to take their passion and art to new heights. Graffiti is an exercise in ego, and all of these individuals are at the peak of training.
To balance out the film, the other half of the coin in Infamy focuses on Joe Connolly, a self-proclaimed "graffiti guerrilla," who patrols his neighborhood obsessively armed with paint remover, systematically wiping out all tagging from his neighborhood. The city refused to do anything about the problem, so he took it upon himself to be proactive, and soon logged over 30,000 hours of community service. His sheer single-mindedness has been so effective that he has basically created a pocket within Los Angeles of graffiti-free city space where taggers refuse to go. Dubbed a "buffer" by the graffiti community, he has achieved a kind of legendary status as a worthy adversary. The irony, of course, is that Connolly has more in common with his adversaries than he wishes to admit. He is unshakable in his convictions, acts with anti-establishment tendencies towards his crusade, is fiercely protective of his territory, and takes immense pride in his accomplishments. For him, a stark white canvas of wall is as beautiful as a large elegant mural of graffiti, and he will go to self-destructive lengths to achieve it.
One thing I did like about Infamy is that the film makes a distinction between the art and the culture of graffiti, illustrating this point effectively by interviewing most of the artist's parents—all of whom would be happier with their children's chosen vocation without the police arrests, the gang violence, and the constant danger it puts them in. Most serious graffiti artists have a rap sheet at least a foot thick of vandalism charges and shoplifting. But for the artists, both elements are part of the allure and appeal to graffiti and are not mutually exclusive. To them, you cannot have the large, elegant mural pieces without the small tagging that gets you beat up by rival gangs or arrested by the police. Sure, there are artists who take perverse enjoyment in the egotistical battles between rival taggers, who enjoy midnight bombing runs chased by the police. Indeed, we meet more than a few of them in this film. But Infamy avoids casting judgment on such an ideology, merely presenting the artists openly and honestly.
Offered the chance to "go legit" and transfer their artistic skills to a new medium is a conflicting moment for most taggers. Towards the end of the film, the tone of Infamy changes into something introspective, with a touch of self-loathing thrown in for good measure. Most of the famous graffiti artists admired by the interviewees this film are either dead or in jail, which is a sobering realization. There isn't much future in graffiti art for a bomber. Though it doesn't seem to deter any of them, they make it clear they aren't particularly happy about it, either. In one artist's words, "it makes me hate graffiti." Their fame—or infamy as it were—has committed them to a lifestyle with little future in it, but no matter how many funerals for friends they attend or how many times they get arrested or beat down, they keep coming back for more. It is hard to know whether to feel sorry for them or mock them for being idiots.
An artist I found fascinating in particular was Jase, who targets freight trains almost exclusively. After hundreds of evenings of tagging thousands of freights over almost ten years, he has the pleasure of seeing at least one of his tags go by on almost every single train that travels through his city. As to the why of his habits, he explains quite openly. Suffering deep-rooted issues due to the death of his father in Vietnam, Jase takes his frustrations onto the trains, exercising his demons in the form of vandalism, taking solace in knowing his art will travel to places in the country that he will never see himself. I mean, you could write a book on this guy.
Infamy makes it to DVD with a reasonable technical presentation. Shot on DV in letterbox, the transfer bears all the tell-tale signs of digital media: great color saturation and detail levels during outdoor day sequences, horrible black level and graininess during nighttime sequences. Problem is, Infamy likes to follow its artists around during bombing runs—all of which take place at night—giving the film an inconsistent quality. Audio is solid, with a 5.1 surround track and a stereo track with dialogue squared solely in the center channel. In the surround presentation, the rear channels are used exclusively for the soundtrack, a hip-hop score by Z-Trip, which sounds fantastic—excellent bass response and fidelity.
In terms of extras, Infamy contains 40 minutes of bonus footage sectioned into categories. The material (clearly filmed for the documentary and most likely cut due to time constraints) is a nice backdrop for people looking to explore the subject matter more thoroughly.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Graffiti is a tough subject matter to appeal to the public intellectually with, especially when the film focuses on the individual rather than the merits of graffiti as a legitimate art form. Infamy doesn't really care about justifying graffiti as anything other than what it is. The film is far more interested in the people behind the spray can, to example what motivates and drives them to constantly deface public property at the cost of their livelihoods and criminal records, and often their lives.
There are some beautiful pieces of work here, but Infamy makes no apologies for its subject matter or its artists. If you dislike graffiti, nothing in Infamy will make you feel any different about the subject.
Infamy is not Pray's best documentary to date, but it is raw and honest, truthful and engaging, fully embracing the dichotomy of openly acknowledging the lunacy of graffiti and still loving every second of it. The artists featured in this film are complex, talented, and fascinating individuals, some with personality problems that would make a psychoanalyst salivate like a dog. Neither glorifying nor condemning its subjects, Infamy is a well-balanced documentary.
Not guilty, save for a slap on the wrist for the defamation of public property. Just don't let me see you in my courtroom again, young man. Straighten up and fly right, you hear?
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