The Walk opens this week and it raises the question of what is, or can be, considered art. Film is art and painting is art but so are less permanent forms like dance, theatre and music. Stand-up comedy is art, so is cooking (not mine) so where does one draw the line? Or walk it?
In 1974, French high-wire walker Philippe Petit came to New York with a few friends with the intent to stretch a metal cable between the twin towers of the new World Trade Centre and walk across it. Petit considered the walk, an act highly illegal at the time, to be a work of art and a performance worthy in its own right. After stretching his wire, the artist performed for 45 minutes, sitting, lying on and walking the line eight times with a custom-made balancing pole while audiences and construction workers cheered him on from far below.
None of this is a real spoiler for The Walk because the incident was very proficiently documented in the Oscar-winning (and better) 2008 documentary Man on a Wire. The 123-minute dramatized version of the story starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the daring French artiste (wearing the obligatory black turtleneck like a boss) is still worth seeing though, especially in 3D.
Director Robert Zemeckis (Forest Gump, The Polar Express) is an adept storyteller and lover of using CGI as a narrative vehicle rather than pure spectacle. His digital artists had to totally recreate the World Trade Centre and, especially in 3D, The Walk is a visual tour de force. The set-up is constructed similar to a heist film (just like Man on a Wire) and the first half lags a bit, but the incredible climax makes up for any prior shortcomings.
The Walk might also help popularize the notion that, at the highest level, excellence in any sport/endeavour requires the mind and touch of an artist. In his book, To Reach the Clouds, Petit talks about defining oneself through action.
Decades later, high-line walker and free climber Dean Potter reiterated that message about his arts. Locally, we have athletes and big mountain people who often talk of visualizing their tracks and lines as swipes of a paintbrush on an ephemeral mountain canvass. Whether it's about seizing a natural space for a moment of human bliss or spray-painting a surface in defiance of society's soul-crushing laws, art is about leaving a small splash in the river of time to prove our own existence — "I was here! And if you acknowledge it, then I know I am not alone!"
This is all quite philosophical, so the download of the week is Kumaré, a bang-up performance art documentary about an Indian dude from New Jersey who transforms himself into a guru to make a film about the random absurdity of blind faith. Instead, he ends up with a throng of devout followers and finds himself forging deep connections and helping people despite his almost every "lesson" being about how he is no smarter or better than anyone else.
It's a lot like Borat on a yoga mat. Bearded, robed and carrying a very official looking staff, Kumaré director/star/guru Vikram Ghandi admits that his plan is simply to act and talk like his grandmother and see how it goes. The problem is it works like gangbusters — by being able to become a fake ideal version of himself the filmmaker/guru inspires others (mostly damaged or lost souls) to do the same and discovers that all anyone really needs is someone who will listen to and believe in them. In the end, Kumaré is a guru whether he likes it or not.
Much has been made about the ethics of the film; that lying to people is no way to show them the truth. Viewers can draw the line where they like but the thesis of the film remains less about the fake guru Kumaré and more about all the rest of them. When an attractive female student opens up about her failing marriage the filmmaker wonders, "Is this where a real guru would tell her to leave her husband and follow him?" One can see how easily the wool can be pulled.
Regardless, art doesn't have to be polite and it's pretty fun to watch a false guru draw a penis on people's foreheads then tell them "it's a penis!" And everyone smiles because they thought he said, "It's happiness!"
That's genius in any ethical spectrum.