At last week's editorial meeting, we were discussing Jonah Spangenthal-Lee's graffiti feature (see HERE), and the arts staff couldn't stop interjecting comments about a short film that came out five years ago. Pretty memorable for a 15-minute experimental documentary.
In 2001, Portland filmmaker Matt McCormick made The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, a point-blank genius short that screened at Sundance the following year (available on the compilation pictured). Narrated in an enthusiastic deadpan by (the not yet particularly famous) Miranda July, and ornamented by a weird, blooping soundtrack, the film approaches its tired subject from the back end, the moment when graffiti disappears.
At first, July delivers a sort of lecture, sending up critic Clement Greenberg as she contends that the paintings that result when people try to cover up graffiti are themselves art. Moreover, these geometric or freeform "buffs" are the culmination of an artistic lineage descending from Malevich and Rothko. (The "unconscious" element owes something to Surrealism too.) The thing that makes this lecture so funny (besides July's delivery) is that it's actually almost plausible—you could imagine a still egotistical but increasingly senile Greenberg spinning just such an argument.
But the funniest moments come later, when McCormick hitches a ride with some of the City of Portland's graffiti police. He captures two workers deliberating between shades of gray paint, labeled, gloriously, "halation" and "dove." An interview with a city official is remixed to find the poor sap declaiming his love of subversive art.
The movie is great not only because it pokes fun at the critical canon and city bureaucrats, but because it's earnest about finding beauty in unexpected places. And by attributing intentionality to blotches and squares that clearly lack it, it makes us less certain of the supposed motives behind graffiti itself.