88) The Art of the Steal (2009) Dir: Don Argott Date Released: February 2010 Date Seen: March 6, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5
If The Art of the Steal were just an exceptionally well-documented story about a group of high-minded aesthetes that are drastically over-reacting about a trivial matter, it would still be a film worth talking about. I have my problems with the film's talking heads, especially the obtuse and introduction they give us to why the Barnes collection is as important as it is, but there is a lot to be said about the stance they and director Don Argott are taking. Eventually, I found myself agreeing with its nebulous thesis statement--the Barnes collection, being a unique experience whose main goal is to evade unwanted publicity for its own sake, should be able to maintain its autonomy on the assumption that it provides visitors an educational, perhaps even aesthetically unifying, experience. That it couldn't because of people that refused to honor its owners' wishes is, in a way, rather tragic. I found it hard to argue with the case that Argott's rich history of how the collection was handled after Barnes' death and the sheer depth of his film's reportage. And in that sense, I allowed the film to overwhelm me with its wall of information. Looking back on the film weeks later, I don't regret the decision in the least bit.
At the same time, I look at the talking heads of the film that represent Barnes' self-described acolytes and I see a very unpleasant reflection of how the public must see cultural gate-keepers. One of these guys, the one with the waxed mustache and the eyebrows that look like they were arranged to be in a perpetual frowny position, is so frequently beside himself when he's trying to describe the people that are for the de-privatization of the Barnes collection that he can't even bring himself to string together a coherent cluster of verbs, adverbs and nouns, let alone a sentence. Barnes' defenders' smug air of self-importance is firmly established in the opening credits by the way Argott egregiously employs a perplexing cover of "Iron Man" played on dueling pianos. Based on this opening slavo and the way that most of the Barnes' Museum board members can't say anything positive about the collection without sounding like a pack of pompous dullards, you could easily get that sense that some nut jobs think that the sky really is falling but not why we should care. Soon enough, they calm down and their story becomes compelling but golly, it sure is hard to completely cozy up with people that earnestly hurl "Philistines!" as an explosive epithet when they're protesting a social function. Still, The Art of the Steal's a film well-worth debating and I'm sad that I didn't see it in time to be part of the discussion (not that I'd have anything intelligent or new to ad to it).