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Roadsworth: Crossing the Line

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/20/09 15:12:17

"How to sell out without selling out."
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL: Why is graffiti “art” when you like it and “a nuisance” when you don’t?

This is the conundrum behind “Roadsworth: Crossing the Line,” a documentary from first-time director Alan Kohl. The film studies street artist Peter Gibson, nicknamed “Roadsworth” for his whimsical tagging of Montreal’s streets; his graffiti offered playful visual jokes, like crosswalks turned into boot prints and lane lines turned into zippers. He was finally caught in the act in 2004, leaving city officials in a quandary, with (most of) the public supporting work that’s technically illegal. Would it be fair to let Gibson off the hook?

The case isn’t quite the center of the film. (It’s be a fairly dull affair if it were, really, punctuated only by Gibson’s own charms, like the moment where he blatantly fibs to his attorney, saying the night he was arrested was the night he also, coincidentally, started to feel remorse for his crimes, wink wink.) Kohl - who started filming Gibson shortly before his arrest and captures all the big moments in the years that follow - allows his film to wander with the artist as the he tries to figure out where to go next.

The arrest gives Gibson great fame in the art community, and soon he’s commissioned to travel to Europe and work in several cities. He finds himself stuck, wanting to move on creatively yet aware of the fact that he’s been hired to paint more zippers and boot prints. In Amsterdam, he’s hired to tag a parking lot, then asked if he could go out and do the rest of the city, too, illegally. While Gibson realizes the absurdity of the request, he’s also slyly delighted to oblige; indeed, when a woman threatens to call the cops, the artist waits around for them, opting to finish his work.

Gibson’s efforts aren’t always welcomed openly. In Ashford, England, citizens gripe about nonsensical imagery (what’s with the painted birds on the road?). When he was working in secret as an outlaw of sorts, he only had to please himself; now he has to work with others’ tastes in mind.

As a street artist, Gibson is fully aware of charges of “selling out,” charges that increase once the case wraps up and he’s offered a slew of new commissions, including some from Montreal itself. To some graffiti bandits, tagging needs to be illegal, or it won’t work as a political statement. Gibson, however, enjoys not having to hide from the cops. In his “criminal” days, he stuck to a strict code of only tagging public property, never privately owned areas, which goes against the politics of graffiti. Gibson doesn’t care: he doesn’t think himself one of that crowd, having never gone to art school, never read Kant, never been arrogant about his work. Gibson jokes that maybe he did sell out, but how could that be wrong, to get paid for doing something you love? (Is it even selling out, since he’s not doing anything he otherwise wouldn’t? Doesn’t “selling out” involve some sort of cheap compromise? The only compromise Gibson makes is not to break the law.)

Gibson’s journeys are intriguing, offering a look inside the mind of an artist at a crossroads. But “Roadsworth” is also interested in the politics of graffiti itself. Talk show hosts and politicians offer debate on art-vs.-nuisance, while other street artists chime in on notions of having their craft out in the open, unable to be ripped out of the street and placed in a gallery. But how do we draw the line? Who’s to determine when something is aesthetically pleasing enough to be accepted, and when it’s ugly enough to be turned away? Can vandalism ever really be great? Should city governments even be spending money on such commissions?

“Roadsworth” asks more questions, and refreshingly never offers any answers, just a view of an artist eager to change while stuck in the eye of a political storm. This isn’t a great film - even at 72 minutes, it still seems to wander aimlessly at times - but it’s a wonderful little conversation starter, eager to get viewers thinking about the streets, and the art, we all share.

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