"Since the first humans etched images on to cave walls," a narrator says early on, "others have been there to erase their work." That claim lacks substantiation here, but seems too obvious to need any. The point is about human nature, and that fine line between expression and oppression, between culture maker and busybody. And it's about what we mean when we say that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
So maybe Max Good and Nathan Wollman's highly participatory documentary Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle for Expression could do without its earnest and spotty history-lesson narration. Being a movie about impermanent street art, it's at its best on street-level, hanging out with a handful of self-appointed "buffers" who dedicate their lives to eliminating graffiti, often by secretly painting over it.
The filmmakers also supply a roundtable of talking heads on the subject of vigilantism. These include a psychologist, a hip academic, and Dirty Harry, saying, "The law's crazy!" To political theorist James Q. Wilson's idea that graffiti "conveys the sense that decent people do not control the neighborhood, and that is what makes it so unsettling," Good retorts that he finds the "officially sanctioned messages" of corporate advertising to be just as unsettling, "sinister" even.
And then, with the peculiar milieu of dueling defacers and their mutual indignations so established, things get interesting. Most stirringly, Good and Wollman stake out and get in with Berkeley's Jim Sharp, also known as the Silver Buff, who calls them "stalkumentarians," but lets them follow him around and argue about the semantics of visual pollution. (Sharp points out that he does some weeding and trash pick-up too.)
Like precocious kids in a science class doing chemical-collision experiments, Good and Wollman introduce Sharp to his local opponents, and to a fellow vigilante from out of town, and to the police. Results vary, but never quite blow up in anybody's face. Eventually our intrepid filmmakers decide to become the Pink Buff and the Gold Buff, buffing all the Silver Buff's buffs. They keep their camera on him all the while.
Vigilante Vigilante dwells overmuch on the obvious points: that not everyone who paints in public spaces without permission is a gangbanger or a talentless vandal; that covering something up with a big gray splotch isn't exactly mitigating blight; that billboard status quo can itself be aesthetically offensive. But dwelling -- seeming more compulsive than selective -- clearly is par for this course. Screen titles such as "Confrontation, day 38" suggest the stew of obsession, passive-aggression and half-accidental humor that gives the film its weird power. And some moments are impressively epigrammatic, like that quick shot of the "Eat More Quinoa!" tag on the wall of the Pro Lube Drive Thru Oil Change: a class war summed up in one simple, personless image.
But the operating question here is what goes on inside the minds of men who'd even strip down such unsanctioned yet nobly intentioned public displays as flyers about missing pets or makeshift replacement street signs in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. Another of Good and Wollman's gathered vigilantes acknowledges the vicarious thrill of his crusade, and its addictiveness. We learn late that he lost a 10 year-old-son; poignantly he acknowledges "a control thing."
Still, the best -- and most maddening -- stuff derives from time spent with Sharp on the streets of Berkeley. It could be fun to consider this guy as some punk Color Field throwback, assiduously filling the city with hostile little gestures of bland minimalism. But the filmmakers don't go there. They might be a little stuck down in the rabbit hole. Well, bless them for leaping in, anyway.
Vigilante Vigilante opens Friday, August 12, 2011 (with filmmakers Max Good and Nathan Wollman in person on the evenings of Friday and Saturday, August 12 and 13), at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit roxie.com.