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As a film, Exit Through the Gift Shop is funny, interesting, and quirky, but you don’t walk away feeling like you experienced a film as much as a really long DIY online video. Some parts are very compelling, and there are some real laughs, but the movie often drags, making you wish you could fast forward to the good parts.
As you probably already know, the film isn’t about Banksy at all, though in a roundabout way it is. The supposed documentary depicts the story of Thierry Guetta, better known as Mr. Brainwash to the street art set, who is a French-American eccentric in Los Angeles who seems to have enough money to travel the world on a whim — leaving two children at home with his wife — to pursue his passion of videotaping street artists doing what they do. The result is a film that does more to mystify Banksy’s legend than to illuminate anything or anyone, including Guetta. You leave the theater wondering if it is a documentary or something else.
For an artist like Banksy who has forged a career on manipulation, it’s hard to believe that his latest project isn’t some type of ruse. Sure, Guetta is a likeable character but he comes across as a fool. He stumbles through life until he figures out the ultimate capitalist trick of employing people whose creativity he can exploit. One day, after befriending Banksy and becoming his trusted friend, he is challenged by the veteran street artist to do it himself — so he does.
If someone were to concoct a character that is the opposite of Banksy, it would be Mr. Brainwash. Banksy is cool and secretive; Brainwash is clumsy and open. If Banksy’s art always has an idea buried deep inside, Brainwash’s has none. You can’t blame people for not buying into the film since the symmetry seems too good to be true.
Guetta’s first intention was to make a film about street art. His thousands of hours of video languished in boxes at his home for years until finally he tried to stitch them together into a film. The result was a 90-minute experimental film called Life Remote Control. The project is ridiculed by everyone, including Banksy. What Banky doesn’t realize is that this film within a film reveals something about himself that can be seen as his biggest flaw, namely his middlebrow aesthetic, even though deep down inside I think he wishes he were more lowbrow.
As cutting-edge as Banksy wants to be, he isn’t. His aesthetic hasn’t evolved past that of an art school student (though some may argue high school). Not that Guetta’s film is anywhere near a masterpiece, it may have certainly been bad, but the minute of footage we’re exposed to feels more daring than the film we’re actually watching. Banksy takes some risks but they are not aesthetic, they simply challenge some middle-class social mores.
Before his film’s Los Angeles premiere last Monday, Banksy painted a series of stencils on the walls of the Southern Californian city to generate buzz before the screening. One of those images depicts a security guard holding a balloon dog, like the ones made famous by artist Jeff Koons, and it is absurdly muzzled. Artist and Hyperallergic blogger Tim McCool spotted the esoteric reference immediately and offered a compelling interpretation:
There’s a Koons quote: “Abstraction and luxury are the guard dogs of the upper class.” So Banksy is accusing Koons’ work of being in the same category of unintelligible, abstract, and ludicrously expensive art.
So, abstraction is the enemy to Banksy and he wants to label Koons as a pawn in other people’s aesthetics but Koons’ work is not really any more abstract than Banksy’s. I find it equally strange that Banksy, an artist whose works sell for big bucks, may be calling out another blue-chip artist, but then again Banksy often acts above it all even though he isn’t.
Throughout the film Banksy remains a shadowy figure (literally and figuratively) who obviously doesn’t stay secretive for legal reasons — his peers have found ways to navigate those waters without staying in the shadows (Shepard Fairey, Swoon …) — so it must be something else. Perhaps to elude scrutiny? The problem with anonymous critics of society, which are all too familiar on the Internet, is that they become tedious after awhile. Unlike Swoon, who seems to genuinely be interested in social and economic justice issues and integrates them into her work, Banksy is at ease in a capitalist system. He is the artist as corporation. He is the street artist version of Jeff Koons. I recently spoke to Australian writer and blogger Alison Young of Images to Live By who characterized Banksy rather well, “He is like a corporation, where there’s no transparency and on the one hand its sort of fun, but on the other hand people would like to know the workings of the organization.”
I’ve discussed the issue of street art becoming the television to the contemporary gallery world’s cinema elsewhere, but what I didn’t mention is that street art has spawned its own obsessive fan culture that those outside the genre don’t see. These fanatics fawn over Banksy’s every one-liner like some people obsess over a Hollywood actor in US Weekly. Exit Through the Gift Shop is surely a pinnacle of that fan culture, but the problem is when you’re not a major fan, you leave only entertained. Which is fine for many people, and I admit that I was entertained, though I’d probably suggest you wait to watch it at home as there is nothing cinematic about the film.
The intended moral of the story seems to be that anyone can do street art, even a middle class dude in LA with a wife and kids, and you probably should if only to make a million dollars like Guetta, so why not, right? Then again, if anyone can do it then why should I care about Banksy or Mr. Brainwash or anyone else? By the end of the film Banksy changes his tune and jokes that he no longer believes anyone who can do it should. The implication is that unlike Mr. Brainwash, he does it well. Banksy is both critiquing and exploiting Guetta.
Banksy has more in common with Koons than he might realize. Both artists are masters of gaming the system and packaging themselves for the hype-hungry media. Some might take that as a compliment, others might not. To me it’s a bit of both.
Exit Through the Gift Shop opens in theaters in New York (Sunshine Theater, Lincoln Plaza), Los Angeles (Arclight in Hollywood, Landmark), San Francisco (Embarcadero), Berkley (Shattuck), San Rafael (Rafael), and Palo Alto (Aqu). For other cities, visit www.banksyfilm.com