Monday, 8 March 2010

'Exit Through the Gift Shop' review: A Wanksy Film (see what I did there!)

I won’t detail my feelings on the “urban artist” Banksy here, due to the fact that they are basically the same as those voiced (in a much funnier way) by Charlie Brooker about four years ago in his Guardian column. I will say that, for me, Banksy is perhaps the ultimate example of the contemporary culture as he exists in a state of ironic detachment, always unaccountable and with an emphasis on style, not simply over, but instead of substance. Banksy is also, paradoxically, famous for being anonymous (an anonymity which he has arguably sort to maintain in order to attract more publicity and greater renown to his art).

Therefore, it came as no surprise watching a documentary titled ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, billed as “A Banksy Film”, to find a something so intent on being enigmatic, that it is in fact just totally narcissistic (Rhys Ifans narration frequently goes to great lengths to tell us just how vital Bansky is to modern culture). The notion of “A Banksy Film” is also a purposefully vague description as no director has been credited, either in the credits, or on the film’s IMDB entry. Is this satirical comment on the redundancy of auteur theory, or merely a post-modern pose? I suspect the latter, but then am I now falling into a trap by taking this film seriously? The level of detached insincerity on show, for me, constitutes the films major problem, whilst for others it will no doubt be the films crowning achievement.

The "story" is as follows: We learn early on, in a comic twist, that this is not going to be a film about Bansky. Rather we are given a look at an artless pretender to Bansky’s throne as ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is, (at face value) a documentary chronicling the life and times of Thierry Guetta, a man (who we are told) is obsessed with recording every second of his life on camera. Thierry, from the outset something of a comic figure, somehow bumbles his way into being an insider on the urban art scene, where he eventually meets and befriends Bansky, before becoming an artist in his own right, under the pseudonym “Mr. Brainwash”. How seriously you take any of that is really up to you.

It seems convenient to me that everything "Mr. Brainwash" comes to represent in the film is thrown into stark contrast with the films version of Bansky: "Mr. Brainwash" is all about the money, whereas Bansky (if the mysterious hooded figure even is Bansky) tells us his art is not about money; "Mr. Brainwash" is an overnight sensation, whereas Bansky tells us that he spent years finding his style and perfecting his craft. Essentially the film seems to be telling us one thing: "Mr. Brainwash" is a sell-out and Banksy is not. The whole exercise seems cooked up to legitimise and further mythologize the Banksy business (and it is a business, whatever he says, with this film adding to the books and the Blur album cover). A great deal of time and effort is spent presenting Bansky as the genuine article alongside the delusional, faker that is Thierry Guetta.

However ‘Exit’ is frequently a funny and entertaining film if you are prepared to see it not as a documentary, but as this year’s ‘Le Donk’ or ‘Spinal Tap’. Afterall, the character of Thierry Guetta ticks all the classic mocumentary character boxes, the most obvious one being his lack of self-awareness. He says preposterous things with the appearance complete earnestness. When he begins to market himself as a street artist, it is with the delusions of grandeur common within that comic genre. Of course, reading it as a straight up comedy finds it lacking a little in the laughs department, but it is far more effective as a comedy than as a documentary: containing laughs but no solid documentary data, or even an accountable point of view.

The thing I enjoyed most about the film was its lampooning of art culture. In many scenes, those who think they are in the know demonstrate the vapidity and the falseness of modern art consumption by so-called experts (basically posers). ‘Exit’ shows similar people at Bansky’s own LA exhibition (which boasts celebrity fans and mass-media coverage) to the people it later ridicules at the "Mr. Brainwash" exhibit, prompting the film’s most interesting question: Is Bansky taking a pop at his own fame and his place within the art establishment? Is he bringing down the whole deck of cards with this film (if indeed it is even ‘his’ film)? But to read any of this into ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ may just be playing Banksy’s game. I feel that the truth is that the film, like Bansky’s art, says nothing but that which cultural commentators ascribe it. Maybe as an exercise that sort of thing is fine and valid, but it doesn’t work for me. I feel that for me to analyse this thing too hard is to in some way validate it. And I don’t want to do that because it’s a load of (quite entertaining) toss. Maybe I just don't get it, and he's a genius. But I doubt it.

'Exit Through the Gift Shop' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is currently playing at the Duke of York's Picturehouse in Brighton. Read my Splendor Podcast co-hosts impressions of the film from the Berlin film festival here, whilst another colleague looked at the film way back at Sundance. What glamorous lives they lead...

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