by Madeleine Peck Wagner
To answer the question that looms above all others: no, Banksy’s movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop, does not seem like a giant fake. In fact though we never see his face or hear his real voice, Exit does one really remarkable thing: it humanizes Banksy…and in the process skewers the street art, and, the art world.
The premise of the film gets a typical topsy turvy Banksy treatment. In the beginning (in the mid-90s) Thierry Guetta is a ridiculous, semi-insane Frenchman living in Los Angeles, running a vintage clothing store (where he crows about marking five dollar finds up to five-hundred dollars). He’s filming his entire life (wife, kids, shop) because he is obsessively afraid to miss anything.
Then in a 1999 visit home, he films his cousin, the street artist Space Invader in situ. Guetta is hooked. He loves filming street artists. “I want to capture these people because they really believe in what they’re doing and really love it,” he says. And this love must be true, because for the next eight years he’s out filming everyone from Zeus to Swoon, to Shepard Fairey and finally, elusively, Banks—the art world’s own Scarlet Pimpernel. Quips Guetta of the film he was putting together, “It was like an adventure every night.”
In the process, Guetta becomes friends with Fairey and Banksy, so they feel pretty comfortable asking him when the damn documentary finally coming out. It never really does. Which is to say, once Guetta puts something together, it is beyond amateurish, and barely watchable. In steps Banksy, commandeering the boxes and boxes of footage. He thinks he can put something cohesive together. Then the story gets weirder.
Guetta, now free from his role as filmmaker, is encouraged by Banksy to “go make some art.” The filmmaker-cum-artist does just take, taking the king of street art’s suggestion as a battle command. He invents a nom-de-rue, Mr. Brainwash (MBW) and in midlife, embarks upon a career as a street artist. Not content with building his creds on the street, though he does cover the city in wheatpastes, MBW opens a studio, hires a team, and begins planning the show, “Life is beautiful.”
Guetta as MBW has no mystery or subtly about him. He’s ripping-off his friends in a kind of uber-juvenile blend of homage and marketing genius. “MBW does not fit the stereotype of your average street vandal. His artistic process chiefly consists of throwing random modern cultural icons into a blender and turning it up to eleven. The results are by turns profound, provocative and inspirational,” said Banksy as quoted on the Obey Giant website…and used in all of Guetta’s promotional materials.
When talking about his art, one half expects MBW to thoughtfully twirl his absurd moustache or possibly fluff his muttonchops. But the thing is, he too seems sincere; delusional but sincere. And though Fairey and Banksy both seem a little embarrassed by their association with MBW, nonetheless they are still his friends. Plus Fairey at least, came out to support the ambitious “Beautiful” show.
In portions of their taped interviews, both Fairey and Banksy shift uncomfortably, gently deriding MBW’s art, but never getting malicious. Indeed, when “Life is Beautiful,” starts to spiral out of control, and the project clearly comes close to ruining him, Banksy steps in and offers help in the form of a production crew.
The film is genius. Ostensibly a film about Banksy, it becomes obvious the film is really about this whole other person/creation. That is to say one queues up to see the movie hoping to learn more about Banksy, and instead gets Guetta in all of his mania and facial hair.
It might be safe to speculate that it all started out as a gag, but has now taken on a life of its own. Perhaps Guetta seemed like the perfect patsy/partner, but turned out to be too hard to manage, or too seduced by the art world itself: he saw the brass ring, and leapt. It bears remembering that Guetta made a pretty good living before all this selling old clothing at collector’s prices…he might not entirely be the French fruit loop he seems.
Besides the inherent entertainment value of Exit, it is anthropologically and sociologically fascinating, and threaded throughout with fantastic one-liners. “I used to encourage everyone to make art…I don’t do it so much anymore,” remarks Banksy.
The film is about Guetta, the speculation, about Banksy. Remember: Banky’s icon: the rat, is an anagram for art…what’s that scent in the air?
Exit Through the Gift Shop will be screened at the 5 Points Theatre on June 25. Call for showtimes: 359-0049.