Street artists tend to be one-trick ponies — guys (mostly) who develop a signature, identifying image that they affix to urban outdoor surfaces as a form of making their mark. The “Obey” posters of Shepard Fairey, who currently has a retrospective at Contemporary Arts Center, are a key example.
But then there is Banksy, the secretive British street artist who belongs in a class all his own. Not only are his stenciled images (and accompanying graffiti) full of visual and political complexity — teeming with both humor and anger — but he also has a sense of pranksterish conceptualism to rival Marcel Duchamp and of pop-art put-on to recall Claes Oldenberg and Andy Warhol.
He also has formidable organizational skills — the new “street art disaster film” Exit Through the Gift Shop shows him and a crew surreptitiously disassembling and reassembling a blood-red London phone box to look as if it had been murdered in the street, an axe sticking in near one of its glass panes.
Exit Through the Gift Shop might be one more of his pranks — or it might be a straightforward documentary about street art. Or some of each. Whatever, it’s an entertaining and frequently very funny.
At its heart is the tug for artists between doing and documenting; between rebelliousness — defying authority — and being rewarded financially for reaching an audience. It wonders whether street art should lead to something commercial, even while its existence is evidence of that very process.
It also addresses the question of whether the public can be suckered into believing trendy crap is art. But beware: The film is not as obvious on that subject as it might seem. Actually, it’s sort of a fairy tale. The impish tone of actor Rhys Ifans’ narration underscores that.
Exit, which debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has gone on to become a sizeable “documentary” hit on the art-house circuit, is listed as “a Banksy film.” He financed it and, according to its narrative, took over the direction to shape the movie after its would-be auteur — one Thierry Guetta — a French-born clothing-shop owner in Los Angeles — couldn’t coherently put together his years of video footage chronicling street art.
But Guetta becomes a successful artist, having a big show and landing on the cover of LA Weekly with his (painted by hirelings) repetitive Punk-meets-Warhol portraits of celebrities. That troubles Banksy. Warhol, the ghost who haunts this film (and, apparently, Banksy’s psyche), “repeated famous icons until they became meaningless, but he was iconic in the way he did it,” Banksy tells the camera. “But then Thierry made it really meaningless.”
Or did he? Because of its twisty, topsy-turvy, house-of-mirrors take on its subject matter, which might remind you of the structural games of Adaptation, some have wondered if Spike Jonze — a lover of street-art culture — might have had a hand in this. Others are seeing it as a scripted, art-world variation on Borat.
On whatever level you buy into the film, its structure well serves its narrative. Banksy provides funny commentary, but his voice has been altered and he is photographed hooded and surrounded by a Darth Vader-worthy blackness, even when his room is bathed in light. In footage of him performing his art, his face has been pixilated.
Guetta, however, is happy to show his chubby, mutton chop-sideburn-covered face, usually while wearing a porkpie cap and saying guileless and unintentionally hilarious things in a French accent. He seems like a John Belushi character. The film presents him as a family man making a fortune selling high-mark-up clothes at a hip L.A. store (Beck is glimpsed as a customer).
He also has an addiction to video-recording virtually every waking moment — he even shoots the inside of his refrigerator. When he discovers a cousin in France is a street artist named “Space Invader” — he affixes tile depictions of that video game’s pixilated characters to buildings — Guetta starts to follow him and other street artists.
Soon, he’s found his calling documenting a new, exciting counterculture. He’s meeting Fairey and learning his tricks. And he’s following around many others, endlessly shooting footage of their nocturnal art-making escapades atop billboards and buildings. But he’s not good at it — they have to admonish him to turn off his camera’s light.
Eventually, according to the film, Guetta is able to meet Banksy, who wants his help in selecting the best walls in Los Angeles for stenciling. Guetta, in turn, starts to film him.
As a straightforward documentation of Banksy’s ephemeral work, Exit is pretty valuable. It contains footage of his now-famous 2006 “happening” in Los Angeles, where he painted an elephant and placed it in a warehouse. Guetta also chronicles Banksy sticking an Abu Ghraib-like prisoner doll on a Disneyland ride, freaking out the tightly policed amusement park. While Banksy runs away, Guetta endures four hours of questioning by security.
The film grooves on all of this for quite a while. Then Guetta makes a startling confession. He has no idea what to do with his videotaped footage, which he has stored in a sea of boxes — the camera pans the clutter. Worse, when he eventually assembles a movie — he calls it Life Remote Control — and shows it to Banksy, the artist opines that, “Everything about it is shit. You don’t know where to start.”
That is when, according to the film’s narrative, Banksy takes over the movie and Mr. Brainwash emerges. But we realize we have been watching “the Banksy cut” of this movie all along. It just takes its time revealing itself. How much it reveals and how much there is to reveal are questions you won’t be able to easily answer. But you will know, as you exit Exit From the Gift Shop, that this Banksy is one fiendishly gifted artist. Grade: A-
Opens June 18.