CALLING ALL MORONS

 Exit Through the Gift Shop, no director (now playing)

Banksy conceals his face in Exit Through the Gift Shop but makes his presence known. Photo courtesy of PDS EXIT LLC

Exit Through the Gift Shop, a mockumentary about street artists, doesn’t list a director in its credits, but there’s no mystery about who’s behind it. For one thing, it’s introduced as “A Banksy Film.” Even more persuasive evidence of Banksy’s central involvement is the adulation that’s heaped on him and his work in this otherwise cheerily cynical project.

Banksy started out tagging walls and during the height of the recent boom saw his screenprints and paintings selling for six figures in galleries and auction houses, all without ever revealing his face or his legal name. This secrecy is part of the 30-something Brit’s brand, a guarantee that although stars such as Angelina Jolie and Christina Aguilera buy his work, the brand itself remains more street than celeb.

Despite Banksy’s ostentatious anonymity, he relishes the limelight: his artistic reputation depends on continuing to shock the squares and entice the media. Hence this film, which has provided the occasion for Banksy-centric events in London and New York while pumping new excitement into the artist’s slightly shopworn mystique.

Exit’s premise is that it started out as a would-be documentary shot by an obsessive amateur filmmaker and street art fanboy, a French-born, Los-Angeles-based vintage clothing dealer named Thierry Guetta. Guetta’s cousin back in France is a graffiteur who works under the nom de street Space Invader, gluing tile depictions of characters from the popular arcade game onto city walls and traffic signs. Through Space Invader, Guetta met other well-known street artists. His enthusiasm for their work and his willingness to document and assist with their illegal hijinks won their trust, and soon Guetta had thousands of hours of video showing artists such as Swoon, Shepard Fairey, Barry McGee, and dozens of others.

But Banksy, we’re told, was the artist he most urgently wanted to capture on film, the biggest fish of all, “the piece that will finish the puzzle,” a judgment the film fervently endorses. So Guetta was thrilled when at last he won an introduction to the elusive Banksy and permission to become his filmic Boswell. Inspired, Guetta also began doing a bit of street art himself, putting up large pictures of himself on Los Angeles buildings and underpasses under the tag Mr. Brainwash.

An earnest sort whose bushy muttonchops match his 1970s shirts, Guetta turned out to be more interested in recording the artists, plus just about every other moment of his own life, than in making a finished film. When at last he did come up with a rough cut, it was a fast-paced non-narrative pot-pourri reminiscent of 1960s experimental filmmaking, or perhaps an expression of Guetta’s attention-deficit problem. We see only a few seconds of this work, titled Life Remote Control, but it looks suspiciously slick for a supposedly first-time effort.

Nevertheless Banksy (who appears with his face concealed inside a hoodie, his voice lightly distorted) professes to find it unwatchable and surmises that Guetta is either crazy or developmentally disabled. He decides to switch places: he will take over making the film and he encourages Guetta to pursue an art career.

So Guetta holds a Banksy-esque event in a huge abandoned Los Angeles television studio, selling off hundreds of Mr. Brainwash’s screenprints, sculptures, and paintings that were made by a hired team of fabricators in a pastiche of styles: Banksy and other street-art heroes thrown in a blender with Warhol, Pollock, and Rosenquist. Though derivative and slapped together—Exit Through the Gift Shop insists on this point—the show draws press attention and overflow crowds. Mr. Brainwash reportedly ends up selling a million dollars’ worth of work to eager buyers who include Madonna and other bold-faced names.

The joke, or at least one of them, is that Banksy is presented here as the voice of conservative disapproval, even though his fingerprints are all over Mr. Brainwash’s Hollywood extravaganza. “Most artists spend years perfecting their craft, developing their style,” he says, shaking his head at Mr. Brainwash’s overnight success with artwork that “look[s] a lot like everyone else’s.”

The real point of the joke, however, is Banksy’s ability to confer his star power on anything or anyone he chooses. Our scorn is directed not at Mr. Brainwash, but at the chumps who fall for his (and Banksy’s) hype. The whole story evokes one of Banksy’s more self-reflective works, a portrayal of an art auction showing eager bidders vying for a framed picture that consists of the words, “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.” 

Anyone who buys a ticket to see this “Banksy film” is by that logic a moron, too. If Guetta’s art show was an elaborate con, Exit Through the Gift Shop is likewise a layer cake of half-truths and put-ons. It tells us a story and then laughs at us for wondering how much of it is true.

Banksy once again gets to smash his cake in his customers’ faces and eat it, too. He sneers at our gullibility but simultaneously flatters us that we’re in on the scam. He claims to be kicking the audience’s ass when really he’s giving it a great big smooch.

Like all nihilists, Banksy is a ferocious control freak. That’s why everything he does casts him in the role of trickster, with the rest of the world playing the mark. That’s why he never risks sincerity but barricades himself behind superficially self-deprecating feints and concealments. That’s why his art always has an unambiguous point: he’s not leaving room for anyone else’s interpretation.

Indeed, Banksy’s art, as art, is not only realist in style but extremely traditional: like Victorian genre oils, every Banksy picture has a message, running the gamut from social-realist political (his West Bank wall paintings) to greeting-card corny (his little girl reaching for a heart-shaped balloon). He’s plausible as a contemporary artist only because of his knack for yanking the audience’s chain and his graffiti-banditti persona. Never mind that the artist-outlaw is the dustiest of bourgeois clichés; Banksy isn’t aiming at art sophisticates, but at a far broader demographic for whom his combination of desperado theatrics and comfy sentiments makes him a kind of hipster Thomas Kinkade.

The positive side of being a control freak is that Banksy knows how to get things done. Exit Through the Gift Shop is an extremely clever and well-made movie. The squad of editors who combed through Guetta’s footage found an abundance of shots of graffiti artists at work that show the wide array of techniques involved and demonstrate the thrilling combination of craft, athleticism, and criminal derring-do the form requires. The putting together of Guetta’s Los Angeles show builds with real tension, and Banksy’s sardonic humor plays well, even if it’s often at the audience’s expense.

But the movie’s relentless “I don’t care” attitude proves ultimately tiresome. Its guardedness, its adolescent pretense that it takes nothing seriously, prevents it from achieving any depth, emotional or otherwise. Exit Through the Gift Shop, like much of the art it celebrates, claims to be something of a lark, even though it clearly required vast amounts of energy and money to realize. It begs for our attention and then tells us we’re probably wasting our time. If Banksy really thinks this art stuff is all a big joke, why is he trying so hard? If “buying this shit” shows you’re a moron, then spending years creating and hustling it surely makes you a bigger moron still.

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Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.