Sunday, March 20, 2011

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)

Banksy's big score (or: 'Anyone can be Banksy')

So what's Exit Through the Gift Shop all about?

"Banksy delivers a surprisingly wry, analytical essay-film that starts out being about the DIY impulse, then becomes about what makes an artist great, and not a well-meaning wannabe." Noel Murray, The A.V. Club.

"Exit Through the Gift Shop is a sparkling documentary in which we can't trust that anything in it is true. And yet you would never call it a hoax." Richard Nilsen, The Arizona Republic.

"Exit could be a new subgenre: the prankumentary." Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times.

David Edelstein of New York Magazine puts it thusly: "Narrated by Rhys Ifans with the dryness of a dessicated toad, Exit Through the Gift Shop is both an exhilarating testament to serendipity and an appalling testament to art-world inanity."

Ty Burr of the Boston Globe explains further: "Banksy, the anonymous British street artist--or soulless graffiti punk, depending on where you sit--got so fed up with an eccentric Frenchman named Thierry Guetta following him around with a video camera for years that he (Banksy) decided to make a movie about him (Guetta) instead. Not only that, but he (Banksy) told him (Guetta) to go try his (Guetta’s) hand at street art if he loved it so damned much.

"Guetta adopts the nom de spraycan Mr. Brainwash and goes about the business of selling himself to the art-elite masses of LA. To say any more would be unfair, other than to note that the difference between those with actual talent (Banksy) and those with none (Guetta) turns out to be minimal once the hype machine cranks up."

Interesting story, but Burr raises an even more interesting possibility: "Is the movie itself a put-on? Several critics have raised the possibility that Exit Through the Gift Shop’’ is just another Banksy con game, an art-world Punk’d’ that lets him and his little pals laugh all the harder at us. I’m not buying it; for one thing, this story’s too good, too weirdly rich, to be made up. For another, the movie’s gently amused scorn lands on everyone."

Not everyone is dazzled by Banksy's bamboozling. Anthony Lane, writing for The New Yorker, sniffs "As a study in prankhood, this Banksy film can’t touch F for Fake,” Orson Welles’s 1974 movie about an art forger. Welles both conspired with his untrustworthy subject and held him at arm’s length, like a conjurer with his rabbit, and you came out dazzled by the sleight, whereas Exit Through the Gift Shop feels dangerously close to the promotion of a cult--almost, dare one say it, of a brand."

Mr. Lane has a point--mention Welles in almost any argument on film and most objections tend to sound feeble and dull. Welles' film, partly taken from footage originally shot by Francois Reichenbach, talks about art forger Elmyr de Hory, whose biographer Clifford Irving turns out to have been perpetrating his own fraud, an "authorized biography" of billionaire Howard Hughes. Elmyr asks pointed questions on what is fake and what is real, and the film itself ends with the telling of an elaborately staged (but as with the best ones, essentially simple) hoax.

Mind you, many of the film's questions about authenticity may have been inspired by Welles' own experiences, when the very authorship of his first film Citizen Kane was questioned by Pauline Kael in the infamous essay "Raising Kane." That and the fact that Welles himself was a skilled prestidigitator (look it up), and as such was a master at misdirection--put Banksy's film next to Welles, and the former does seem relatively simpleminded. 

Perhaps the most interesting response one can have to Banksy's possibly prank film is a prank article. Writes John Hargraves for the comedy website Zug: "IS GUETTA FOR REAL, THEN? Yes and no. The beginning of the film is likely accurate, until he meets (fellow graffiti artist Shepard) Fairey, who determines that Guetta means well, but will never be able to produce a finished documentary. Fairey enlists Banksy to help turn it into an actual documentary. The second half of the film, starting from when Guetta meets Banksy, is loosely scripted with the help of Fairey and Banksy. In other words: a prank."

Ah, but here's where the prank starts turning serious. "BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? Like all good art, there are a number of interpretations. During the film, Banksy refers to his painted elephant piece as a statement "that we ignore things right in front of us -- the elephant in the room." We think the thing right in front of us is the title of the freaking movie, which is never mentioned once in the film.

"Exit Through the Gift Shop is, of course, the way that art museums try to route visitors to generate additional revenue. It highlights the place where art and commerce meet, much as we see Mister Brain Wash cashing in on his newfound fame at the end. But perhaps the entire film is an attempt to build a personality that can be cashed in -- Banksy recently commented that MBW's works are selling for more than his own (although that too may be a statement intended to drive up the value of MBW's work)."

Hargraves' article is an excellent parody that got just too on-the-nose for its own good; suddenly you stop laughing and read the article solemnly for this sudden burst of insight.
Hargraves ends with yet another brilliant guess and a total inaccurate statement: "IS GUETTA ACTUALLY BANKSY? No. It would be awesome if that were true, but it's unlikely Banksy would put his identity on the line like that. But if we're wrong and it actually is Banksy, you have to admit that would be the greatest prank of all time."

Uh--not really. Two words:

If Banksy can spend an hour reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in front of an audience (That's what Banksy's whole act is missing, I think: people reacting immediately to his actions), if he can do something like Foreign Man (I'm thinking perhaps Thierry is Banksy's Foreign Man), if he can do a TV sitcom like Taxi (and better yet--have a friend like Tony Clifton star in said sitcom), if he can do anything as jaw-droppingly intricate as Andy's Carnegie Hall show, if he can dedicate his life so fully into wrestling women, if he can psych-out and freak-out and totally confuse people so thoroughly that when he dies of cancer people still aren't sure he isn't pulling their legs--then, yes, maybe I can confidently say he's pulled the greatest prank of all time.

But not before.

First published in Businessworld, 3.3.11

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