Exit Through the Gift Shop – Banksy’s “street art disaster movie”: Exposé or wind-up?

Exit Through the Gift Shop - the elusive Banksy appears on screen

What do you make of Banksy? Artist or vandal? A genius with a spray can or an over-hyped sell-out? The creator of witty and subversive art or someone whose work only “looks dazzlingly clever to idiots”?  Whatever your view of Britain’s most famous street artist, prepare to be teased, provoked and possibly enraged by the release of his first movie, tagged “the world’s first street art disaster movie”.

Exit Through the Gift Shop had its first public showing as the surprise screening at Sundance last month and got a further outing in Berlin. I saw the movie this week – after some typically Banksian secrecy and subterfuge – in the “Lambeth Palace”, a makeshift 150-seat cinema that Banksy has created in an abandoned rail tunnel underneath Waterloo station.

Reached from the graffiti-bedaubed Leake Street underpass, the venue will host two public screenings a day from Thursday 25th February to Thursday 4th March, before the film goes on general release up and down the country from Friday 5th March.

Entering the dank and grimy Lambeth Palace, you’re greeted by cut-outs of the Queen and Prince Philip opening ceremonial curtains to reveal a spray-painted Anarchy “A”. Nearby, a bonfire of Old Master paintings blazes merrily away and a battered ice cream van dispenses popcorn and drinks. Banksy’s publicity describes the venue as London’s “darkest and dirtiest cinema – *Cineworld Edmonton not included”.

Can the film itself – a furtive tour d’horizon of the street art scene – live up to this setting? And will it unveil Banksy himself?

Exit Through the Gift Shop - the elusive Banksy appears on screen in his street-art documentary

Well the ever-elusive Banksy does appear on camera, his features hidden and his voice electronically distorted (though you can still hear the Bristolian burr), but he never emerges from the shadows. Instead, the movie revolves around a figure who may or may not be another Banksy jape – a tubby, mustachioed Frenchman who owns a vintage clothing store in LA.

An obsessive video-cam chronicler of the city’s street artists, Thierry Guetta hooks up with Banksy when the latter visits LA prior to his 2008 Barely Legal show. Indeed, he’s on hand when Banksy stages his notorious Disneyland stunt: depositing a life-size replica of a hooded Guantanamo Bay inmate in the theme park. Guetta films the mission and ends up getting nabbed and interrogated by the park’s Mickey Mouse security team.

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With the street art scene taking off, now is the time for Guetta to turn his thousands of hours of footage into the definitive graffiti documentary. The film turns out to be rubbish. (Guetta’s film-within-the-film, that is, called by him Life Remote Control.) Appalled, Banksy advises Guetta to put down his camera and start making street art himself, little realising that he is creating a monster. Guetta becomes an overnight sensation. Styling himself MBW or Mr Brainwash, he stages a wildly successful LA show; his works – sub-Banksian, Warholier-than-thou – sell for thousands of dollars; he designs an album cover for Madonna.

On screen, with his bushy sideburns and Sancho Panza paunch, Guetta comes across as a bit of a buffoon. Is he for real? Is his art any good? Does it matter, when it sells? Watching Exit, the questions only proliferate. Is the film a spiteful put-down of an upstart rival or a cheeky exposé of art world hype? Or simply a wind-up?

On my way out, a publicist-cum-usherette hands me a spray can. (“We’ve got an usherette, except she sells spray paint instead of cigarettes,” is Banksy’s gloss on the gimmick. “I think graffiti writing might actually be more socially acceptable than smoking these days.”) I add my tag to the Leake Street tunnel and turn to see a critic from the Daily Telegraph doing the same.

On general release from Friday 5th March.

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8 Responses to Exit Through the Gift Shop – Banksy’s “street art disaster movie”: Exposé or wind-up?

  1. anne rambler says:

    Wind up! That’s what makes him edgy and exciting. ” The Lambeth Palace”, I just love it. Sounds like he excited you Jason, who cares about the movie, it’s what goes with it. By the way will we recognise your tag?

  2. Jason Best says:

    I think you’ll have to peer long and hard to spot it. Good luck!

  3. Wax says:

    Street art is a poor man’s graffiti.

  4. Adele says:

    There is a Banksy stencil in Archway roundabout (Highgate side) of Death Holding a Scythe. It always makes me laugh when I go past, kind of in the way Max von Sydow makes me laugh as Death in The Seventh Seal. And it always reminds me to look both ways before I cross the road…

  5. kultboi says:

    Lucky you for bagging a seat in the film event of 2010…. unfortunately for us mere mortals its fully booked out… probably by the very people it makes fun of – wannabe warhols and their city boy patrons.

  6. Heidi says:

    Love bansky… And yeah, maybe that makes me a moron, but do I care. There’s what I think might be a fake Bansky on the side of a local chemist shop in Essex Road which has two kids saluting a Tesco bag. In fact I kind of hope it is fake, cos they’ve stuck a plastic screen over it!! Why? To protect it from graffiti artists. How hilarious is that.

    And Jason, I certainly hope you reported that Daily Telegraph wag!!

  7. TMA1 says:

    Banksy has grown on me a little. His concepts are quite good but it’s a shame his drawing couldn’t be a little better. I’m sure he has the skill, he just can’t be arsed which just adds to his irreverence I suppose. Talking of irreverence there is a famous Banksy in Essex Road, Islington, London. It’s the one with the children flying a Tesco plastic bag as if it was a flag. Somebody has placed a protective Perspex cover over it as some other graffiti artists had painted over part of it. So somebody restored the work and secured this Perspex sheet to protect it.

    Now if that’s not ironic I don’t what is and I’m sure Banksy would be laughing his head off if he knew.

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