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?
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.
To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.
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.