He's painted trompe l'oeil visions on walls in Palestine, reconfigured phone boxes in the U.K., turned live elephants pink in L.A. and created robotic hot dogs for a horrifying, vegan-endorsed "pet store" exhibit in Greenwich Village. But with his new documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, British street-art superstar Banksy serves up his most irreverent work yet. The film depicts the crazy rise of film-and-art dabbler Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, whose unlikely success Banksy jump-started.
If Exit Through the Gift Shop, narrated by actor Rhys Ifans, is technically flawed, the documentary is nevertheless a savvy testament to the concept of DIY filmmaking, both a valuable recorded history of a scene and an awesome romp through perilous L.A. with the world's most admired street artists, allowing viewers to experience life underground in the wee hours of the morning. Through the eyes of Guetta, a native Frenchman who inadvertently stumbled into the world of graffiti art, we witness wheat-paste postering at death-defying heights, intricate stenciling on rooftops and the inevitable run-ins with police.
While most fans of graffiti and street art could watch these scenarios play out for the film's entire 90 minutes, Banksy takes a 180-degree turn — perhaps out of respect for a general audience — to focus on Guetta, a self-professed filmmaker obsessed with capturing absolutely everything on tape, no matter how mundane. In Exit, Guetta comes off as a bumbling, Inspector Clouseau–like self-promoter who pastes posters of his face all over L.A.
In the late '90s, at a family reunion in France, Guetta realized that he is a cousin of mosaic artist Space Invader, and began documenting the burgeoning street-art scene worldwide for his own film. Over the past decade, Guetta and his camera had unrestricted access to street art's most prolific talents, including the scene's anonymous cult figure, Banksy.
After being the subject of Guetta's lens for nearly 10 years, Banksy realized the potential of Guetta's footage. He then suggested that Guetta hand over his tapes and instead occupy himself with making his own art, perhaps even staging a show in L.A. Guetta's subsequent hiring of some 20 assistants to produce a major exhibition culminated in the now-infamous June 2008 show in Hollywood that catapulted him to celebrity status.
Meanwhile, Banksy and friends began work on Exit using Guetta's footage. And in Exit, we glimpse what Guetta's documentary might have looked like: an unwatchable, crosscut, random, self-promotional mishmash called Life Remote Control, part '80s-style music video, part schizophrenic nightmare. After first seeing Guetta's rough cut, Banksy recalls in Exit, "I didn't know if I believed he was a filmmaker or a mental patient with a camera."
Asked via e-mail how he maintained his anonymity while shooting Exit, Banksy responds, "The film was made by a very small team. It would have been even smaller if the editors didn't keep having mental breakdowns. They went through over 10,000 hours of Thierry's tapes and got literally seconds of usable footage out of it."
When not attempting to make art and/or films, Thierry Guetta is a happy-go-lucky businessman who lives in L.A. with his wife and children. Despite that fact, members of the British press, used to Banksy's pranks, believe the film is a hoax. Fans also wonder, posting on the Internet long exchanges about the possibility that Banksy and Mr. Brainwash are the same person. Will Exit Through the Gift Shop dispel these rumors?
"It's more shocking than that," Banksy tells the Weekly, "because every bit of it's true."
Guetta may have spent years stalking Banksy with his camera, but by the end of the film, it's difficult to decide who's more obsessed with whom.
"I continue to find the rise of Mr. Brainwash absolutely fascinating," Banksy quips. "His art sells for roughly double what mine does these days. Gore Vidal once wrote that 'Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a little bit of me dies.' I'd amend that to 'Every time one of my friends borrows my ideas, mounts a huge art show and becomes a millionaire celebrity,' a little bit of me wants him dead."
Whatever the case, there's something undeniably L.A. about the success of Mr. Brainwash.
"Thierry is the living embodiment of the American dream," Banksy says. "America's capacity to be infuriating is matched only by its capacity to reinvent itself into something brilliant."
Los Angeles plays a huge role in Exit, and the Weekly makes a cameo appearance or two. When asked about what director Werner Herzog has referred to as the "magic" of L.A., Banksy responds: "In Los Angeles, you can rise without a trace. There's a moment in the film where you see a dude joining the back of the line at an art show. He says he doesn't know why he's there, but he joins it anyway. The first time I saw that, I laughed — it was the emperor's new clothes, the triumph of hype and hot air.
"But now I've thought about it. I love that guy — he's prepared to give anything a shot, to try something new. Cities like New York and London might pride themselves on being more hard-bitten and cynical than Tinseltown, but you have to ask yourself: What's actually so great about that?"
In Exit, Shepard Fairey, art-world icon and Echo Park resident, is less generous with regard to Guetta's celebrity. Fairey tells the Weekly, "Mr. Brainwash is all public perception, and that's what gets him off the hook. He couldn't get away with what he does if the public didn't buy into it, and that says a lot about popular culture, new technology and perhaps the art world in general, which is what Banksy's getting at. If it wasn't for Thierry's glorious lack of self-awareness — and his public's for that matter — he wouldn't be where he is today. How can you begrudge him?
"Yet it was an injustice that the only street-art cover story the Weekly ever chose to do was the one on his show. Pop art was never a bad word to me until I saw Thierry's show in L.A. It was then I found the line between what looks cool but has no meaning and a piece that maybe continues a deeper conversation. It's helped me not to make those mistakes in my own work, the cheap shots, ever again. That being said, Thierry's my friend. He's a nice person and a hard worker. Don't be annoyed by him. Make him irrelevant, make something better."
Parallel to the entertaining story line of the unnatural rise of Mr. Brainwash, and notwithstanding its tag, "The World's First Street Art Disaster Movie," Exit is an invaluable celluloid retrospective of Banksy's prolific career, including his greatest hits: iconic rat stencils, the uninvited interjection of paintings into institutional collections, a Guantanamo prisoner placed in a diorama at Disneyland and, of course, the painted elephant that raised so many eyebrows here during his 2006 blockbuster show, "Barely Legal." Despite the auction price for his original work hitting a record high of more than $1.8 million in 2008 (for a charity collaboration with Damien Hirst titled "Keep It Spotless"), Banksy may still wrestle with some of the same "is it art?" questions that a personality like Mr. Brainwash faces. But he remains unconcerned.
"I'm not so interested in convincing people in the art world that what I do is 'art,' " Banksy says. "I'm more bothered about convincing people in the graffiti community that what I do is really vandalism."
Now that he can add filmmaking to his repertoire, Banksy is modest yet proud of his celluloid accomplishment. "I think the film is unique. Every decent counterculture gets turned into a commodity and served back over the counter. This film shows that process unfolding in real time, told in the words of someone partly responsible for screwing it up in the first place."
Despite the veil of mandatory secrecy that surrounds Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop enjoyed hugely successful, albeit last-minute screenings at both Sundance and the Berlinale. Audiences hoping to finally catch a glimpse of the artist on the red carpet were treated only to a seat in the theaters, some new art (on the streets of Telluride, since preserved with Plexiglas) and, in Berlin, a video comment by the director shrouded in a black hoodie, as he appears in the film. What's in store for L.A.?
"Normally I like to take over a run-down warehouse and do something on my own terms," Banksy says, "but the plan for the American premiere is to surprise everyone by not doing anything very surprising. Controversially, I'll be screening the film in a movie theater with proper seats and a popcorn stall. I've found that asking people to sit in the dark for 90 minutes on salvaged old couches that smell of pee can be a bit too 'authentic.' The one thing you have going for you when you paint graffiti is complete control over the means of distribution. With a film, you have none. Movie theaters are very conservative institutions, but they're a hard thing to bypass when you've made a feature film."
Why is it still important to remain anonymous at this point?
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"Charlie Chaplin used to say, 'Once I talk, I'm like any other comic.' I figure I'd follow this lead. I walk like him anyway."
Exit Through the Gift Shop is an extraordinary, tongue-in-cheek glimpse at an art culture, an anomalous love letter to Los Angeles (a city with "heat, beautiful teeth and fresh food, everything we English hate," says Banksy), and the compelling journey of an enigmatic artist — maybe two. Is the film to be viewed as a straight documentary? Or is it, as many believe, some kind of elaborate joke?
Even one of Banksy's closest allies, his former London gallerist Steve Lazarides, isn't quite certain, as he makes clear in Exit: "The joke? The joke is on, hmm ... I don't even know that there is a joke, really."
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP opens at ArcLight Hollywood and the Landmark in West L.A. on April 16.