Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Banksy Exits the Scene, Groucho Marx Caught Red-Handed: Exit Through the Gift Shop's review

I hate art, the art world, and everything that comes of it.

Wait, no. I love it. I couldn't live without it. Images, and their subsequent appreciation, are what give my life color.

This is going to be rough.

Knee-deep in the final throes of my own film project, I decided I should go to one Sundance film. The Festival Spotlight Surprise. Banksy's "Exit Through the Gift Shop" is an incredibly relevant, coherent epilogue to the recent street-art explosion. it is inspiring and cringe-worthy in all the right places.

The story's about Banksy, really it is. He pops in at the beginning, and while disguised his mannerisms and modes of speech are spot-on with the images he's become so famous for. I began to think how nice it'd be to have Banksy narrate any documentary, wry and subversive and witty the whole time. But the bulk of the film hinges around and introduces the life-story of an insane man, Thierry Guetta. Somehow, in a boggling implausibility, this goofy Frenchman transplanted to LA falls squarely in the center of the birth of street art as we know it. Even more implausibly, he is allowed to film, ad-nausem and with no real focus or direction, the lives of the artists. People who have operated anonymously under fear of self-destruction for years. Luckily for everyone involved, Thierry films compulsively, like an addict, and never touches his tapes. By and large, before this film, they never saw the light of day.

What unfolds is a beautiful, playful origin story. The biggest names of a movement that inspired me and everyone else are shown young and in action, simply mobbing the streets with their art before anyone cared about it. A short list of the top billers includes Space Invader, Shepard Fairey, Buffmonster, and Neckface. Everyone, even Banksy, show their roots in nonchalant brazen tactics that awe and inspire. Footage from Banky's incredible feats on the Israeli-Palestine Wall and in the Tate gallery are preceded by lucky/adventuresome clips of Space Invader's first trip to LA. The art and the actions people took to create it are fresh, and you're boggled by the quantity and caliber of the artists recorded. Guetta as a filmmaker, however, is astonishingly silly, essentially an insane tourist/dad/inspector clueseau amalgamation who would never be suspected as the holder of vaults of uncensored graff images. He just.... Keeps. Rolling. Endless pans, snap zooms, wandering focuses, it's total home movie stuff, but the subject happens to be the holiest of holies for anyone who grew up stenciling, wheat pasting, and crouching down to look at whimsical images in the street. By being unprofessional and more than a little crazy, Guetta was there for it all.

What Banksy undertook to make it happen is possibly the most ambitious logging and capturing process of all time. He selected the best from a lifetime of footage, crates upon crates, ROOMS of DV tapes, and edited them into a killer story. I loved the gaudy, reverential unfolding of Banksy as a mystery creature, the film's narrator and music trumping him up, the rarest form of celebrity. In an early climatic scene, Guetta finally gets to film Banksy at work, and if you care about this stuff it actually was astonishing. Banksy preparing to go out bombing in LA has the feel of a sacred rite, seeing the cut negatives of his all-too-iconic images early on is... remarkable.

As Banksy's fame peaks and works begin to sell for staggering figures the story shifts to focus entirely on Guetta, who becomes the doomed mascot of the commercial takeover of street art. It starts simply: Guetta, who is crazy, takes a stab at editing his mountains of footage, at Banksy's behest. The resulting film (if Exit Through the Gift Shop's portrayal of it is to be believed) is not unlike a Nine Inch Nails music video: flashy, adrenaline-filled, and incoherently unwatchable. Banksy watches this movie, and does what most of my friends do when they see something I've made. They take a deep breath, say "It's... Good," and suggest I take a vacation. Banksy takes over the footage, and suggests Guetta tries doing some art.

Herein, story goes incredibly sour. Guetta, like any poor creative soul, has confidence in his ideas and strives to put out some art. But unlike most any other artist, he doesn't give it *any* forethought. He just does it. At around the time that Fairey and Banksy are international art superstars, Guetta gets together some talented people and starts churning out the most derivative, predictable mishmash of images pop-art and graphic art could ever produce.

And don't get me wrong here, I get contemporary art. I understand that most successful artists have people working under them, and I know that most images we see (especially in art that finds its roots in popular culture) are derivative of something. But Guetta's work is worse than that. It's like Warhol, but without any twist. Stuff like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Sensing a trend here?

It's absolute, barefaced, emptiness. It's shameless borrowing. Further, it's made off the backs of people who worked hard at what they do, and the rewards go to the boss. Mr. Brainwash, Guetta's newly minted pseudo-subversive pseudonym, jumps straight into Warhol/Hurst style factory work, employing talented artists and essentially profiting on their work. Not to mention every image he's touched is a copycat, a vapid mockery of the movement that tolerated him. In short, it's the perfect 21st century art world commodity. The beauty of the film is that in the face of this horrible, horrible stuff, the market goes for it. Collectors, gallery-goers, newspapers, everyone raves over the hype Guetta creates, and he cashes out, to the tune of $1 Million, on his first show.

In the wake of it I feel sick. Banksy steps back onto stage, a bit sheepishly, with a "sorry about that," and the film closes. But Banksy couldn't have made a better 'exit.' Right as his fame and value rises to a peak, he shows us what a sham that value system is. If the next big thing after Banksy is a bumbling LA jerk who is rewarded for not paying his dues and making crap, what's the big deal with being a 'big thing?' As Banksy sneaks out a side door, we're left mocking the serious Groucho Marx mask that he leaves in his place: Thierry Guetta, the unfortunate doppelganger to Banksy's success and career as an artist. Ultimately the film serves as Banksy's cautionary tale: Love art, love street art, enjoy it for what it is and be inspired by it. But beware putting extraordinary cultural and monetary value on something that wasn't made to sell. There is an end result to that path, and it's Mr. Brainwash. "They say Art is dead, but here it is!" Says a diva-esque LA girl at Guetta's opening, all facsimile with her base make-up and movie-star glasses. Damn right sweetheart, that's art, right there in front of you. Try to get out before it starts to stink.

Later published by 15 Bytes.


Esther said...

Awesome review Davey!

psychenaut said...

Here's SLUG's review as contrast:

Esther said...

Davey's review is definitely more personal and detailed, but you've gotta understand that Angela and those guys have been screening EVERY single Sundance AND Slamdance film, trying to get the reviews up asap.

psychenaut said...

I understand. That's why it's such a great contrast.

_Salty_Jazz said...

The difference is that Davey was not writing a review. Davey was describing an experience. Some dude named Roland Barthes once said, "criticism always deals with the texts of pleasure, never the texts of bliss." Davey was smiling while he wrote this. Angela (although a great person) was doing her job.

psychenaut said...

Just to be absolutely clear, by contrast I mean no disrespect to either parties. I've known Angela for a long time, have worked with her, and she has my highest respect. And as I've mentioned in two separate places already, I am VERY impressed with what Davey wrote here. Contrasting two different approaches to the same subject matter, I think, reveals strengths and weaknesses that all parties can benefit from.

Davey D said...

Well hell, I'm glad you guys liked it! :) Austin makes me blush, and it's fun to have people care about my writing. I was toying with the idea of getting this review published, as well.

Anonymous said...

awesome review, i'm glad i took the time to read it. will definitely try to steal this movie.

Davey D said...

Hey thanks! I'm glad you like it. The movie's worth having in yer collection, I'm looking forward to seeing it again.

Unknown said...

Excellent review. You said eloquently exactly how I felt coming out of the theater. I just saw a premier of it in San Diego. It's opening at the theater tomorrow. I was having a hard time explaining to a friend why Guetta is, for lack of better phrasing, bad.

me: watching the film, you're like "this guy sucks"
bl: really??
bl: so the movie does him a raw deal?

And then I found your blog, which really explained why he sucks. hahah, better than I could over chat at least. So I sent the link along.

But really, your review is exactly how I feel about the whole thing. Even though I didn't know tons about it, I've been interested in street art for a few years. But to see this guy essentially take a giant shit over everything that the other artist have done. It's infuriating. The Banksy aspect of the movie makes me want to go out there and create. The Guetta aspect makes me want to run the other way screaming.

blah blah blah, point is, you said this all perfectly. Thanks for posting!


Davey D said...

thanks! I'm really glad you felt it accurate. I'm glad the movie's being shown all around as well, I want to get a copy when it comes out. It's so clever exactly because there are so many contrasting emotions and depictions to parse through. One thing I wonder, though: Banksy's art is really good at being tongue-in-cheek manipulative, is his craftiness in the movie similar? Did he just crucify Guetta for something else?

Unknown said...

The local review of it brought that up too.
"Anonymity is not a trustworthy persona for a documentarist, especially one with a prior reputation, a prior rap sheet, as a prankster."
But the writer also said, "Fairey, a/k/a Space Invader," so, eh...

The thing is, in the footage of MBW, he says something about not wanting to let Banksy down. The guy incriminates himself for having the wrong intentions with this, and it came off as a little sociopathic. His work is clearly rip off stuff. He's a copy-cat artist with insider's knowledge. At the show he's getting constantly distracted by anything but the work. You can see his heart's not really in it. And I don't think the pained faces of the people that were working for him were staged.
When Banksy's talking about it at the end, he says, "he broke all the rules.... But there are no rules..." I think that the manipulation comes in that you think you're seeing a Banksy documentary, and you're really not. It's a lesson that nothing is sacred.

Anonymous said...

I just saw the film. You guys are all wrong.

Sure Banksy makes it a send up of MBW but its what the people want.

Guetta is a genius of marketing and manipulating images, along with the public. He comes off as the village idiot, but don't forget that the village idiot used to be considered someone with prophetic powers. His genuineness and indifference to what critics think may just be his genius. He is an outsider making it inside, an everyman with a remote.

He had the focus and guts to follow Shepard Fairey, and all the others around, and then befriend Banksy, winning his trust. No small achievement in itself... he spent years observing and participating in the sociological process of street art, so in a way he has paid his dues.

MBW is there, he made it, and will leave his mark. I don't think he will go away anytime soon. Its the guilelessness of it, and if anything, in the long run, its completely ironic that the film makes Banksy and others looks like snobs and asses for making Guetta seem nothing more than the village idiot.

Hey, MBW already knew how to take the clothing biz and make $5000 of "designer" clothes out of a $50 bundle of leftover clothes. Guetta is no idiot. Rather, he is guileless genius, working raw, without all the baggage of art history to weigh him down. I'm looking forward to see what he can bring forward.