Monday, January 24, 2011

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy 2010)

I'd read very little about Exit Through the Gift Shop (which opens with "A Banksy Film" but otherwise has no credited director though everybody seems to be assigning that to Banksy). So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the film wasn't really what I expected since such expectations after all were based on almost nothing. Somehow I had the impression that it plays with "reality" and documentary form and would fit in with F for Fake, some of Kiarostami or Herzog's work, or even on a different track James Benning or Waking Life. In short I didn't expect what is almost an A&E Biography-styled narrative though to be fair some of this (such as the portentous voice-over) seems to be tongue-in-cheek.

Looking up reviews afterwards what I'd picked up is the idea that some of the film might be a hoax, something that pretty much every reviewer does (even me). As Andrew O'Hehir at Salon aptly put it, "One can only wish the New York Times had viewed the Bush administration's call to war with half the caution with which it has approached Exit Through the Gift Shop, the new documentary made (or presided over, or something) by the mysterious British street artist Banksy." Much of the events in the film can be verified independently so most reviewers tend to answer eventually with a shrug and comment that what's real doesn't much matter because after all that's the point.

But at least some of it does matter. If the Sotheby's auctions for instance are staged then some of the target of art world commercialism is manipulated too much to be effective. If that's really not Banksy talking then can we assume he's speaking Banksy's opinions? There are some oddities within the film. Much of the first half is Guetta's tapes of street artists but at one point there's a shot of him in action so who made that? If Guetta wasn't yet involved who filmed Banksy at the West Bank when he claimed they weren't documenting his work? Though filmed over a decade the people don't always seem to change that much. Why does Banksy become so definite about how bad Mr Brainwash is? Why does he knock Guetta's original film when he would be more likely to applaud something unconventional? For that matter the DVD includes a 15-minute "lawyer's edit" of the original that seems suspiciously like this was only made to be included in Exit itself.

In a way none of this matters. It would have been simple for another person to be taping; somebody familiar with the area remarked that one of the decade-old shots must be that old since it doesn't show some recent buildings; etc. The entire thing could be completely legit but what seems plausible (though "likely" is hard to judge) is that Brainwash was actually a Banksy et al project so Exit is more or less documenting a hoax without itself being a hoax (if such a distinction is possible).

So having written all this I suppose Exit does in some way play with the idea of what is real though it's notable that this only comes from extra-textual information. Watching the film there's no tip-off even if moments do feel a bit out of place or staged but then documentaries have been doing that as long as there have been documentaries. What to me is more problematic is the subject. The street artists are mostly of minor interest, more on the level of craft than art. Really, thousands of images of Andre the Giant's face with the word "obey"? Gosh that's really sticking it to our consumerist society! This may be why the film's interviewees continually mention how subversive this is but only once notes that by the time the film opens this stuff was about two decades old. Banksy turns out to be something almost completely different - imaginative, inventive, sometimes ambiguous and often with what can only be described as a real aesthetic charge. (In fact it wouldn't be too surprising if "Banksy" turned out eventually to be a collective name rather than an individual's.) Which is yet another reason the film's final half hour focusing on the sub-Warhol Brainwash and done in reality show will-he-succeed-or-not mode becomes so tedious.

It's a commonplace idea that today we're in a society of images and shifting realities so maybe that's why so many reviewers are interpreting Exit as being somehow about those processes. But if so the film is fairly toothless. The quote that's often included in reviews comes near the end: "At the same time, the joke's on.... Well, I'm not sure who the joke's on. I'm not even sure there is a joke." This is presented as an insight but I feel it should be taken at face value - there's just not as much here as most of us would have liked to see.