It’s not often a film review pays attention to the actual environs of the cinema the screening has been viewed in. Yet in the case of preview showings of Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop, a few words are necessary.
Press screenings have already taken place at Sundance Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival and in London, with the city hosting the former event also becoming a victim - or beneficiary - of the street artist’s prolific stencilling. Ten pieces were thrown up around Utah’s Park City while Sundance took place.
Back in London two advance screenings a day at pop-up cinema The Lambeth Palace have sold out (the last is Thursday March 4). Skim readers who read that last sentence and wondered why Banksy is showing his movie at the Archbishop of Canterbury's gaff should heed the definite article.
The Lambeth Palace is actually a network of rooms on the right-hand side of Leake Street Tunnel. The tunnel was used as a short cut by cab drivers when the Eurostar used to leave from Waterloo, back in the days before the cross-channel service left from St Pancras. In the years since, Leake Street has been covered in graffiti, much of it of a high standard if you like that sort of thing. Banksy himself has organised events down there.
At The Lambeth Palace refreshments are sold from a burnt-out ice cream van, while other Banksy pieces adorn the foyer and walls (see accompanying photos). The actual screening room is small (150 capacity), but has a certain sort of grim charm. During the screening occasional train rumbles could be felt and heard from above. A vault under the train tracks near Waterloo is an ideal spot for a guerrilla-ish event like this. For that and child abduction from the look of things.
The film itself is something of a slippery beast, as one might expect from a man who manages to evade the law and stay almost completely anonymous while simultaneously earning hundreds of thousands of pounds selling his work to patrons like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. There is obviously a question over what his work is really worth but that’s a debate for pub nights and broadsheet weekend magazine section editors. What interests London Liked is the man’s wit and audacity as much as his ideas. In many respects, once you get past the scale of his ambition and the detail in his stencilled image, he’s just like any other pleb with a marker looking for a white toilet wall.
Banksy himself would probably be the first to admit to this. The one thing the pseudo-documentary does impress upon viewers is the man’s humility and courage. Of course, any impression can be faked and any emotion manipulated in the edit, but regardless of any graffiti writer’s effrontery, it takes a special sort of nerve to paint nine separate pieces on the Israeli’s security wall and vandalise a Disneyland ride with an inflatable Guantanamo Bay detainee.
Exit Through The Gift Shop has a particularly tricky narrative. It purports to be a documentary about Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Vintage clothing store owner who lives in Los Angeles and is obsessed by documenting his life and that of everyone he meets with his video camera.
Of course, Guetta happens to be the cousin of mosaic tile-wielding street artist (Space)Invader. Guetta sees this as some sort of sign and decides to make a full-blown documentary about street art (or graffiti, to people who don’t do it, or at least don’t cock about on train hoardings at 4am doing it).
Guetta tracks down a number of venerated street artists and gets tight access through his relationship with Invader. Guetta is alleged to have met Invader in 1999 but it isn’t until 2006 he finally links up with Banksy. By this point the Bristolian is arguably the world’s biggest street art name, so the documentary has a new focus. Now Guetta follows Banksy to Disneyland, the West Bank and everywhere else worth tagging.
Eventually Banksy tells ridiculous Guetta to deliver a finished piece because Guetta has spent so much time on the film. Of course, Banksy ridicules Guetta’s finished documentary and suggests Guetta become a street artist, which he does in a matter of months, with huge success.
If this all sounds a bit thin for a feature-length documentary, even a spoof, that’s because it is. There are quite a few moments of hilarity, mostly due to Guetta’s incompetence and inarticulacy or Banksy’s wry observations. There is also impressive footage of street artists in the act.
At the end of the brilliant, high velocity pre-credit sequence one graf artist leaps up a wall and away from security guards just in time to escape. Any viewer with a pulse will want to raise a fist in appreciation and solidarity. Wherever you sit on the art/vandalism debate, it’s impossible not to watch the lengths some of these people go to and admire their efforts.
But it’s equally true, as Conservatives and cynics may suggest, that if the global mob of street artists put as much effort into, well, anything as they did scribbling on walls, they could soon come up with something worthwhile like a cure for cancer, a new version of Pet Sounds or some kind of universal torture device that only affected recruitment agents.
The film itself is worth seeing, even if it would have made a better hour-length Channel 4 documentary than a feature film. On the plus side, a knowing voiceover from Rhys Ifans throughout seems to poke more fun. It could be his Welsh accent, but Ifans does appear to be calling Thierry, “Terry,” deliberately. Ifans used to be big mates with Super Furry Animals so is no stranger to a bit of mischief. Also, while we're not really on the subject, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Roni Size contribute fitting work on the soundtrack.
The jury is out on Banksy’s directorial skills for now, but that’s partly because so little of what he presents here seems real. By all means give viewers a spoof or play with preconceptions but no one likes an out and out cheat unless they’re in on the joke.
It seems massively unlikely Thierry Guetta is for real. He could even be Banksy. After all, Guetta doesn't look too disimiliar to a man The Daily Mail claimed was him in 2008, while many of the other scenes in Exit Through The Gift Shop could have been faked and the smartness of that title alone gives an indication of the tone. Art, street art, multinational corporations and business in general are all ripe for parody and out and out piss-taking so Banksy obliges. Just don’t expect a revolution in cinema.