Declan Tan revisits Banksy’s documentary on street art and the transformation of Terry Guetta into ‘Mr. Brainwash’
Pretension is a subject seemingly dear to Banksy. It’s all over his work, from his mordant stencils which inspired a boisterous surge in ‘street art’ popularity, to his grand socio-political satires plastered across the most daring of locations, Banksy takes the clichéd and turgid, shrewdly spinning it on its head.
With Exit Through The Gift Shop he has drawn up fresh targets for ridicule, and it’s telling that the original title for this documentary was How To Sell Shit To Cunts. For that is what he seems to do best and, quite ironically, these are the types who most swiftly beleaguer him.
This is particularly the case in LA. where the real subject of this film lives and gibbers. French fashion-store owner and videographer (he cannot be called a filmmaker), Thierry Guetta, has an obsession. He films everything he does without exception: his family life, his social life, even the final trails of a flushed turd. Without exception but not without reason as the film tenderly reveals and this is where the genuine vitality of the film seeps through. It is a forgiving and humane account of a man, directly involved, in the selling of crap to idiots.
After making enough money from the carnival world of fashion, selling vintage clothing to the uniformly individual fashionistas, Thierry (or Terry as he is constantly referred to) buys a video camera and simply presses ‘play’ on his life. Luckily for him, after endless home movies filling his cellar, it turns out his cousin is ubiquitous mosaic-making street artist, Space Invader. From this chance revelation Terry finally finds a worthwhile subject and, unfortunately for his understanding wife and children, he becomes an aborted father and his obsession is thrust deeper.
Shying away from nothing, Terry and the film roll on. Footage of his exploits with his cousin and crew follows; scenes that resurrect the spirit of seminal poet/artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and his SAMO tag are particularly memorable, with their midnight missions become increasingly daring. Inspired, Terry begins to create his own work and after a meeting with pop-art idol, Shephard Fairey, finally gets into contact with Banksy who encourages him further still to put on an art show under his own alias, and thus ‘Mr. Brainwash’ is born.
Perhaps the only disappointment for those expecting a ‘Banksy film about Banksy’ is that he only appears briefly. Yet this purposeful and suitably self-aware approach abides the backseat rule of documentary filmmaking. Terry becomes what Banksy could have been, the sell-out and sold-out hype machine, believing the laughable publicity he has himself created.
On the surface it is a simple, undemanding and humorous film, jammed with great moments of inadvertent brilliance, Terry’s eloquent philosophizing on all manner of subjects (“It’s like I’m playing chess. I don’t know how to play chess. But life, it’s a chess game“) is always a highlight, peppered with impressive footage punctuated by witty commentary from a hooded and distorted Banksy.
Banksy’s debut film is poignant without pretentiousness. It delivers equal focus on the snotty and easily convinced art crowd of L.A. ridiculing the farce of the art world, posing question after question on the pompous seriousness fed into meaningless things but also questioning the received wisdom that a ‘street artist’ can make it big without selling out the message.