I am currently writing a novel which mentions the British graffiti artist Banksy. I had some familiarity with his work, but since his art work is used as a contrast point for my main character at an important junction in the plot, I decided to do as much research as possible. Started with online info, referenced the coffee table picture book titled “Wall and Piece” and finally watched the movie “Exit Through the Gift Shop” – A movie by Banksy about graffiti art or street art (as he calls it). This blog post is a review of the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, then please do yourself a favor and stop reading this blog post and go see the movie first. I promise you, you will not be disappointed.
Ok! so imagine the Batman movie by Christopher Nolan. But, instead of a caped hero, you have one that wears an oversized hoodie and his voice although disguised is more intelligible. Just like batman he likes everything, as long as it comes in black. In place of the Joker you have a crazy French guy with side burns that make the Joker’s facial scars look attractive. In place of explosives, you have raw footage of paint bursting on the streets that will blow your mind. Similar to the Dark Knight or The Dark Knight Rises, Exit through the Gift Shop has a super exciting opening sequence that left me holding my breath. The sound track alone is so compelling as be worth seeing the movie for. Unlike the Batman movie, we never get to see our hero unmasked, we never get to meet Bruce Wayne. Banksy’s identity remains a highly guarded secret. It would be hilarious if Banksy turns out to be Richard Branson, or some other super rich English guy, who lives in a mansion where proper English butlers get employed, but I am letting my imagination run wild. After all, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary and we all know that real life is far more compelling than anything our feeble human imagination can conjure up.
The story is simple. When a peculiar French American, who calls himself Mr. Brainwash (doesn’t that moniker scream: “I want to wear a purple suit!”?), fails in his quest to make a documentary about street art; Banksy decides to switch roles with him. Banksy pretends to be a filmmaker and instructs Mr. Brainwash to become an artist. What unfolds next is nothing short of an epic journey that makes the plot twist to entrap all of Gotham’s police in the sewers seem like child’s play.
Hey! maybe Banksy is really Christopher Nolan …. that would make perfect sense since they are both British. It would also explain the eerie goodness of the movie. How did somebody who never made a movie, make a movie that is so good? The movie is so good that I have watched it 4 times within one week. I am somebody who until recently thought that graffiti, with a few rare exceptions, was nothing more than a childish impulse to get attention. By the end of the first viewing I found my fingers twitching to touch a spray can and my feet aching to run outside in the pitch dark whilst I spray paint multitudes of surfaces with random doodles. Alas, I am too chicken to follow up on that impulse. I seem to have a difficulty with breaking laws – because I am a giant whimpy conformist that lacks authentic rebellious tendencies. Sigh! Please do feel sorry for me. However I find myself looking differently on all the graffiti I encounter while walking the streets of Vancouver -even the ugly kind where the person simply scribbles their name on a wall. Where before I walked by, not giving it a second of my attention, I now stop and take a fascinated hard look. “Wow! real authentic graffiti”
After reading reviews of the movie online, there seems to be a consensus that the movie is a prank of some sort, that Banksy set up the events to play a joke on the audience … that is us. I however believe that the movie is 100% true. I have no evidence to prove such an assertion, only my intuition to guide me, to my mind, the events in the movie are so crazy, so radical, so mind blowing that they can only be true. However, all the debate about the authenticity of the movie obfuscates a far more important issue that the movie is asking us to consider. I believe that Banksy made a movie to make statement, perhaps to the world or perhaps to himself, “Here is exactly the type of an Artist I don’t want to become”. A few years ago, I saw a documentary about the Beatles and one of the band members, I can’t remember which one, said that at the height of their fame, any time they appeared on stage the audience members would scream hysterically and it didn’t matter what they sang or how well they played their music, nobody was actually is listening. This statement struck me as incredibly sad. Banksy is at a point in his career where he can scribble a random doodle on a paper napkin and somebody would try to sell it on ebay and some other fool would actually buy it. For somebody who had built his career on placing art work in the street, for free, as a gift to any passerby, this must be a painful position to be in. A creative and motivated person can handle failure and inspire himself through dark times, but it is a far harder struggle to keep himself authentic when the light shines so bright it starts to shine through. With all the hype, how can a person keep it real? It is a difficult dilemma. I found myself pondering the question: “Is success a far more terrifying experience than failure?”
My only minor criticism of the movie is the fact that despite the multitude of footage of numerous street artists, there is a single brief footage of a female street artist and serious non-existence of anybody not white. I would expect a movie about street art to be far more diverse. It is one thing, when the elite art establishment is an all white boys club, but when even the counter culture to the establishment mimics that aspect …. that is when I begin to feel depressed. But perhaps I am only exposing my own racism by assuming that Banksy is a white male, for all I know he might be an East Indian lesbian … who knows? I apologize for my narrow mindedness in advance.
All in all, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a brilliant movie that raises issues worth pondering about art, fame, hype and authenticity. It has rocketed into second place on my list of favorite movies about art.