Monday, April 12, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop

I attended a premiere of the Banksy documentary in Williamsburg last night with a certain type of film in mind - I was pretty far off.

I had expected an exploration of the elusive and brilliant street artist, Banksy, including a chronicle of his works, techniques and philosophy. I also hoped for a good dose of my other favorite street artist, Shepard Fairey. Well, I got both, and then a whole lot more.

The film begins with the story of a quirky French immigrant named Thierry Guetta. Thierry is presented as a sort of bumbling fool - the narrator speaks whimsically about his childlike fascination with video cameras and his interviews are (intentionally) edited so that most of his statements devolve into repetitious gibberish. Thierry became obsessed with the street art subculture and began filming the likes of Invader and Shepard Fairey, while the most famous artist of them all, Banksy, remained shrouded in mystery. Through a series of coincidences, Thierry finally meets Banksy and earns his trust. Guetta amasses thousands and thousands of hours of video footage and his subjects reasonably assume that he is planning to create some sort of grand documentary about their work. As it turns out, Guetta is simply insane and has no intention of creating a film, or even using or labeling the footage - it just sits in storage in his garage.

At Banksy's urging, Guetta takes a stab at creating a documentary - the result is an abysmal, unwatchable movie. Banksy tells Guetta not to give up and to continue to pursue a art. Guetta changes his name to Mister Brainwash and embarks on an ambitious program to churn out a career's worth of pop art in just a few short months.

MBW (Mister Brainwash) sells all of his possessions, hires a crew of designers, builders and artists, and directs them in the production of his debut exhibition. He is starting from scratch. Brainwash turns out to be a mad genius of sorts - a master of hype and a savvy businessman, he essentially derives a formula for pop/street art success and executes it with great skill. In just a short time, he has created enough art, and more importantly, buzz, to launch his own highly successful show in LA. MBW blows up, makes a cool million dollars from the sale of his hastily produced art, and earns the ire of Shepard Fairey, Banksy and the rest of the street art scene in the process.

The film begins as a chronicle of the medium, but then flips to a takedown of Mister Brainwash. An interesting twist because the rise of Brainwash calls into question the nature of art, commercialism, pop culture, etc. Is MBW an artist? A savvy businessman? A delusional genius? Or all of the above?

I urge you to check out the film when it comes to your area. The movie is shot with terrific pacing and every interview is useful. Of course, the works on display by Shepard Fairey and Banksy are truly amazing - I have an even deeper admiration for them both.

Also, I waited in line a couple of months ago when Mister Brainwash's ICONS show opened in NYC. I was once the proud owner of two of his signed prints. Now I'm not so sure how I feel about them.

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