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On Movies: Browse this 'Gift Shop'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 14, 2010 - Like its title, which pokes fun at how major art museums inevitably funnel visitors toward the expensive trinkets, the stimulating documentary film "Exit Through the Gift Shop" plays adroitly with the whole notion of the commercialization of contemporary art, particularly art that appears to thumb its nose at the art market.

The artist known as "Banksy," whose real name may or not be Robert Banks, is the principal subject of the first half of "Exit Through the Gift Shop." Banksy is the persistently anonymous Brit who is the reigning king of street art, which might be described as graffiti with substance -- or at least pretensions to it.

Banksy, like most street artists, is a midnight creeper - a blank wall is a challenge to him, and he doesn't like to ask permission to make his mark. In fact, breaking the law - and thus, perhaps, questioning it -- is part of his performance and adds a provocative sense of danger to it.

He is also a prankster, which doesn't necessarily detract from the seriousness of his intent. His 10-pound notes with Princess Di's image replacing that of her mother-in-law are a subversive joke. But his image of a girl being swooped aloft by a bundle of balloons becomes more than a joke when it is stenciled to a wall in the West Bank separating Israelis from Palestinians.

Not coincidentally, Banksy also sells his work, often satirical commentary on classics - for instance, "Mona Lisa" with a smiley face. He gets tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars for a piece, but he insists on maintaining an outsider stance. A few years ago, during a lucrative auction of his work, he exclaimed on his website: "I Can't Believe You Morons Actually Buy This S___." He bites the hand that feeds him, and the hand thinks it's being licked. Or it loves being bitten.

The theoretical premise of "Exit Through the Gift Shop" is that an obsessive amateur filmmaker, Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant to Los Angeles, is making a video documentary about Banksy and other street artists. They include Shepard Fairey, whose "Hope" poster of Barack Obama became an icon during the 2008 election.

We see reams of footage of Banksy (always hooded) and other street artists surreptitiously at work, with excited narration by Guetta, who thinks Banksy is the greatest thing since the baguette. Then, well into the movie, the narrative comes to an abrupt halt. When the story resumes, the rules have been changed.

We are told in the voiceover that Guetta didn't really know what he was doing as a filmmaker, and that he ended up sitting on boxes of videotape of street artists at work with no idea of how to put the pieces together into anything coherent. Banksy, his voice altered to sound as if he's somehow talking underwater, tells us that someone had to take over the project. Since the film's credits begin with the phrase, "A Banksy Film," we have to assume the director is now Banksy himself.

From that point, the movie is about Guetta - or "Mr. Brainwash," as to takes to calling himself -- and his efforts to become a rich and famous street artist. (That phrase just seems like an oxymoron.) At first, Guetta is encouraged to slap his stenciled images everywhere by Fairey and Banksy and the other street artists, but it soon becomes clear to them that they have created a monster.

Guetta, whose art is drearily derivative of Andy Warhol and of Banksy himself, and who doesn't seem to have learned the meaning of "Non!," slaps his scabrous renderings on seemingly every wall on Melrose Avenue and becomes the kind of underground LA celebrity who attracts the attention of hip movie stars like Brad Pitt. He begins selling pieces for tens of thousands of dollars.

Banksy doesn't seem very happy about Guetta's rise to fame and fortune.


Perhaps because Bansky actually has artistic talent, plus an exquisitely tuned sense of hype. He knows how to create public awareness of his work, some of which is quite interesting, while appearing to turn his back on fame. Guetta, on the other hand, has no artistic talent and he openly craves fame. He's all hype, and yet he seems to have succeeded in making himself a marketable commodity. So, people might think, maybe talent doesn't matter - maybe the only thing that matters is hype. Where does that leave Banksy?

On the other hand, Banksy is partly to blame for publicizing Guetta. He has made, or assembled, a movie that is at least half about Mister Brainwash. And one assumes Guetta is making money from the movie, along with Banksy. And the movie will probably result in Guetta selling more of his work. Ditto Banksy. And so it goes. The cliche "laughing all the way to the bank" suggests itself.

"Exit Through the Gift Shop" is an amusing if overlong look at how a lively grassroots subculture became quickly commodified, or perhaps commodified itself. Indeed, commodifaction may have been coded into the subculture from the beginning. The film raises interesting questions about the current relationship between money and art. It also may offer some insights into the raging celebrity epidemic that seems to have vectored into our culture on the wings of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, an epidemic that continues to spread at a viral rate. We can only hope that Mister Brainwash's 15 minutes of fame will soon be over.

Of course, I can say that, but here I am publicizing a movie largely about Mister Brainwash. Round and round and round it goes.

Opens Friday, May 14

'The Square’

Like countless desperate couples in countless films noirs since the 1930s, Ray and Carla are married, but not to one another. They secretly meet in a tiny apartment, fall into each other's arms and then dash home guiltily to their spouses. The adulterous couple are barely evading detection when they add greed to lust in their catalog of sins, and that's where the whole thing starts to go wrong. Pretty soon, people are dying.

"The Square," which is set in an Australian suburb on an estuary of the ocean, is effectively directed by Aussie Nash Edgerton. The former stuntman has gained some Internet celebrity with his fiendish YouTube video short "Spider," about a bickering young couple who run into more trouble on the road than they deserve.

"Spider" is being shown before "The Square" in its run at the Tivoli, and that makes sense. In both works, Edgerton skillfully treads the thin line between slapstick comedy and dangerous violence, keeping you on the edge of your seat with suspense and occasionally leaving you sputtering in surprise. In Edgerton's risk-filled universe, puppy love can be more dangerous than homicidal rage, and slipping in the mud can kill a man.

Opens Friday, May 14

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.