L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
The Arclight Theater in Hollywood feels like an AMC trapped in an Opera House’s body. It has bathroom attendants, assigned seating, a domed atrium and sweeping staircases (it has escalators too, but they’re hidden behind a partition). The oversized ticket I shared with four friends even promised no previews, though we found that to be false when we walked in to Theater 10 and saw Leonardo DiCaprio spread across the screen, backlit by a warped cityscape in the trailer for Inception.
For all of its flourishes, the Arclight still smells of popcorn, displays a standard spattering of glossy marquees and devotes a wall to screen-printed celebrity mugshots. It’s barely pretentious and not the least bit exclusive; it’s just trying hard to be memorable in the movie-making heartland, and I don’t envy its position. The Arclight’s guileless ambition is what makes it an ideal venue for Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film more interesting for its lapses into ingenuity than its bravado.
“Los Angeles might be the perfect city for Banksy,” wrote The Art Newspaper the morning after Exit’s L.A. premiere. “It’s got the glam that he loves to tarnish, a hardcore base of graffiti art supporters and it readily embraces spectacle.” But calling Banksy—the perpetually hooded artist famous for timely, pithy tagging—a tarnisher of glam and L.A. an embracer of spectacle throws two clichés together in a slapdash marriage that, if it lasts, will never be that fertile. You can only go so far as a cultural meta-critic. And would it be so wrong if Los Angeles appeals to Banksy because he has friends here and L.A. has a proliferation of tag-worthy surfaces?
Exit Through the Gift Shop is, according to its promoters, “The world’s first Street Art disaster movie.” Narrated by Rhys Ifan, whose melodically factual voice recalls Anthony’s Hopkins’ in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, the film tells of Frenchman Thierry Guetta, a shop owner with untamed sideburns, a penchant for overpricing merchandise in his L.A. boutique, and a video fetish. He records everything he sees and when he encounters his first tagger, a cousin of his named Space Invader, he becomes enamored by Street Art’s borderline lawlessness. With camera in tow, Guetta shadows Shepard Fairey, Swoon and others. The artists like him; he fawns over their work, stays out all night, and purports to be a documentarian, though it’s pretty clear to Exit audiences he’s just an over-eager guy with a camera. After Guetta hears of a British artist who has painted the West Bank barrier and infiltrated the Natural History Museum, he resolves to get this Banksy on tape. Through a string of fortuitous events, Guetta does record Banksy and Banksy, charmed by Guetta’s earnestness and thinking a documentary will benefit his work, invites Guetta into his notoriously exclusive world.
Banksy realizes he’s been had when he encourages Guetta to finish the documentary and discovers Guetta, clueless as a filmmaker, has left endless hours of footage unwatched, unedited, and unorganized. Banksy, suggesting Guetta give filming a break and try artmaking, endeavors to make the film himself. The plot thickens when Guetta does make art, labeling himself Mr. Brainwash, renting a warehouse, and manufacturing a meaningless spectacle of faux-Warhols, over-sized aluminum spray cans and defaced prints from art history. This surprises and later offends the artists he’s shadowed. The film Banksy makes, the one we see, uses much of Guetta’s footage to essentially apologize for the disaster of Mr. Brainwash.
Critics have suggested that Exit may be fiction. But seeing the film as a sophisticated hoax both sells Banksy short and gives him too much credit. More Philip Petit than Marcel Duchamp, Banksy thrives, not on transcendent cultural critique, but on being in places he’s not supposed to be and saying what he’s not supposed to say. The desire to see him as someone who looks in on culture from the outside or to accuse him of selling out because he profits from his irreverent visual aphorisms, doesn’t have as much to do with Banksy as with our desire to believe that we can extricate ourselves from what we are.
Taken at face value, Exit gives a tender glimpse into human failure. Banksy built a reputation on being inaccessible. Then he let his guard down. Guetta accessed him, misunderstood him, misdefined him, and ultimately tried to be him in a hackneyed way. So Banksy took himself back, making a film that’s part attack, but mostly fleshed out, funny clarification. “I used to encourage everyone to make art,” Banksy says near the film’s ending. “I don’t do that so much anymore.”