Monday, January 31, 2011


by Drew Martin

I had at English professor in college, for a post-WWI American literature course, who told us (1,000 students in an auditorium) that whenever he read a book, he started with the final chapter and then flipped back to the beginning so that he could understand how the novel was constructed. Perhaps this is unthinkable to people who take spoiler alerts seriously. Personally, the ending of a movie is always the most disappointing part because I have no capacity for fictional/edited suspense.

Several people recently told me I "had to watch" Banksy's film, Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010). Every one of them said I would love it and all of them said they were not going to tell me the ending. That alone, made me not want to see it.

I watched the movie this past weekend on Hulu. Having now viewed it and recalling how these acquaintances spoke about it, I don't think any of them got the real joke.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a mockumentary, not as obvious as Borat (2006) and This is Spinal Tap (1984), more like Mail Order Wife (2003). It is a collaboration between Banksy and Shepard Fairey, telling a story of street art through an eccentric character, a bumbling and hapless filmmaker - turned art superstar Thierry Guetta a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash (MBW). Guetta is Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, wrapped up into the body of Panza.

In the spirit of Duchamp, who could turn a urinal upside down and display it in a show as "fountain", the ménage à trois, Banksy-Fairey-MBW try to deepen the game of modern art.

I find the What is art? and What is reality? themes in art and film not very interesting; asking the wrong questions. They are hackneyed gimmicks that function something like graffiti; superficial distractions. Apparently, the public and media gobbled this film up when it was released. Instead of getting into the silly ping-pong match of whether or not the movie is a prank, the media should have played along with it and made up interviews with Banksy, but unlike the artist, they try to follow some guidelines.

I am glad I saw this film because it helped me make sense of two other nonsensical films I tried not to watch in the past week, Inception with Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page, and (much, much worse) Knight and Day with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Both fall into the What is reality? category. Inception is about extracting information from people in their dream worlds, with the ultimate goal of the much harder task of planting an idea (inception) that will subconsciously be carried out in the real world. The challenging aspect of either circumstance is navigating different levels; dreams within dreams. One of its flaws is that it is so close to The Matrix (1999) that it was painful to watch. Knight and Day is a rogue agent film (because the good guys are actually bad guys, etc.) and is simply a waste of time.

While I found Inception predictable and oversaturated with effects and stunts, I like how it unintentionally serves as a model for how an audience needs to be baited, little by little, into the murky depths of farce. This is done by creating a trail of morsels, which lead into more and more unbelievable situations.

Of course, the first level for any kind of cinematic deception happens when the audience sits down in front of a screen. From that point on, all reality is lost.

It is not hard for me to draw a comparison between Cruise and Banksy in that their careers are based on maintaining a continual deception. They both need a fantastic role to define themselves. Everyone ventures into gray areas now and again, but the healthy person will retreat to his or her "back to the basics" self. It takes a peculiar individual to live a life behind a character, and is not someone we should probably pay too much attention to.