This morning, Esquire was invited to a preview screening of Exit Through The Gift Shop, the new documentary by Banksy. It took place in a temporary cinema the street artist has built in some dank railway arches next to Waterloo train station. As you would expect from him, both the site and the movie were surprising, entertaining and just a little unsettling.
The cinema, nicknamed "The Lambeth Palace" and sold as "London's darkest and dirtiest new cinema" (with an exception made for "Cineworld Edmonton"), is a 150-seater auditorium at the end of a series of gloomy bare-brick caverns, in which typical Banksy interventions have been placed: a cardboard Queen and Prince Phillip opening ceremonial velvet curtains to reveal a spray-painted Anarchy "A", a bonfire of Old Master paintings going up in fabric flames, hamster cages of animatronic hot dogs, and a bar in the form of a grungy ice cream van.
The film itself is a funny, clever and rather slippery affair. It purports to tell the story of Thierry "Terry" Guetta, a tubby, mutton-chopped LA-based Frenchman and video-camera enthusiast who, after filming the exploits of his cousin, Space Invader (who places mosaics of characters from the classic video game in unlikely spots around the world), became the accidental chronicler of the street art movement.
The film follows Thierry as he quickly acquires surprisingly willing subjects — Monsieur Andre, prolific sprayer of whiskered, winking acid faces, Shepard Fairey, the man behind the iconic red-white-and-blue Obama poster — who think he is making a documentary of their rapidly eradicated creations. One big fish, Banksy, still evades him, until a chance phone-call brings them together in LA. Thierry offers himself up to the Bristolian like a fattened worm leaping on to a hook. Sure enough though, the worm turns.
At first Thierry is an accomplice, looking out for police, recommending walls — and putting on a particularly brave performance when collared by the Mickey Mouse police in Disneyland — but it soon becomes apparent that he is no film-maker. The first cut of his documentary is a hell-ride of blistering fast edits, naff camera effects and an intangible storyline that looks like it was thrown together by an 11-year-old with advanced ADHD. In order to be alone with the raw footage, Banksy sends Thierry off on a wild goose chase to busy himself with building up his own career as a street artist: a challenge that Thierry responds to with alarming gusto.
Re-fashioning himself as "Mr Brainwash", Thierry sets about putting on a exhibition to rival Banksy's breakthrough LA show (the one with the elephant). Mr Brainwash, though, has no fans, no experience, and arguably, no talent. His task is essentially a monstrous confidence trick: using an amalgamation of the styles, ideas and techniques he has observed in the coterie of street artists he has filmed for so long to convince the LA public and the art world at large that a startling new talent has arrived. We'll leave you to find out if it worked.
Though Exit Through The Gift Shop is credited as a Banksy film, it does of course have two directorial forces behind it — the footage is largely shot by Thierry, and in some ways it is set up as the film Thierry would have made if he'd known what the bejesus he was doing. However, if Banksy is really the creator of the movie (and he himself appears as an interviewee, albeit in darkened-hood-and-vocodered form), then is it not a little hubristic that he allows himself to be presented as the holy grail of Thierry's quest?
Or could Thierry himself be a Banksy creation, the clownish personification of the corruption and commercialisation of street art, who decides not to spend years abseiling down railway bridges in the middle of the night to skip straight to the bit where collogen-plumped art buyers pay thousands for any scrappy lino print of Elvis holding a Fisher Price machine gun you can throw at them? It does all make a certain kind of sense, and would be in keeping with the artist's ingenuity, wry sense of humour and the unlikely role he has assumed — willingly or not — as a latterday moralist. Naturally though, Banksy won't be drawn.
Exit Through The Gift Shop will be show twice daily at The Lambeth Palace, Leake Street, SE1, from now until 1 March. The film goes on general release on 5 March. Tickets will be available at banksy.co.uk