I don’t think Thierry played by the rules, in some ways, but then…there aren’t supposed to be any rules. So I don’t really know. I mean, I used to encourage everyone I met to make art, that everyone should do it………….I don’t really do that so much anymore"
Banksy, on Thierry Guetta’s instant success as Mister Brain Wash.
This film documents the attempt made by a mad French shopkeeper to capture the street art of Banksy, and then to become a street artist himself. ‘As diverting as a motorway pile-up’ is the description on the sleeve… and I can vouch for that.
Thierry - the shopkeeper-turned-cameraman - follows graffiti artists at night in LA and elsewhere as they scale walls and hang from bridges, in their quest to comment on urban life.
The looney-tunes protagonist is a neat framing of the subject matter, as we are never sure how seriously to take any of it on any level. Is it art? Is this a movie? Is Banksy orchestrating the whole thing and creating this Sancho Panza as a figure of fun to hide behind?
In the meantime, watching this film is fun and brings the viewer into an exotic landscape of hit and run painters pursued by cops and security men.
Banksy uses stencils to avoid spending too much time on site. If there is such a thing as the Purist Wing of Stree Art - and there has to be, doesn’t there? - then this move of his probably breaks an important rule. But in Darwinian terms, it is a development that makes his survival more likely.
The second point is a tangent. Street art’s strength is its 'edginess’. It is mostly done at night. It offends the City Fathers. It supplies marginalia to contemporary urban culture. Perhaps it has a distant ancestor in the 8-9th century Pangur Ban, a poem to his cat written by an Irish monk working in an Austrian monastery scriptorium. Here, alongside the meticulously illuminated manuscript, a small white cat appears as a doodle with the following poem (translated by Robin Flower from the Gaelic):
I and Pangur Ban my cat, Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight, Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men Tis to sit with book and pen; Pangur bears me no ill will, He too plies his simple skill.
Tis a merry thing to see At our tasks how glad are we, When at home we sit and find Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray In the hero Pangur’s way; Oftentimes my keen thought set Takes a meaning in its net.
'Gainst the wall he sets his eye Full and fierce and sharp and sly; 'Gainst the wall of knowledge I All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den O how glad is Pangur then! O what gladness do I prove When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our tasks we ply, Pangur Ban, my cat, and I; In our arts we find our bliss, I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made Pangur perfect in his trade; I get wisdom day and night Turning darkness into light.
Sometimes when I hear a great song , I immediately relisten to the song - 10, 20, 100 times — until I almost actually dislike the song. After watching this film, I immediately felt compelled to rewatch it: this was a good sign. This choice partially stemmed from the fact that the film was delightful, but also because there were many questions that I still had.
The film is a recycled product. Originally, the film intended to document the street art movement. Various street artists granted an eccentric, French film-maker intimate access to their process and art. Ostensibly, the French film-maker was filming them for the purpose of creating the documentary. The street artists were interested in documenting their work, as the nature of street art is usually short-lived.
Due to an effective cocktail of loyalty, helpfulness, and harmlessness, the film-maker eventually gained access to the least accessible street artist — Banksy. He accompanied Banksy on his many projects and filmed him the whole time. When the French film-maker finally showed Banksy the documentary that he was supposed to be making, Banksy realized the person filming him for all of those months was just a person with a video camera, not an actual filmmaker. The documentary was a jumbled pastiche of images — more collage than documentary — and unwatchable. The filmmaker himself revealed that he constantly carries a camera and constantly films his entire life, but never rewatches or edits these tapes. The recording is an end in itself.
Banksy smoothly avoids the normal reaction of anger, and instead motivates the French film-maker to dabble in street-art. Banksy asks if he could have access to the tapes while the filmmaker makes his art. There is much to be learned in how Banksy diplomatically dealt with the mishap and the French filmmaker: rather than discard him or destroy the friendship, he tactfully handled the situation and turned a failure into a success. What was supposed to be a film about street artists made by a French film-maker turned into - more or less - a film about the French film-maker made by Banksy, a street artist. Thus, the first half of the movie traces this unusual mishap.
The second half proves even more unexpected: the French filmmaker becomes an overnight street-artist celebrity hosting a hyped and successful debut show and selling close to a million dollars in art work. To me, this seems like another Banksy prank: he dupes the entire established art world into buying a charlatans work. After all, it was partially his own endorsement of the French filmmaker that led to incredible publicity for his opening show.
Yet, this also seems too easy of a conclusion. The French filmmaker — Mister BrainWash (M.B.W.), as he goes by — has an elusive, indescribable skill. He did gain access to the most renowned street artists - a prized access that i am sure many filmmakers attempted to secure. He has an ability to do — to just keep going no matter how ridiculous his doings are. Moreover, he has a harmlessness that induces complicity: first from the street artists when they let him into their circles and then to the institutional art world when they accepted and celebrated his novice art. There’s a method to the madness, the saying goes, and MBW makes you wonder if madness itself is a method.
If a great art work has many layers: this film is worthy of greatness. All of the layers are Interesting and exquisitely tied to the story. The film documents the street art world, various street art works, a celebrity street art opening, various intimate sketches of street artists, this unusual Frenchman who cannot be defined, and his unbelievable journey from clothing store owner to documentary filmmaker to celebrated street artist.