My August 2010 film column for Maximum Rock N Roll. Originally appeared in issue 327.
LIFE REMOTE CONTROL
I always enjoy when I am walking along and unexpectedly see an entertaining or just cool piece of art where there wasn't one the day before. Like in the early morning hours when I am still half-asleep walking those few block from the BART station to work. Most people probably call it graffiti. Some hurry to clean it up so as not to bring down the neighborhood. But for others like me it may cause a smile. Then the next day, it may be gone. I am also impressed when you see something in a place that seems almost impossible to get to. I'll think about it briefly, but that's about it. That is why I was interested in seeing Exit Through The Gift Shop. I've seen the art on the streets. I've seen it in galleries. Now I want the inside story.
What I get is a little bit more than that. Exit Through The Gift Shop is mostly the story of Thierry Guetta a family man who lives in Los Angeles, owns a clothing store and loves to video tape everyone and everything. His penchant for documenting his daily life seems innocent enough, if not annoying to others, until he visits relatives in France and discovers his cousin is graffiti artist Space Invader. Space Invader creates mosaics of the characters from the video game of the same name and puts them around cities in humorous and unexpected locations. His graffiti is subtle and beautiful. Through his cousin Guetta meets other street artists and begins to film them while they go about creating their art. The result is some amazing footage that the majority of people would never get to see otherwise.
Guetta not only follows the artists around with his camera; he helps them do their work. Guetta is as fearless as any of the artists. Seemingly a matter of being in the right place at the right time Guetta meets Shepard Fairey. Guetta starts assisting Fairey around Los Angeles while continually filming. Fairey starts taking Guetta along on trips to other cities. Guetta is now so involved in documenting everything about street art that he only needs to meet the one artist everyone keeps mentioning Banksy. That ends up being easier than one would expect though just another matter of being in the right place at the right time for Guetta. Banksy needs some help in Los Angeles. Guetta is recommended so Banksy calls him.
All of this should have made a great documentary on its own. When pressured by Banksy to finish the documentary Guetta realizes he is in over his head. He has not labeled any of the hundreds of videotapes. He also doesn't know anything about putting together a film. Guetta hires an editor and they edit the footage into an unwatchable mess. Some of the resulting film Life Remote Control is shown in Exit Through The Gift Shop. It is pretty annoying, really quick cuts of unrelated bits. Banksy takes over the footage telling Guetta he should focus on making some art. He does.
Guetta transforms himself into Mr. Brainwash and tries his hand at being a street artist. He has lots of experience helping out others. His first attempt at it is strangely a picture of himself. While others seem to want to keep their identity more secretive, Mr. Brainwash puts his picture right out there. Inspired further Mr. Brainwash begins to compose bigger pieces leading up to his own show. Fortunately for our entertainment value Mr. Brainwash doesn't do anything subtly.
I am more interested in the graffiti artists at work on the street. There is a lot of good footage in Exit Through The Gift Shop. Watching Banksy work is really impressive. I am particularly awed by his success at getting a life-size inflatable Guantanamo detainee displayed at Disney World. That takes guts. I have heard stories of how crazy the security can be there. He escapes, but Guetta is questioned by security. He doesn't give up his friend and still manages to get away with the video. Banksy art is political and exciting. As the narrator says at the beginning of the film, "street art was poised to become the biggest countercultural movement since punk". Then there's Mr. Brainwash.
Mr. Brainwash's story is equally fascinating. How can someone with seemingly little original talent become a big deal in the art world? Mr. Brainwash had the ambition and wasn't afraid to go for it. His connections with Fairey and Banksy ignited the hype. Banksy gave Mr. Brainwash his advertising slogan "Mr. Brainwash is a force of nature, he's a phenomenon. And I don't mean that in a good way." It could easily be argued that what he does isn't much different from the other artists. I keep thinking about how people always say the early punks couldn't play their instruments. Then later when you really look at it or tried it yourself you realize they could. It was just what people thought and the myth somehow keeps propagating to this day. In Mr. Brainwash's case he hired other artists to do the work for him. He gave them the ideas. I think he knew what he was doing. Does he have talent or is it easy to fool people in the art world? Or is the film just painting him that way? Of course, people speculate that the whole thing is a hoax put on by Banksy himself. I don't really care because either way Exit Through The Gift Shop is an incredibly entertaining and thought provoking film. banksyfilm.com
Joe Strummer Get Up, Stand Up comes across as a eulogy for Joe Strummer. I can't decide whether that is nice or kind of creepy. The documentary features interviews with his Clash bandmates Mick Jones and Topper Headon as well as members of Strummer's last band the Mescaleros and various other friends. Each aspect of Joe Strummer's life is dissected and discussed. Everyone has a thought and a feeling that they aren't afraid to share. There is very little interview footage of Strummer himself, which gives it that feeling of sitting around reminiscing with people about someone you don't really know. I know his music, but should I really be listening in on his friends as they mourn?
The woman who runs Strummer's US website says Strummer's fans are obsessive. Therefore I figure those fans will want to see Joe Strummer Get Up, Stand Up. Besides the interviews it does have some cool live footage particularly an impromptu reunion in 2002 with Mick Jones when Strummer was playing a London benefit for striking firefighters. The two play a couple of Clash songs and Jones recalls that Strummer's jokingly insulted him after.
The DVD also comes with an audio CD compilation of interviews with Strummer from 1979 to 2001. Here Strummer gets to refute if necessary anything his friends may have said about it him on the DVD. (Pride DVD, PO Box 230, New Malden, Surrey, KT3 6YY, UK)
I am always looking for films to review. If you made one, send a copy to Carolyn Keddy, PO Box 460402, San Francisco, CA 94146-0402. If your film is playing in the San Francisco Bay Area, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will go see it.