Gilbey on Film: rebel? Banksy doesn't know the meaning of the word

The graffiti artist's new film is more PR than politics.

This is a week to consider absent friends. Some are absent after goofing around in class -- that would be Nicolas Chartier, one of the producers of The Hurt Locker, who was barred from attending the Oscars ceremony after circulating emails badmouthing rival nominees.

Others are absent through no fault of their own -- such as Jafar Panahi, the great Iranian director who has moved freely between appealing whimsy (The White Balloon), barely suppressed outrage (The Circle) and gruelling realism (Crimson Gold, which is screening at this month's Human Rights Watch film festival). His last film, Offside, about the attempts of female football supporters to attend matches from which they are banned, even showed traces of Dario Fo-like satire.

Panahi was arrested last week in Iran, along with his wife and daughter, in an attempt to subdue advocates of the opposition Green movement. This is not the first time the director's movements have been inhibited. US immigration once kept him shackled in a cell at JFK Airport after he refused to be photographed and fingerprinted; he was also arrested last summer in Iran, and had his passport revoked. (Panahi was refused permission to participate in a forum on Iranian cinema at this year's Berlin Film Festival.)

Then there are those whose apparent absence is really only a form of self-promotion. The graffiti artist Banksy appears in his own film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, in which he delivers his self-consciously deadpan, would-be enigmatic musings in an electronically filtered voice that might be an attempt to make him into the street-punk Stephen Hawking.

Watching Banksy wallowing in ostentatious anonymity, I can't have been the only audience member to be reminded of Peter Cook as Greta Garbo, driving through crowded streets in a convertible and barking into a loudhailer: "I vant to be alone."

Like most people who cultivate their own disappearance, from teenage runaways to washed-up Reggie Perrins, Banksy wants most of all to be seen, loved and craved. Despite expending most of his energy preserving his anonymity, his worst nightmare would be to go unseen.

Time for a rebrand

By removing himself from view, Banksy hopes to stoke our interest in him. Even his harshest critic couldn't claim he has failed. But if his goal was to become "like a robe pontifical,/Ne'er seen but wonder'd at", then where does he go from here?

Some have seen Exit Through the Gift Shop as another piece in the Banksy puzzle, adding nothing to our sum of knowledge about him, but it looks to me more like a bid for survival, a rebranding, a cry from the sidelines of "Yoo-hoo! I'm still here! You haven't forgotten me, have you?"

The film purports to tell the story of Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles who documents the street art movement and becomes a facilitator for Banksy. After botching the film he was supposed to be making about street art, Guetta branches out into art himself, staging a hopelessly naive and overambitious exhibition.

I wouldn't claim to know who Guetta is, or if he even exists. (My closest contact with street art is the Neighbourhood Watch sticker in my living-room window. And even that was left there by the previous tenant.) And the whiff of mockumentary around the film actively discourages our serious engagement; Guetta's resemblance to the comedian Rob Schneider makes me particularly sceptical.

But authenticity isn't the issue. What bothers me about Exit Through the Gift Shop is that it requires nothing of the audience except complicity. There's already something dopey about the largely unquestioning, middle-class deification of Banksy, and the film plays up to that.

At no point does it interrogate Banksy's work or motives, and the artist's own self-satisfied pronouncements explicitly deter us from doing so: this is a film that upholds Banksy's integrity by discrediting Guetta. It sits in judgement, and invites us to do the same.

Sure, the Frenchman comes across as a buffoon and a bandwagon-chaser, but the viewers who laugh obsequiously at Banksy's sly put-downs of him shouldn't believe themselves to be anything but tiny cogs in the Banksy PR machine.

As I watched the film, my thoughts kept drifting back to Panahi, and the way in which his work persuades us to interrogate our place in society. It's a far cry from Exit Through the Gift Shop, which leaves us only with a choice between being spoilsports or saps.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit