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.

Marcelo Krasilcic
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“I don’t want to burst into tears on stage”: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

The cult chamber pop curmudgeon on the process of writing a song for every year of his life – and how he avoided soul-searching.

Stephin Merritt has a stye. Sitting in a hushed greenroom at London’s Barbican, he presses a hot mug of tea against his left eye and winces.

An enormous Steinway grand piano shimmers by the wall, reflecting the room’s sparse glow from an electric candle and mirror framed in fairy lights.

“Have you ever had one?” asks the 52-year-old musician, after bowing in his chair in greeting (to avoid germ contact).

No, I reply.

“Don’t.”

Set against the grandeur of his surroundings, it’s a fitting introduction to The Magnetic Fields frontman and cult chamber pop curmudgeon.

Medical complaints are just one theme in his painfully personal new album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s an epic, genre-bending variety show with a song for each year of his life, performed in two halves. The 1992 track “Weird Diseases” cites an ear condition that confines him to a soundproofed shelter from his band onstage – and means he covers his ears when applauded by the Barbican audience later that evening.

Waiting for his soundcheck in his signature brown flatcap, a beige and turquoise argyle jumper and fawn trousers (he only wears brown – it’s hard to get dirty, and matches his eyes, hair and beloved late chihuahua Irving), he’s about to perform the last show in The Magnetic Fields’ first tour in five years.

“I hate touring,” he tells me in his baritone drawl, his head cupped in one hand. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Before he returns to Hudson, New York, he’s taking a week’s holiday in London, which he first visited at 15. As he wrote in the song for 1980, “London By Jetpack”, its blossoming New Romantic scene passed him by.

“I was here at the right time, but I was not in the right places to experience it,” he sighs. “So I was doing touristy things and going to Madame Tussauds. Eating English pizza. I bought a Sherlock Holmes hat and London trenchcoat for my costume, I guess which was fun.”

Merritt went to high school in Boston, where he founded the revolving gaggle of musicians that make up The Magnetic Fields in 1989. The album 50 Song Memoir is their 11th. It’s an eccentric, dizzying journey from Merritt’s nomadic childhood of cults and communes with his bohemian mother, via a cockroach-infested ménage à trois and the 9/11 aftermath, to writing a silent movie score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But it has the regular stuff too. Break-ups, unrequited love, absent fathers and all too present ex-boyfriends. In scope and ambition, it’s similar to The Magnetic Fields’ most famous work, 69 Love Songs (what it says on the tin), but it’s the first time Merritt has written a first-person, autobiographical album.

We hear bitterness and mockery in equal measure about his beatnik upbringing (“My mama ain’t no nudist/Except around the pool/She’s a Tibetan Buddhist/Like Catholic only cool”), dark musings on the AIDS crisis (“We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”), and the final song, 2015’s “Somebody’s Fetish” – like a filthier version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” – acts as Merritt’s self-deprecating justification for finding love (“Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palate/Some spank the maid and some wank the valet”).


Stephin Merritt. Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Like the Stephen Sondheim of New York’s underground scene, or a rock ‘n’ roll Noël Coward, Merritt’s acerbic observations and camp brand of miserablisim have established him as an extraordinary lyricist over a quarter century of music-making.

Throughout the 25 albums he’s made with different bands and as a solo artist, Merritt’s words are brought to life by theatrical scores and an experimental use of instruments – but nowhere more celebrated than with The Magnetic Fields.

“I keep wondering if this album has been so well-reviewed partly because people think it would be boorish to question bearing my soul,” he says. “Because reviewing it is like reviewing a person.”

Although 50 Song Memoir seems like a highly revealing “audio-biography”, Merritt insists: “I am against soul-searching in general. I don’t believe in souls in the first place – and if I did, I don’t know how one would search them.”

He points out that these songs are more likely to provoke laughter than tears. The “psychoanalysing” by critics annoys him. “I have to perform these things and I do not want to burst into tears on stage,” he says, his eyes widening. “I don’t want to stand on stage humiliating myself and the audience.”

Merritt recalls crying while performing The Magnetic Fields’ classic ballad “The Book of Love” at the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. “That is the last time I will ever do that,” he smiles drily.

The 50 Song Memoir show is more of a revue, with wry narration by Merritt between each song, and band members playing everything from the omnichord to a saw. The singer himself sits in his pastel-hued soundproof booth, surrounded by 16 dolls houses and other trinkets from his own home – Hooty, his stuffed owl, little wooden animals, quirky instruments and “some of my lunchbox collection”. It makes him feel “weirdly” at home.


Before releasing these songs, Merritt contacted every person he names to run the lyrics by them – including his mother, who burst into tears when he played the music for her in his studio.

“What I’m saying about her is not necessarily criticism on her terms,” he says. “So she should not feel insulted, and I said that. She agreed and said in fact [she didn’t] feel insulted.”

You get the impression Merritt enjoyed the mechanics of writing 50 Song Memoir more than the emotional vulnerability. It pieces together lyrics and music he had written back in the Eighties and never released, and even a guitar solo he wrote at the age of 11. It features 100 instruments, many from his own collection. He also notes the challenge of finding rhymes for so many proper nouns. “I usually let the rhymes lead the narrative,” he says, calling them, “the automatic plot generator”.

Merritt mostly wrote this album at a couple of bars in his neighbourhood, filling around five notebooks overall. He buys expensive pads – to try and guard against losing them – which look as different from each other as possible, “in the hope I will be able to find a song or a thread more easily with visual help: ‘this was the piece of music I wrote in the flowery notebook with a robot on the cover’”.

A useful system for when he returns at the age of 100 to fulfil his vague ambition of adding another 50 songs to the piece (“I have quite a while to decide.”)

It’s soundcheck time. After admiring my rucksack (it’s brown), Merritt says goodbye without getting up, apologising again for his stye.

Never mind, perhaps we’ll hear about it in a song in 50 years’ time?

He gives a rare chuckle. “48, actually.”

The Magnetic Fields performed both halves of 50 Song Memoir at the Barbican. Listen to Stephin Merritt discussing the show on the Barbican podcast here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.