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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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