He is Britain's newest national treasure: but he presumably won't be accepting a TV viewers' award from Ant and Dec any time soon, or making libertarian interventions in the smoking debate, or writing an annual Christmas Diary for the London Review of Books or posing alongside his mum with his CBE outside Buckingham Palace in his grey topper and chimp mask. Perhaps his mum would have to wear a chimp mask as well. Street artist, situationist and public-space japester Banksy is famed for his snogging coppers, simpering apes and for debunking Israel's new West Bank barrier with graffiti. Now he takes his career of radical cheek into the cinema with a wacky new "documentary", being shown this week in the director's own pop-up cinema in an underpass in London's Waterloo before moving on to more conventional locations.
Like many of his graffitoed images, it's a kind of cinematic trompe l'oeil. There have been notable hoax-oriented films in the recent past: such as The Blair Witch Project, Borat and the complete works of Lars von Trier. Exit Through the Gift Shop is in this genial tradition. Orson Welles made F for Fake; Banksy has made W for Windup. As a documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop is as about as reliable and structurally sound as that house-front with the strategically placed window that falls on top of Buster Keaton. As entertainment, though, it works very well.
Introducing it at the Berlin film festival last month – he appeared on video with his face in darkness – the artist himself cheerfully declared he hoped that it would do for street art what The Karate Kid did for martial arts. Like karate, street art is more difficult than it looks, particularly the trick of making a living from it, maintaining a combat-ready crew of studio assistants, and all the time persuading an ever-widening circle of professional acquaintance to keep the secret of your anonymity.
What the film does, or purports to do, is take a sideways look at Banksy and the new explosion of street artists, particularly in Los Angeles. The practitioners, at the outset of their careers at least, were unpaid graffiti-outlaws, pulling off daring and often dangerous visual stunts for the sheer hell of it: people like Shepard Fairey, who incessantly replicated his Andre the Giant image on the sides of buildings, a fat staring man over the single word "Obey". Fairey became conventionally celebrated for his Barack Obama Hope poster.
At the centre of the film is the apparent friendship between Banksy and one of his biggest fans, one Thierry Guetta, an LA-based Frenchman with a lucrative retro clothing business and a passion for making videos. Guetta got fascinated in the LA street art scene, followed the artists around and shot miles of unusable video in the hope of making a documentary. Eventually he seems to have made the acquaintance of Banksy himself, filming his "Guantánamo" stunt in the precincts of Disneyland: propping up an orange-jumpsuited life-sized doll near a ride.
With pixelated tongue in blanked-out cheek, Banksy claims that he persuaded Guetta not to make his own film, but to be the star of this one, and then to be an artist himself. In no time, Guetta is somehow producing hundreds of suspiciously accomplished Warhol-Banksy pop art-style knockoffs for a colossal Los Angeles show under his new street-art name "Mr Brainwash". Well, Thierry Guetta may well exist – but at the mention of his Mr Brainwash output, you may feel a strange tugging sensation on your leg. This could be the most startling debutant in the art scene since novelist William Boyd told us all about the neglected genius Nat Tate – but Mr Brainwash's works are available for purchase, which is more than I can say for Nat Tate.
You're under no compunction to take the film seriously: but it does offer an insight, of a teasingly incomplete and semi-fictionalised sort, into Banksy's working life. We see his helpers carry away a London telephone box, take it to pieces in his workshop, replace the wackily twisted result in its original position and film the response from passersby. Nobody scratches their head or strokes their chin and wonders if it is "art" or if its creator might have "sold out". They just laugh their heads off. They enjoy it: it is absolutely hilarious and this, to my perhaps naive and untutored eye, is the most compelling argument in favour of Banksy and in favour of this chaotic film.
The same goes for Banksy's Diana tenners: he shows a cardboard box full of real-looking £10 notes with Princess Diana's face on instead of the Queen's. These things could get him arrested for forgery. Like Mr Brainwash, they are inspired counterfeits. Perhaps the point of Banksy's art is that it inhales the wild spirit of forgery: his work makes free with brand identities and the symbols of authority, it replicates them, debunks and devalues them, it is a form of benign subversion. And he could be an important artist or just a silly fad – either way, in the street and with this film, he's providing pleasure while he lasts.
Tomorrrow is Christmas Eve – or maybe more accurately, tomorrow night is Christmas Eve. Some among us will open their presents at that juncture, while others will wait until Christmas itself.
For Lake Effect essayist Elaine Maly, the timing of the gifts isn’t really the issue:
A french cooking class with a world renowned chef, a stunning haute couture dress, and a sleek black neglige that made me feel like a Victoria Secrets model. These are the gifts my oh so in love husband bestowed on me during the early years of our marriage. Tom knew me so well —my size, my style, my passions.
As we settled into married life, the gifts were still wonderful but gradually became less inspired—a food processor, a terry cloth bathrobe, a jam of the month club membership. The same was true on my end. “How many watches does a guy need?” I thought.
At around year 12, I suggested that we stop getting each other gifts and consider our annual winter vacation our Christmas gift to each other. Tom agreed. Or so I thought. Instead, he went underground. Plotting and planning super secret surprise gifts. I’d check in again and again. “We’re not getting each other anything this year, right?”
“Right,” he’d say.
So imagine my surprise that Christmas, when with our family gathered around the decorated tree, he disappeared into the basement and emerged with a giant wrapped rectangle for me. “You said no gifts!” I complained weakly even though I was completely delighted. “I know,” he said, “but this is something I really want you to have.” He sat close to me as I carefully pulled back the red and white snow flake paper to expose the limited edition numbered and autographed print from renowned artist Jacob Lawrence whom we got to meet in person the year before he died, Elmer-glued into the slightly too large $4.99 poster frame from Target.
“You shouldn’t have,” was all I could say as I tried to keep my face composed knowing that the rescue of this precious piece of art was going to cost us hundreds.
A few years later, when menopause had fully taken up residence in my body as a roaring coal furnace, Tom bought me long-sleeved quilted pajamas. “Why don’t you ever wear them?” he wondered a few weeks later.
Another year, we had been doing some holiday shopping at a big box discount store in the aisle of special gift ideas for people who have everything—electric foot massagers, whopper choppers, and fondue sets—the kind of gifts that get used once or twice and then take up valuable real estate in the back of a closet. There was also something called an instant hot tub that you put into your bathtub to make it like a jacuzzi. I saw Tom looking at it wistfully. He knows how much I enjoy a hot tub.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I said. “Do not get this for me. Listen to me. I do not want it. And I am not trying to use reverse psychology hoping that you’ll get it for me anyway. I really do not want this.”
So, I was not surprised one little bit at the family gift giving gathering when he presented me with a brick shaped box wrapped in Goofy Santa paper with a big green bow. “Wow! I wonder what he got you this year,” said my excited mother-in-law who was sitting cozy with me on the love seat.
I channeled my inner actress, tore off the paper and exclaimed, “Oh how wonderful! Now I can finally turn our ordinary bath tub into a whirl pool hot tub.”
After everyone left, Tom said, “That was a good performance. I’ll take it back tomorrow.”
“From now on, no gifts, right?” I said, relieved that the message had finally gotten through.
This year he gave me the Ellen Degeneris Dance CD.
Essayist Elaine Maly is the 2015 winner of the Wisconsin Writers Association’s humor writing contest. She writes about her life as a native Milwaukeean at her website.
Essayist Elaine Maly reads "Christmas Gifts"