'Banksy Does New York': Hamptons Review

Courtesy of HBO
Destined to make a perfect future double-bill with 'Exit Through the Gift Shop'

Chris Moukarbel's documentary chronicles the reclusive British artist's "Better Out Than In" project on the streets of New York City

For one weirdly intoxicating month last October, you couldn't set foot in New York City without running into a Banksy.

At least that's how it seemed, as the city got caught up in a Banksy craze spurred by the reclusive, anonymous British street artist's "Better Out Than In" project in which he surreptitiously placed artworks throughout the metropolis, one for each day of the month. The results are chronicled in Chris Moukarbel's entertaining crowdsourced documentary Banksy Does New York, which recently received its world premiere at the Hamptons Film Festival before its premiere on HBO on Nov. 17.

Banksy, who cheekily declared himself NYC's "artist in residence," delivered a steady stream of artworks of various kinds, resulting in a virtual scavenger hunt as eager art lovers, spurred by cryptic clues posted on his website, scoured the city in search of the valuable treasures.

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Many of the pieces, placed on both public and private property, proved quite ephemeral as they were often vandalized, painted over, removed or stolen. Not everyone was enthused about the art invasion, with Mayor Bloomberg declaring them criminal acts. Interviewed for the film, the art critic for the New York Observer declares them "dumb … lowest-common-denominator art."

But as chronicled here, they frequently display an anarchic wit, from the roaming delivery truck filled with stuffed animals seemingly headed for the slaughterhouse to the image of a dog urinating on a fire hydrant with a thought bubble over the hydrant's head announcing, "You complete me."

Even while the city's police officers were attempting to catch him and arrest him for vandalism, a self-styled crew dubbed the "Wet Wipe Gang" worked to restore defaced pieces and some street people took it upon themselves to charge $5 to passers-by wanting a look. Some graffiti artists looked at him as a poseur, while more than a few people took advantage of the opportunities to remove the art and sell it for a profit. As one critic points out, when Banksy defaces property, its value only goes up.

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One of the film's most amusing segments documents the appearance of a pop-up stand outside Central Park at which an elderly man was selling unlabeled Banksy drawings for $60 a pop. He went hours without unloading a single piece, but eventually amassed a grand total for the day of $420. Meanwhile, the lucky buyers found themselves in possession of artworks worth up to $250,000 apiece.

Another brilliant stunt involved the anonymous purchase of a painting from a thrift store which was later returned, altered to depict a Nazi soldier staring wistfully at a nature scene, signed and redubbed "The Banality of the Banality of Evil." The store, whose proceeds go to benefit the homeless, sold it in an online auction for $615,000.  

A stone sculpture of a sphinx erected in Queens was hastily removed by several enterprising residents, who sold it to a Southampton art gallery whose vaguely sinister Teutonic owner says that it's his life's dream to be in business with the artist himself.

Whatever one thinks of Banksy or his work, there's no denying that he's a brilliant provocateur whose satirical digs at the absurdities of the current art scene have struck a deep chord. This documentary, as rough-hewn as many of the creations it spotlights, adds merry fuel to the critical fire.

Production companies: Matador Content, Permanent Wave, Home Box Office
Director: Chris Moukarbel
Producers: Chris Moukarbel, Jack Turner
Executive producer: Sheila Nevins
Directors of photography: Mai Iskander, Karim Raoul
Editor: Jennifer Harrington

No rating, 70 minutes