Exit Through The Gift Shop
UK/USA, 2009, 86 min
Banksy is renowned for producing iconic street art and fiercely guarding his identity to avoid prosecution. It’s surprising then, that he was willing to be filmed by an eccentric French shopowner named Thierry Guetta. Exit Through The Gift Shop traces Thierry’s attempts to capture the world of graffiti art in compelling detail, following many of the best-known vandals at work on the streets. We trace Thierry’s efforts to locate and befriend Banksy, only to have the artist turn the camera back on its owner – with spectacular results. An incendiary true story of low-level criminality, companionship and incompetence.
When the reality of documentary cinema seems almost too close to the paradisiacal fluff of fiction – in dramatic plot, character arch, cunning humour, self-reflection, life lesson, and general musings on how the subject reflects life and life reflects the subject in an ironic equilibrium – chances are it could be fiction, or at the very least, fictionalized.
And if it cannot be proved artifice, then let such astute filmmaking be considered the result of cosmic law, where all elements align to provide – in the case of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop – the most comprehensive character study of an artist. In turn, it tells the most consummate story of the nature of art itself. Forgery or fact? Symbolized value or devalued symbols? The same principles apply to subversive street-art creation and filmmaking alike.If the final product feels good, and is both intellectual and amusing, then who’s going to make a fuss? So how does the world’s most infamous and incognito artist make a documentary about himself? By making “a film about a man who tried to make a film about me,” says Banksy.
Exit Through the Gift Shop by pseudonymous UK street artist and situationist Banksy – whose iconic and ludicrous work rewrites the brands, slogans and symbols of cultural and ethical ideologies – is indeed rather a portrait of street-art fan and witness, Thierry Guetta. The film uses an accumulation of almost ten years of ‘behind-the-scenes’ and ‘on-therooftop’ B-roll footage of illegal street artists, shot entirely by Guetta himself. We watch as with cunning slapstick comedy, fumbling public-space invaders become black-clad ninjas, turning the precarious streets of Los Angeles into satirical gallery spaces.
Through thierry’s camcorder, we’re allowed access to the Banksy studio where it’s clear that Banksy is indeed not just one man, but a collective of construction workers and studio assistants. It’s also Guetta’s relationship to Banksy, and the way in which his history plays out in the film, which lights the stage for a larger debate about street-art intentions, the making of an art star, and whether or not the art world is conspiring to play an epic joke on its consumers and critics.
Urban art has now, with the help of artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey – who’s seen in the film sliding down rooftops with Guetta close at his heels – seeped out from the street and onto gallery walls, selling for up to millions of dollars. But Exit Through the Gift Shop removes itself from the serious sell-out debate, and uses the concept of art stars as humorous comic characters – like Guetta whose status, it is assumed in the film, will rise and fall like any commodity within popular culture. But why attack only Guetta? As we listen to Banksy poke fun at his friend and colleague, we might remember that Banksy is also, most likely, a wealthy ‘activist’ who has stenciled his political depictions on the gallery walls of celebritystrewn openings, and sold for copious amounts.
But Banksy’s film, just like his art, is about the intention, not about the status it creates for the artist. In order for Banksy to make a film about his life and work, while leaving his true identity shrouded in ambiguity, he needed to fill a mould – to cast a character that could reflect the intentions of street art by giving us its opposite. Enter Thierry Guetta. Impeccably following the arch of the Idiot Savant, Thierry grows tired of his role as cameraman and decides to hit the streets himself, trading camera and video tape for broomstick and glue bucket. In no time at all, Thierry’s street stencils are fast-tracked into a monstrous egoextravaganza art exhibition, brimming with hundreds of his mash-up pop art pieces, ripping off the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Hopper and even Banksy himself.
Thierry succeeds in pulling off one highly anticipated opening, baptizing himself Mr. Brainwash. He even buys an endorsement from Banksy, who offers the tagline – “Mr. Brainwash is a force of nature, he’s a phenomenon. And I don’t mean that in a good way.” Beautifully literal, without a hint of irony.
At this point, Exit Through the Gift Shop reaches a pinnacle of absurdity. The art show preparations are among the most gut-busting moments, as Thierry turns from friendly street art witness to a full-blown art star. Mr. Brainwash’s long-awaited opening Life is Beautiful, is packed with hundreds of gawking eyes and dripping mouths. The people love it. So does it matter that Mr. Brainwash is, from what the film tells us, a fraud? And is he a fraud because his intentions are fame-driven? Do the intentions really change the art? Is the profundity lost, or did it ever exist in the mind of the artist in first place? Perhaps it doesn’t matter.
The most honest moment in the entire film occurs when one Banksy cohort tries to explain the ‘joke’ of Mr. Brainwash. But his sentence tapers off when he recognizes that perhaps there is no joke, and if there is one, he doesn’t get it. Exit Through the Gift Shop – or the incredible story of how the world’s greatest street art movie was never made – is literally too wise, too filmic, and far too self-aware to be made by any amateur. Banksy has claimed that he should take no credit as director, which adds another layer of mystery to the Banksy opus. And as it stands, that’s perfectly fine with anyone who cares to watch.