(2010) director Banksy
What’s enigmatic about Exit Through the Gift Shop is basically how much of it is real. It’s a documentary made by famed British street artist Banksy, whose true identity is still unconfirmed after nearly two decades in public art, and whose art itself employs humor, pranks, and irony to a great extent. So, in many ways, the thinking goes, “If it’s made by Banksy, there has to be a trick punchline somewhere, right?”
In a year when another notable purported “documentary” was released about celebrity Joaquin Phoenix, I’m Still Here (2010) (and next up on my viewing calendar), questioning the verity of a form which by its very nomenclature suggests objectivity has become part of an ongoing conundrum around these “documents”. Interestingly, it’s the facts that come out afterward (in the case of I’m Still Here), in which Phoenix and director Casey Affleck openly admitted to it being a hoax, in which “truth” comes through. Who knows about Exit Through the Gift Shop? The speculations continue.
Oddly enough, the film itself isn’t so radical. In fact, Banksy constructs the story in a straight-forward, linear way. Exit Through the Gift Shop is Banksy’s film about Thierry Guetta, and he introduces Guetta from the very beginning from his birth in France to his move to Los Angeles where he ran a vintage clothing store. Guetta is a manic character to begin with, but once he gets his hands on a camera, he never sets it down or shuts it off. He’s all over the place. And when by a chance discovery that a cousin of his is a famous street artist called Invader, he slips into a rabbit hole, becoming obsessed with street art and street artists, following them around filming their work and abetting them.
Guetta, camera in hand constantly, developed the notion that he was documenting a underground movement, and that his footage would eventually become a documentary about that. He meets most of the major players in the scene, spending a great deal of time with Shepard Fairey in particular. Another chance situation lands him the opportunity to assist the secretive Banksy, whose work had international recognition. And after assisting in a guerilla installation at Disneyland and outwitting the Disneyland police, he earns Banksy’s trust, and Banksy allows him to film him working as well.
But as street art begins to turn into mainstream commercial success, Banksy urges Guetta to finish his film, so that the world can see what street art is really about. What emerges is a 90 minute long conniption fit of fast-paced cutting and ADHD blithering nonsense. Banksy realizes that Guetta was not a film-maker. So, Banksy offers to take the footage and make something himself, and in order to get Guetta out of his hair, he suggests that Guetta go make some art of his own.
Only, Guetta takes this notion beyond anything Banksy could imagine, creating a street art persona called Mr. Brainwash, only unlike the regular renegade street artists who require stealth and anonymity to do their work, Mr. Brainwash is very public and creates his own huge art show. Guetta employs dozens of artists and artisans to concoct a huge installation of his own and cash in as a celebrity himself.
The story of how Banksy “turned the tables” on Guetta, the film-maker becoming the subject of the film, is the ironic twist, if the story really started in the middle. But the real twists, Guetta’s own generic-looking pop art, co-opted styles from Andy Warhol to Banksy, and the title of the film, suggesting the commercialism at the end of the art show suggests to me that for all his pranksterism, Banksy has really constructed a pretty straight-forward telling of the documentary, it’s just that the subject matter is particularly strange and intriguing, and really, quite a fascinating yarn.
As far as the veracity of the story depicted, I’m leaning on the side of believing that it is pretty much how he depicts it. Banksy himself appears on camera in a hooded sweatshirt and cast in shadow, with his voice distorted to speak for himself. But the film also has a third person narrator, in Rhys Ifans, who discusses Banksy “objectively”. So, like I said, who knows?
It’s a cool film however you slice it, and as time goes by, facts come out, it may become one of the quite fascinating comments on art, fame, and commercialism.