Whether by design or happenstance, Exit Through the Gift Shop possesses preternaturally sharp humor and a scathing critique of the art/commercialism dichotomy. Is all of it real? Hell, is any of it real?
It’s hard not to let incredulity creep in after viewing the film, which is presented like a straightforward documentary, but whether this is a case of “reality is stranger than fiction” or a pitch-perfect hoax that has even The Academy fooled (it’s on the shortlist for best docs) is anybody’s guess.
What is certain is that the film presents an irresistible story, told by street artist Banksy, who appears in silhouette with his voice modified to keep his identity secret. Initially, Banksy was supposed to be featured in a documentary about street art, but in just one of the many incredible twists of fate in the film, he wrests the responsibility away from would-be filmmaker Thierry Guetta — potentially mentally unstable and potentially in on the joke from the beginning — and turns the focus of the film on Guetta himself.
As the film begins, we’re introduced to Guetta, a French-born clothing store owner in Los Angeles, who is attached at the wrist to a video camera, filming anything and everything, often to the irritation of those around him. Guetta’s cousin is Invader, a street artist who pastes tile versions of Space Invaders characters all over the world, and this is Guetta’s entry point into the world of street art.
Claiming he is going to make a documentary about street art, Guetta films hours upon hours of footage of his cousin and gets introduced to other artists, including Shepard Fairey, who he films as well. But it soon becomes clear that Guetta likely has no intention of doing anything with the footage he’s capturing. An astonishing sequence shows a storage room piled high with bins full of used tapes that are only crudely organized or labeled.
And yet, Guetta persists in filming, eventually getting hooked up with Banksy in London, who more or less forces Guetta to produce something with the footage. The result is a faux-avant garde disaster Guetta titles Life Remote Control. At this point, Banksy takes control of the film, and encourages Guetta to pursue his own street art.
Back in Los Angeles, Guetts takes on the moniker of Mr. Brainwash and sets out to create a massive street art show. The only problem? He hires a bunch of assistants to create the “art” for him with a few Photoshop layers, and the results are mostly aped versions of Banksy or Fairey originals.
And yet, the public eats it up, with massive lines at the door and breathless fans proclaiming the genius of Mr. Brainwash, much to the chagrin of the actual street artists in the film.
So is any of it real? Certainly the events portrayed in the film actually happened, but it’s not difficult to conceive of Mr. Brainwash as a massive performance art demonstration concocted by Banksy himself. At times, Guetta appears to be too much of a character not to be … well, a character.
Either way, Exit Through the Gift Shop is an enormously entertaining film, guided by Rhys Ifans’ ironic narration and Bansky’s dry wit, which can’t be suppressed by the fake robo-voice we hear him as.
The film is critical of a public for which art is a status symbol more than an aesthetic achievement, but it also slyly critiques the hype that surrounds the street art culture — and not just that of faux-artists like Mr. Brainwash.
There’s a cynically amused tone that the film possesses even when portraying one of Banksy’s art shows, where celebrities like Brad Pitt and Jude Law are glimpsed in the crowd. Bansky’s not complaining that his legally dubious work is up on gallery walls, but you better believe he finds the intersection of vandalism, art, commerce and cultural hipness to be one rife with irony.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of the best documentaries/non-documentaries of the year.
The DVD includes a 13-minute featurette on the evolution of Banksy’s art with interviews from a number of graffiti artists, five short deleted scenes, footage from the Cans Festival and the “lawyer’s edit” of Life Remote Control, which originally ran 90 minutes but has been cut to 15 here. Trust me, that’s more than enough.
Also included in the package are postcards that feature a Banksy original and a Mr. Brainwash effort, several stickers and a pair of 2D viewing glasses (“For maximum viewing pleasure, simply put on glasses, start DVD and look out the window.”)