The less you know about Exit through the Gift Shop before you see it, the more you’ll appreciate it. Of course, if you go into the film expecting to learn anything about its purported subject, you’ll probably be bitterly disappointed.
Directed by guerrilla artist Banksy, the film is, ostensibly, both a behind the scenes look at the reclusive Englishman’s creative process and a tribute to street art, as seen via video footage shot by an obsessive Frenchman named Thierry Guetta. Guetta, introduced to Banksy’s work by Andre the Giant iconographer (and Obama/Hope poster designer) Shepard Fairey, was entrusted with production of a documentary about the underground art movement. Guetta, who had no previous film-making experience, promptly delivered a (supposedly) unwatchable ninety-minute montage of hyper-kinetic cut-ups, here represented by brief excerpts that actually look pretty interesting.
Enter Banksy, who decides he’s the guy to memorialize the movement on film (the result, of course, being the mock/documentary you’re now reading about). He dismisses Guetta from the assignment (why Banksy has authority to do so isn’t made clear), and his former protégé promptly abandons film-making in favor of art installations and painting. Changing his name to Mr. Brainwash, Guetta begins a tireless effort to create a mountainous body of work which will take the art world by storm—and earn himself a pretty penny in the process.
About two-thirds of the way into Exit through the Gift Shop, one begins to get the definite impression that the whole thing is an enormous and elaborate prank. Guetta’s compulsive need to videotape his entire life seems reasonably believable — others do the same thing on YouTube every day — and his entrée into the world of street art isn’t too big a stretch. But when he abandons his camera and dumps his archive of raw video footage on Banksy and then hires a team of craftspeople to help him assemble a massive exhibit in a Los Angeles warehouse, credulity begins to stretch beyond the bounds of reason.
Banksy appears at odd moments throughout his film — in shadow and with voice distorted — while Guetta, complete with 19th-century facial hair and outrageous Franglais accent, shares center stage with Rhys Ifans’ wry narration. Footage of street artists at work, as well as many of Banksy’s most memorable creations — including boxes of counterfeit Sterling (with Princess Diana’s portrait replacing that of H.M. Queen Elizabeth), his infamous Disneyland and West Bank installations, and the elephant that outraged Southland animal rights’ activists — offer proof of the value and power of street art.
Ultimately, however, the film feels like a complete put-on — a two-finger salute to the craven poseurs of the ‘art world’. Hence the film’s title: before leaving the gallery, be sure to spend your hard-earned dosh on the latest objets d’art churned out factory-style by the latest hip discovery — no matter how unoriginal and derivative they may be.
Is Thierry Guetta a real person and a real artist? Based on the evidence presented in Exit through the Gift Shop, I seriously doubt it. The fact that we never see Thierry do anything remotely creative is, perhaps, the (unpainted) elephant in the room, whilst his apparently limitless supply of cash — allowing him to jet around the world on short notice and invest huge sums in blank videotape and art supplies — is of questionable provenance. Does the man have a job, or did he inherit a fortune? We’re never told.
So is the film a Banksy put-on? With the great man currently engaged in a running street battle with fellow graffiti artist King Robbo — a battle many also consider a publicity stunt — the easy answer is, of course, yes. However, it’s also evident that he is as adept with a camera as he is with stencils and spray paints. The film’s truthfulness is, ultimately, neither here nor there: Banksy has made a very good film, and it’s up to the viewer to decide whether or not it’s fact or fiction.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is currently playing at the Shattuck Cinemas. [Ed: Also worth noting that Banksy is rumored to have been doing his thing in San Francisco last week. Or maybe not.]
John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movie’s Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.