Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fascinating peek into the world of what most folks would call graffiti, but others call street art. The film, a surprise nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, has become a magnet for controversy, speculation, and curiosity seekers.
At the heart of the controversy is the film’s director, Banksy, the Garbo of the street art world. I have no idea where Banksy ranks among street artists, but one thing is certain, he’s the shrewdest of the bunch at manipulating his image, much like Madonna when she was still relevant. He’s shot like a whistle-blower or mob informant on the six o’clock news with an omnipresent hoodie pulled up and his voice lowered a few octaves. Of course, this only adds to the mystery.
The controversies have to do with the authenticity of the film. Some say it’s a hoax. Others say that it’s not. Many see the film as a commentary on the relationship between artist, audience, and commerce. There’s been a claim of plagiarism that could end up being part of an elaborate PR campaign to drum up interest in the film. Whatever the truth of the controversies, one thing’s for certain – the movie is great.
Banksy opens the film by being interviewed, and he quickly introduces the co-protagonist of the story, Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles.
Guetta is a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Ambrose Burnside, a voluble speaker with a goofy charm and infectious enthusiasm. Guetta owns a thrift store in a bohemian neighborhood in LA, but an aimless obsession with videotaping almost every facet of his life led him to a cousin in Paris – known as Space Invader – who was part of the emerging street art phenomenon. Guetta accompanied Space Invader on missions into the Paris night to bomb walls with his installations of mosaic recreations of Space Invader characters.
Meeting Space Invader and his friends was a turning point for Guetta, and a new obsession was born. Back in LA, Guetta soon met Shepard Fairey, an American street artist who would become as famous for his iconic Obama poster (think the Obama-ize feature that was popular on Facebook for a while) as he was for his Obey campaign. Fairey was a jumping off point for meeting and collecting other street artists, who didn’t mind having the friendly Frenchman along to document work that might take months of planning, hours of sometimes dangerous application, only to have it ripped down or painted over in a fraction of the time.
Artists are like trophies to Guetta, and the relationship between him and them is like observing a mutually beneficial relationship between parasite and host. The bombing forays that Guetta documents are exciting and sometimes perilous, and that he shared in the danger earned him a place in their circle. Over time he set his sights on Banksy, the elusive Englishman with the nerve of a cat burglar. As Guetta pursued Banksy on his own, Shepard Fairey brought Banksy to Guetta’s backyard when Banksy visited LA and asked for a guide to help him find good walls to bomb.
It was a dream come true that led to an unlikely friendship, like Jimmy Olson and Superman becoming drinking buddies, and as the relationship is detailed, we also see the rise of Banksy as an international art commodity, having shows and being fawned over by the art world’s intelligentsia.
Guetta’s entre into the world of the street artists was that he was a filmmaker. The funny thing is, no one ever called his bluff until Banksy finally asked him to put together the long-promised street art documentary, in part to show critics that he hadn’t sold out and that street art was about more than hype.
Guetta never planned on turning his thousands of hours of film into an actual movie. The cassettes were merely boxed, stored, and forgot about. Guetta’s movie, Life Remote Control, convinced Banksy that his friend was no filmmaker. Banksy convinced Guetta to return to LA and pursue art and have a show so that he could take over the project and make a proper film. What he made was the story about what happened when an eccentric Frenchman tried to make a documentary about Banksy.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is part shaggy dog story, part buddy film, part quixotic adventure, and finally, a snapshot of the various talents who prowl the streets of the world’s cities, leaving their mark on the walls of those cities, if only for a short while.
Thierry Guetta is as fascinating a figure as Banksy in that they are complete opposites. It’s a shrewd move by Banksy to frame his story this way. As secretive as he is, Guetta is like a negative image, all open and forthcoming. Where Banksy is cool, Guetta is a dopey tag-along, a sort of kid brother to the artists he adores.
There’s one final surprise in Exit Through the Gift Shop, where Banksy seems to be making a statement about the art world that amounts to biting the hand that feeds him. Perhaps it’s an attempt to buy back some of his street cred. Or maybe it’s just good entertainment. Either way, after seeing this movie you’ll never look at graffiti the same way again.