Movie Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop
It is said that art is eternal, but street art is by nature ephemeral, effaced immediately or soon thereafter by law enforcement, building managers, rival taggers and forces of nature. What longevity it is able to attain comes mostly via documentation by photographers and videographers.
And that is where Thierry Guetta—a portly, middle-aged Frenchman whose cherubically chubby cheeks, rococo muttonchops and needy eyes give him the appearance of Prince Albert gone to seed—enters the picture.
The first half of the movie pummels straightforwardly along in a way that is hugely enjoyable. After a prelude montage of street artists producing, mounting or displaying their work, or being caught in the process (I could have watched an entire movie of such scenes), we meet Guetta, a strange, compulsive and immensely likable lost soul who is obsessed with capturing every detail of his life on video. Nothing is too mundane. There is footage of the toilet, of the drive to work, of his kids eating breakfast. But when he learns that his cousin is a well-known street artist who goes by the moniker “Invader,” for the tile mosaic Space Invader characters he puts up on all over his native Paris and other cities, Guetta finds his subject. He quickly turns his video camera on Invader, following his every moment, and through Invader meets other street artists, including Shepard Fairey (famous at the time for his ubiquitous Andre the Giant OBEY stickers and recently on a far larger scale for the Obama HOPE posters of the 2008 election).
Soon Guetta virtually abandons his business, wife and little daughters, and by making himself and his seemingly elastic resources ever available, ingratiates himself into service as Fairey’s constant companion and unlikely accomplice. Declaring himself to be a filmmaker gathering material for a movie on street art, Guetta begins to documents Fairey’s work and life, and Fairey, a handsome, hip and well-spoken guy who would not look out of place in a banker’s suit, appears flattered by the attention. Through Fairey, Guetta eventually gains entrée to Banksy himself, the notorious prankster and arguable éminence grise of street art whose true identity remains strictly guarded (supposedly to avoid prosecution, as his work often takes place, as he puts it, in a “legal grey area”). He appears in this movie cloaked in a darkened cowl, à la Obi-Wan Kenobi, his voice masked by a sound filter. His running commentary of the second half of the movie thus has the air of pronouncements given from on high, by turns witty, self-serving and thought-provoking. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As he did with Fairey, Guetta manages to make himself indispensable to Banksy and gains permission to do what no one else has ever been allowed to do: videotape Banksy’s work in progress, even inside his secret studios. He quickly amasses thousands of hours of footage, and what fascinating footage it all is. It is a treat to see both Fairey and Banksy at work. Their creative energy and daring are inspiring and a lot of fun. Again, I could have watched these prolific artists in action for far longer than we are given.
When Guetta finally sits down to make the movie, however, it is clear that he has no idea what he’s doing. His constant need for activity and excitement now manifest themselves as a near-manic inability to focus. As Banksy declares, Guetta clearly has “mental problems.” The film he produces is a painfully unwatchable barrage of split-second edits, a video tour into the chaotic mind of ADHD itself.
Pronouncing the movie a disaster, Banksy decides to take a crack at editing the footage, getting rid of Guetta by telling him to go home to Los Angeles and “make art.” Guetta takes the decree all too seriously, rechristening himself the nom de guerre MBW (for Mr. BrainWash), and thus the surprising second half of the movie begins, as Guetta says of himself, “to spiral.” In essence the camera now turns around, so that rather than Guetta making a movie on Banksy, from this point it is the other way around. What follows next—including major celebrity spottings, multimillion dollar art sales, magazine cover stories and a terrifying four-hour interrogation at, of all places, Disneyland—raises big questions about what is art, who declares it so, what it means to be an artist, who is the huckster and who the huckstered, what is real and what is hype. Such is the funhouse twistiness of this second half that the questions extend, in the end, to Exit Through the Gift Shop itself.
Yes, there are many who have gotten themselves tied in knots of suspicion that the persona of Thierry Guetta is an elaborate hoax and Exit Through the Gift Shop (self-billed as “a Banksy film”) a “prankumentary,” that Banksy and Fairey are having a laugh at the viewing audience. But I rather doubt it. Through the late 1990s and early 2000s I lived in downtown Manhattan and several times a day walked the length of Crosby Street, a favored location and virtual gallery for street artists. Crosby and the nearby blocks of SoHo and NoLita teemed with scores of works by Banksy and Fairey, among many others (including Space Invader). I also often saw MBW’s trademark video man graphic around town. If MBW does not in fact exist, someone went to a lot of trouble over an impressively sustained period of time to make it appear as though he did. Totally apart from that, if Thierry Guetta is being played by an actor, he is an awfully good one who deserves some nominations come awards season.
Anyway, so what if it’s all a big joke? People should relax. It’s much more fun to drop the paranoia and laugh right back. This fast romp of a film is a lighthearted gift of this summer.