Exit Through the Gift Shop
is sold in summary as a movie about British street artist Banksy
turning the camera on a would-be documentary filmmaker Thierry Guetta
. But it's more than that. The 2010 film is, according to Banksy, a “street art disaster film.” And as far as disasters go, Guetta is fascinating.
Guetta is a Frenchman,a small business owner and an obsessive cameraman living in LA. He records everything; his camera is practically a limb.
On a visit to Paris, Guetta discovers that his cousin is a street artist named Space Invader. The ephemeral nature of street art captures Guetta's instincts, and over the course of many years, he films his way through the West Coast street art scene, claiming to make a documentary. Space Invader introduces him to Shepherd Fairey
, who later made the iconic Obama “Hope” poster.
Through Fairey, Guetta befriends street art's man of mystery, Banksy. Soon after, street art becomes a commodity, and Banksy asks Guetta to finish his documentary to show the real story. The result, Life Remote Control
, was 90 minutes of unwatchable crap. So in order to buy himself time to make a watchable movie, Banksy tells Guetta to go away and make art in LA.
Guetta mortgages his entire life and pushes the commercialization of street art to the point of absurdity, adopting the alias Mr. Brainwash. In the end, Guetta puts on a gigantic art show to popular reviews, making over a million dollars in the process. Banksy and Fairey lament their roles in Guetta's rise to prominence, even as they're still bewildered.
Guetta is a fascinating figure. In one moment, he's this wounded kid who was at school when his mother died, forever obsessed with capturing the world around him. In the next, he's this charming megalomaniac who only sort of understands what art is for. He comes across as the sort of person who has never stopped and asked himself why he's doing what he's doing. But he did genuinely earn the trust of Banksy and Fairey – he was loyal to a fault.
While what we see of LRC is wholly unwatchable, Banksy augments Guetta's material with interviews and news footage, producing a genuinely good documentary. Guetta's footage is raw, sometimes strange, but the pleasant voice-over narration and interviews put it in context. When Banksy gives his interviews, he hangs around like this weird specter; the way he presents himself gives him the gravity his reputation demands, though he speaks casually.
The most important part is that the sense of danger in street art isn't lost. Guetta films several run-ins with police over the course of the movie. He and his subjects climb out of windows and scurry across roofs constantly. One of the best segments takes place when Banksy and Guetta set up a piece of anti-Gitmo art at Disneyland. When a coaster stops on the track, partway through the ride, it's a perfect “Oh, shit” moment.
Though Banksy has since insisted that everything in the film is “100% true,” it's still a questionable film. Guetta is in no way objective; he actively helps the people he's filming. And Banksy built his way to fame through, let's be honest, criminal activities. A lot of the film is unverifiable. But making his audience ask difficult questions about who they can trust, what is real, what is important, etc. is a big part of what Banksy does.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
is at the very least an interesting look at what constitutes art and what kind of person constitutes an artist. There are plenty of layers and challenging conversations for the viewer who really wants to dig in, but it's still bearable for anyone who just wants to watch a darn movie. (By my reckoning, that makes it good art.)
Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.