The question of whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is nothing more than street artist Banksy's double-bluff, as with all such matters, strikes me as one not worth answering, or at least not if it means wracking one's brain in an attempt to look beyond the movie instead of just taking in the actual product. Besides, the answer is obviously "yes", or "yes, but..." Kind-of, sort-of the outgrowth of one man's attempt to document Banksy, among many other street artists, Exit Through the Gift Shop gets flipped on its head, so that the subject becomes the uncredited director and the erstwhile filmmaker becomes the subject.
Frankly, that's as it should be. The man at the center of Banksy's film, Thierry Guetta, is such a card that his open-faced innocence and charm beat out Banksy's carefully maintained mystery and iconography. We meet Guetta as a man making it in Los Angeles by buying up vintage clothes for $50 an item and adding a few measly touches to pass them off as "designer" wear for 10, even 1,000, times the cost. It's not that he's evil or greedy, just someone who casually tinkered with a piece of clothing until the trendy came along and threw money at the man (would you say no?). His continuation of this con amounts to a subtle form of pranksterism, something that makes the transition into the next stage of his life more understandable.
On holiday back in France, Guetta reunites with his cousin, who now goes by the name Space Invader and, sure enough, spends his time designing stickers based on the characters from his nom de plume and throwing them on walls, signs and bridges all around Paris. Suddenly, Guetta is exposed to the underground world of street art, and he's hooked.
Always armed with a camera, Guetta documented his boutique in L.A. constantly -- much to the chagrin of nearby celebrities who understandably mistake his innately curious nature for paparazzi-esque -- but he faces even more backlash for trying to film people who could be charged for vandalism. In some of his earliest recorded footage of following around street artists, we can see Guetta's amateur mistakes, especially his penchant for turning on the camera's light to get a better shot, in the process illuminating the heretofore inconspicuous artist.
And yet, Guetta presses on in his filming, and even when the weeks turn into months and years and more of the artists he trails question why he keeps filming, they allow him to keep doing so. Thierry has a strange charisma, a man who is both stupider and far more intelligent than he looks. He is a pathological liar, never doing so out of malice but simply to avoid trouble, and his ability to diffuse tension works equally well with authorities as it does his reluctant subjects.
This first half of the film, focused primarily on Guetta and the thousands of hours of footage he collected over the years, makes for the most revealing work ever made on street art. Guetta is like an art critic in the classic sense, not simply discussing the scene but living it. If the artists -- caught between flattery and trepidation of the increased attention Thierry brings -- could afford to gain full notoriety, he'd probably go the next step and promote them as much as he could. Watching clips of Guetta's gathered tapes, it's impossible to view what these people do as mere graffiti: this is daring, often political and utterly beautiful. The sheer range of expression captured is enormous, from a man who paints the outlines of objects shadows to giant posters with satirical intent being erected on buildings. Had it continued in this vein, Exit Through the Gift Shop might have been one of my favorite films of the year.
Then, Banksy comes into the picture. The most infamous and elusive of London's street artists, Banksy comes to Los Angeles, only to get stuck without his usual guide, who fails to gain entry into the country. Artists recommend Guetta, who had tried and failed to meet Banksy, since he knows where all the taggable walls are. After spending some time with the odd Frenchman, even Banksy is rendered powerless to resist him, and he allows Thierry to come back to London and film him. Banksy's entourage is stunned.
Banksy's emergence slows the film to a crawl, replacing the bouncing nature of Guetta's purposeless but devoted charting of the underground to Banksy's manipulation of him as a complex piece of commentary. Banksy is genuinely impressed by Guetta's knack for avoiding trouble -- Banksy makes a detour to Disneyland where he sets up a dummy of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride, and Guetta gets detained by security but somehow manages to hide film in his socks, alert Banksy that the jig is up, and get released without issue -- but he also realizes that the film the Frenchman claims to be making will be a load of crap.
When Banksy's L.A. exhibition causes a sensation and capitalizes the movement, he starts molding Guetta into a street artist in his own right. It is Guetta who comes up with his new persona, Mr. Brainwash, and Guetta who shrewdly sets the hype machine spinning until all of Los Angeles cannot stop talking about this new artist, but it is Banksy who knows the ultimate goal. Clearly, Mr. Brainwash's rise to succès signifies the changing nature of street art and how quickly the mainstream is adopting it, but so what?
The film, like Banksy's art, is provocative and smart but also carries the feeling of being incomplete, as if the final punchline will always be in the next painting. In his talking head, Banksy silhouettes himself and masks his voice, and you get the idea that he does this not to hide from cops but his fans who undermine his committed but naïve views on the purity of his art. As he spends the entire second half ensuring he extends that mystery, he winds up stretching himself too thin. By standing back and letting Guetta have his moment, he proves how easy it is to create a stir in the increasingly gossipy art world, but at the end of the day, he's still a commodity.
I'm torn on the film. It's second half is nothing but the lead up to a joke, but that joke kills: watching yuppies line up in excitement to buy something a magazine told them was cool sight unseen is hysterical, and their pretentious opinions on the art being exhibited had me in tears. But the loss of momentum and the sudden feeling of pointlessness that set in distracted me from what had been fascination with the movie's look into street art culture. I came away from Exit Through the Gift Shop with a renewed interest in the practice of urban art, but I was also frustrated by Banksy constantly undercutting his own gag. Having just watched the documentary on Joan Rivers, I was struck by how seriously she took comedy as she meticulously categorized her jokes into file cabinets. But at least she allowed herself a chuckle at the situation. Banksy, performance artist as much as painter, is bound to be the straight man in a solo act. Maybe he saw Guetta as his double, his Costello, but when Thierry's prank swells even beyond the realms of the satire Banksy intended, I got the nagging suspicion that maybe this time, the joke was on him.