There’s a worst and best-case scenario to Exit Through the Gift Shop, the twisty tale of the worldwide “street art” movement and an odd Frenchman who chronicled it.
The worst case is it might provide fodder for the “My kid could do that!” Homer Simpsons who rant about abstract paintings and regard all non-representational art as junk (and any writer who espouses that best never use a metaphor or stand guilty of hypocrisy).
The best case is that it provides an object lesson that, yes, some modern art is junk, and there are fools who’ll pay obscenely for it. It also lays bare the difference between the truly original and the derivative.
All this, plus loads of cynical laughs.
Exit Through The Gift Shop is directed and narrated (with voice disguised) by Banksy, the world’s most famous and original street artist and satirist, a self-styled British “Man of Mystery.” Under cover of darkness, he has painted images on the Israeli West Bank Barrier of children sneaking through the Wall; he created a Dali-esque sculpture of a bleeding, crumpled English “call box” as a statement against modernization and dumped it on the street. Sometimes it’s as simple as the words, “One nation under CCTV” painted in giant letters on the side of a mill. Some work was destroyed by civic officials, other times it sold for thousands of dollars.
But Exit Through the Gift Shop is not a film about Banksy. It’s about an odd L.A.-based Frenchman named Thierry Guetta who made millions buying consignments of old clothes for $50 a truckload and selling them as “vintage” for $500 per item.
For decades, Guetta had an obsessive relationship with his video camera, and in 1999, he became intrigued by the burgeoning street art scene (some call it graffiti, but the elaborate style and political nature elevates it beyond that term). He’d show up at night to film people like Shepard Fairey (author of the iconic stylized image of Andre the Giant with the word “Obey”) or the French artist Space Invader, who’d affix ceramic images of Space Invader “aliens” on sidewalks and public squares.
But his Great White Whale was Banksy, who he spent years trying to locate. When he did, a partnership was born — one Banksy now regrets.
Guetta’s footage was a treasure trove. But when Banksy encouraged him to finish the “documentary,” what he produced was incomprehensible. Concluding that his friend had mental problems, Banksy convinced him to leave thousands of hours of footage in his care and urged him to become an artist.
What follows is a tale of hype and hollow esthetics like something out of a Christopher Buckley satirical novel (in fact, it is all so seamlessly ridiculous that rumours persist that Exit Through the Gift Shop is a filmic hoax). Guetta, who knows nothing about art, but has seen enough to mimic it, exploits Banksy’s sarcastic “recommendation” of his work, mortgages his house to produce a warehouse full of the stuff and finagles a cover story in the L.A. Weekly that attracts thousands of people to his “debut” as street-artist “Mr. Brainwash.”
Exit Through the Gift Shop is a meta-movie, a documentary about a documentary that was never made, but which manages to pick up the pieces of that failure to produce a statement on art. It’s a cynical statement, but a statement nonetheless.
(This film is rated 14A)