By Don Simpson | May 17, 2010
Narrator: Rhys Ifans
Allow me to begin by synopsizing Exit Through the Gift Shop as if it truly is the street art documentary that it purports to be. In doing so, I pledge to divulge plenty of information that some readers may consider to be “spoilers,” so please tread forward with caution, apprehension and care…
When we first meet Thierry Guetta, he is self-proclaimed video recording addict. His camcorder is constantly turned on as he shamelessly documents everything. The addiction to videography becomes so great that this strange and eccentric Frenchman (whom Banksy describes as looking like he’s “out of the 1860s”) eventually all but abandons his life as a husband, father and high-end thrift shop owner to fully immerse himself in the burgeoning street art scene.
Thierry is introduced to everyone who is anyone in the world of street art by way of his cousin – the infamous Space Invader. Most of the artists Thierry meets hesitate for a beat or two, but they all come around to welcoming him (and his camera’s eye) with open arms. It is not long before Thierry becomes Shepard Fairey’s personal documentarian, look-out and comedic sidekick all the while filming any other grafitti artist who blips up on his radar. Yet, there is one ellusive treasure whom Thierry has yet to get his camera on – Banksy (arguably the only street artist to surpass Fairey in terms of international fame and acclaim – but this film is not about the competition for artistic fame…or is it?).
Considering that the well-disguised Banksy (thanks to voice manipulation and an oversized hoodie that leaves a black hole where Banksy’s face must be) is the host of this humble production, we can only assume that Thierry will eventually capture his prize on tape – and he does. Like Fairey, Banksy promptly takes Thierry under his wing and grants him full access to all of his secrets – much to the dismay of the very intimate circle of friends that actually know Banksy’s true identity. Thierry just has to promise one thing – not to reveal Banksy’s face (when he does videotape Banksy face-on, his face is blurred beyond any possible recognition).
Eventually Banksy tires of Thierry and calls his bluff – he sends Thierry home to his stockpiles of eight years’ worth of videotapes (we’re talking thousands of tapes – how he could afford all of this tape stock is one of this film’s many unsolved mysteries) to edit the street art documentary that he keeps saying that he’s working on. Theirry is by no means a filmmaker and his resulting film is total crap, so Banksy decides to take a crack at documentary filmmaking himself. But in order to have the time and space to work his own brand of cinematic magic, Banksy shoos Thierry away – back to Los Angeles – to become…a street artist.
Thierry cheerfully accepts Banksy’s command quite literally. He adopts the moniker Mr. Brainwash (aka “MBW”) secures the grandiose (and dilapidated) former CBS Studios building and hires an army of minions to create a visual onslaught of work that blatantly borrows (okay, flagrantly steals) from Fairey, Banksy and…Andy Warhol. The result is Thierry’s Life is Beautiful show which opened in Los Angeles on June 18, 2008. Thanks to a few haphazzard promotional quotes from Fairey and Banksy and a LA Weekly cover story, over 7,000 people attended Theirry’s show on opening night. (One thing that cannot be denied – Thierry is a master of self-promotion.) Thierry thus became an overnight success.
Whether or not Exit Through the Gift Shop is an honest to goodness documentary does not really matter. But, in case you’re wondering, my personal opinion is that it seems all too staged, contrived and manipulated by the man behind the cloak to be anything but F for fake. The fact that all of these street artists – especially Banksy, who has gone to significant lengths to retain his anonymity for so long – would allow a guy like Thierry to infiltrate their top secret club seems utterly preposterous to me. It is also difficult to believe that none of these artists have enough street smarts to recognize Thierry’s con. Essentially, if Exit Through the Gift Shop truly is real, then it serves as an admission by Banksy and his cohorts that they might all just be complete imbeciles.
Banksy’s film, though it includes some amazing footage of some seminal moments in the history of street art, is not about documenting the street art movement. Exit Through the Gift Shop is an expose of the current state of the art market. (Why have the public and art collectors latched on to these artists so feverishly – as if they were the next Warhol or Picasso?) It is a film that is about what has happened to the street art movement in lieu of its financial success. (Why do the works of Fairey and Banksy sell for such astronomical sums of money?)
In showing just how easy it is for someone like Thierry to become a famous street artist and make millions of dollars from his highly derivative art, Banksy cleverly comments on his own fame and fortune while also criticizing the sorry state of the art world. (Though by making Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy also proves that he can do something better than Thierry.) In the end, Banksy seems to be blaming the fans and art collectors – it is essentially their naivety and stupidity that makes people like Thierry (and Banksy himself) so famous – or…maybe it is the fault of Capitalism, supply and demand, and the commodification of the artistic image? This is by no means a simple film – it challenges its viewers to develop their own opinions, to think for themselves. There are unlimited interpretations and explanations for what Exit Through the Gift Shop truly means, and I doubt there will ever be a definitive answer.
If we believe Banksy (which I kind of do), he does not want to be cooped up in stuffy art galleries and he has no interest in making the gargantuan sums that some of his works have sold for. Banksy sees the irony of it all, and he wants to clue us in on the joke. Banksy just wants to continue to create highly politicized and socially conscious street art – “street” being the operative word. Of course the obvious rebuttal is why does Banksy continue to participate in the charade of high-profile gallery exhibitions? And if Thierry truly is a creation of Banksy (and friends) then when is the bloody joke going to be called off? On February 14, 2010 the dodgy Mr. Brainwash opened his second show (this one in a 15,000 sq ft abandoned warehouse in New York City) titled ICONS. Apparently, Mr. Brainwash is not fading into the sunset as quickly as we would have hoped.
Nonetheless, I give Banksy a hell of a lot of credit for making Exit Through the Gift Shop…whatever exactly that is. Practically any reading of this film will reveal its self-reflexive and self-critical nature. My very first thought about Exit Through the Gift Shop occurred as Thierry entered Banksy’s workshop for the very first time: this could very well be Banksy’s rendition of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” That thought seems to ring more and more true as I think about Exit Through the Gift Shop more and more…Banksy is trying to tell us something about the commodification and glamorization of street art. The street art itself is just an intangible façade; it is not something that should be bought, sold and traded. Street art loses its purpose and meaning the very instant that it is moved away from the streets. This is not the first time that Banksy has tried to reveal the elephant in the room, and I doubt it will be the last.
Admittedly, I am a real sucker for any film that cannot be nailed down as being a documentary, mockumentary or flat-out fiction. As a child weened on Godard, I enjoy a healthy dose of fakery, tomfoolery and playfulness in cinema. Exit Through the Gift Shop is not to be taken seriously. It is an incredibly hilarious film with a hell of a lot of takeaways…now, if only people would please start paying attention to that damn elephant in the room!