Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010): Everyone’s An Artist Nowadays…
Here’s a curious piece for you. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary about street art, supposedly directed by ultra-anonymous and ultra-famous graffiti artist Banksy. It starts as a Banksy doc by an obsessive frenchman Thierry Guetta; but turns into a documentary about Guetta by Banksy, using Guetta’s own footage.
Confused? You won’t be. You may have your own opinions on Banksy, good or bad, but it’s hard to deny that the man has made an extremely assured and thoughtful film debut with Exit Through the Gift Shop.
I went into this documentary expecting a straightforward and self-aggrandising film about Banksy. Banksy is ubiquitous these days, and I’ve always had a strong ambiguity towards his work.
On one hand, I’m suspicious of his arch sloganeering and his occasional pandering to trendy political views, which can encompass anything in the scope of Banksy’s anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anarchy with a very small “a” worldview.
But then – there are moments when I can’t help but delight at some of his images, and I prefer his less overtly political stencils, and prefer the ones where he uses the environment around him to make a visual pun. I liked the maid lifting up the wall to sweep dust underneath like a curtain; or the double yellow lines that veer off the road, across the pavement and up a wall to form a flower.
So, a Banksy film. After a nice opening montage of graffiti artists doing their thing, we are introduced to “Banksy” – a guy with his face hidden in the shadow of his hoody, and a digitally altered voice. Banksy, with some degree of modesty, claims the man the film eventually turns out to be about is more interesting than him…
Thierry Guetta is a French immigrant living in LA with his wife and kids, where he makes a comfortable living running a vintage second hand clothes store.
Thierry seems an amiable, friendly type, and instantly seems comical, with his gigantic sideburns, tubby frame and silly little hat. But there is something blank about his eyes, and we soon learn Thierry has an obsession. He films his whole life with his camcorder, and stores the tapes in a haphazard collection which he never labels, let alone watches.
Thierry’s life takes a new course when he visits family in France and finds out his cousin is the street artist Invader, who’s shtick is placing mosaic aliens from the ancient Space Invaders video game in locations around the world.
He accompanies his cousin as he goes about his nocturnal work, and is later introduced to Shepard Fairey, another street artist famous for his mock-totalitarian Obey campaign, featuring wrestler Andre the Giant, and the Hope poster for Obama.
Fairey is a little puzzled by Thierry’s enthusiasm and relentless filming, but finds the Frenchman a willing assistant and lookout as he goes about his work on the city’s walls and rooftops. Thierry also films a number of other street artists, and announces his intention to make a documentary about Street Art. But he is missing one famous British street artist in particular…Banksy.
The two eventually meet, and the film gets stranger from there, as Thierry first completes his documentary, and then becomes a street artist himself.
By the end, the big question is – what is art? Banksy and Shepard Fairey are bitter about their contribution in Thierry’s eventual success as “Mr Brainwash”. They’ve devoted years honing their craft while Thierry just flung a load of cash at a Warhol-like studio. But does that make Mr Brainwash’s “art” any less legitimate than Fairey’s or Banksy’s?
The latter in particular has been provoking the “But is it art?” question for years. Banksy says at one point: “Warhol took cultural icons and repeated them until they became meaningless, but in an iconic way. Thierry made them really meaningless.”
True, there is a complete witlessness to Mr Brainwash’s images compared to Banksy, but both wouldn’t exist without Warhol. For anyone to “get” pop art, they need to have some awareness of the culture around them, and their appreciation of the painting or image is informed by what they already know about the world.
Take for example Banksy’s image of a policeman searching Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz”, reaching for her picnic hamper. The look on Judy Garland’s face is suitably worried about what he might find.
The initial juxtaposition of riot helmeted copper with an innocent young girl from an old family movie is humorous enough; but then we also know of Judy Garland’s unfortunate trouble with drugs throughout her life, which hints at what the policeman might be looking for.
Banksy, if his work isn’t art, then at least it’s great pop art, and falls into the same category as Chuck Jones and Terry Gilliam.
Like some of Jones’ more experimental and post-modern Looney Tunes, Banksy is aware his audience is aware of the “frame” or “canvas” he’s using, which allows him to turn the meaningless (derelict buildings, shabby, peeling walls) into something meaningful.
And, like Gilliam’s surreal, free association animations in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. there is a kind of nostalgic, retro conformity to the images Banksy uses for his stencils.
Exit Through the Gift Shop features some fine footage of street artists at work, often by dangerously climbing out of windows and over rooftops, and avoiding the police as they go.
It also turns into a very interesting character study of Thierry Guetta. Here’s a man who films his whole life, but never watches it back. He has a normal looking wife and kids, so he can’t be that crazy, but it’s clear his obsessions run deep.
By the time he gambles everything he has on staging an elaborate LA exhibition, he has learned all the techniques of street art, and can produce copious amounts of images without actually having any talent or feel for the medium.
In some ways, he reminds me of Raymond Babbitt, Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character in Rain Man – who can recite Abbott & Costello’s Who’s on First? routine perfectly, but without realizing it’s actually supposed to be funny.
And the final irony of Exit Through the Gift Shop is people show up and pay tens of thousands of dollars for Mr Brainwash’s crass, stream-of-consciousness artwork. It seems these days all you have to do is tell people they’re looking at art for them to believe it.