Monday, July 19, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010, Banksy)

At a time when some documentaries can’t even manage one compelling through-line, Exit Through the Gift Shop has three. The first and most obvious is its documenting of the vital but necessarily secretive world of street artists. For that, we mostly have Thierry Guetta to thank. Guetta, a Frenchman by birth and compulsive videographer by nature, fell into the orbit of the Los Angeles street art scene through a relative and proceeded to film many of the movement’s most prominent figures at work, including Shepard Fairey, creator of the iconic “Obama/Hope” graphic, and eventually Banksy, generally thought to be the world’s foremost street artist. If Exit Through the Gift Shop had no other redeeming qualities, it would be invaluable for the footage of these artists at work and as a demonstration of the surprising amount of effort, artistry, and risk they face to bring their work to the world, even if it will inevitably disappear within a day or so.

It’s Guetta’s efforts to film street art in action that led to his relationship with Banksy, which form’s the film’s second fascinating thread. Guetta, a genuine eccentric whose most obvious characteristic is his undying enthusiasm, fell in with Banksy and his crew and filmed a number of their works, from the “murder” of a London phone box to an anti-Guantanamo Bay piece he hung at Disneyland. But while Guetta won Banksy’s respect for failing to rat out his friend to Disneyland security, Guetta’s attempt to assemble his footage into a documentary was a disaster, and Banksy more or less hijacked the project by encouraging Guetta to go out and make art on his own.

It was this turn of events that finally led to the film’s third and perhaps most thought-provoking thread, in which Banksy uses both Guetta’s previously existing footage and footage taken of Guetta readying his art-world debut to ponder the nature of street art itself. Throughout Exit Through the Gift Shop, we are shown examples of how “street art” can contain artistry and ideas (as compared to old-school graffiti artists with their hasty aerosol scribblings). However, when Guetta is given a chance to make art of his own, he mostly just steals ideas from the artists he once followed. A kind of street-art Eve to Banksy’s Margo, Guetta fobs off his works on art fans primed for something new and edgy (but not informed enough to recognize that his art is derivative and uninspired), selling works for a total of more than a million dollars at his first public exhibition. Given the secondhand way Guetta achieved success by riding the coattails of his more established betters, it somehow seems fitting that he ended up getting commissioned by Madonna to design the cover of her latest greatest-hits album.

By the end of the film, Exit Through the Gift Shop has metamorphosed almost imperceptibly from a street-art primer to an often hilarious poisoned-pen letter to the man who gave this project its start. Some might argue that, by re-appropriating Guetta’s footage to his own ends, Banksy is no better than Guetta, but I’d say that the difference is that while Guetta is selling his secondhand goods to the world as his own vision, Banksy has basically given Guetta the latitude to hang himself by his own rope. Furthermore, Banksy’s efforts have turned Guetta’s formless video into something akin to a street art manifesto, reclaiming it from those pretenders who buy expensive photocopying equipment and employ dozens in their efforts to sell millions of dollars of “edgy” works in galleries, and returning it to the artists in the streets, who haunt Kinko’s by day and climb out on roofs and evade police by night for almost no monetary gain. True “street art” may not technically be legal, but thanks to Banksy- and to some extent, Guetta- it’s never looked nobler. And even if, as some have claimed, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a hoax, I’d say the points it makes stand either way.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

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