Even though he doesn’t take a directing credit on it, there’s no doubt that Exit Through the Gift Shop is Banksy’s movie. Banksy is the English street artist who has stenciled, painted, graffitied or, if you like, vandalized urban walls all over the world. He garnered his biggest lift of fame by smuggling his own works into fine art museums and putting them up on wall with official-looking title cards, his works usually appearing to comment on the other more traditional, i.e. official artwork in the room. The best part is that, aside from his crew and a small number of insiders, nobody knows Banksy’s true identity.
In the documentary, we see a man in a hoodie being interviewed, his face in shadows and his voice slightly altered, although evidencing a Bristol accent. But in an odd way, this movie by Banksy’s that he claims he didn’t direct isn’t really about Banksy. It’s about a would-be filmmaker, French transplant to Los Angeles Thierry Guetta, who obsessively videotapes everyone around him, then every street artist of note that he can get next to (starting with his cousin, a.k.a. Space Invader), then Shepard Fairey (yes, before he became wildly famous with his red, white and blue image of Barack Obama) and ultimately Banksy himself, who becomes his friend. And when Banksy gives Thierry the mission of becoming a street artist himself (self-named Mr. Brainwash), while Banksy takes possession of Thierry’s psychotically large and uncataloged collection of videotapes, things really start going crazy. Per the trailer:
Exit Through the Gift Shop is, hands-down, the most entertaining movie I’ve seen this year. (I’d put Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer up there as well, but this one is funnier.) The movie is partially a landmark documentary about street art, a wildly exciting movement with roots in the original punk rock/D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) movement, perhaps even deeper in the Situationist International movement, and essentially puts no-budget artists in the position of major international brands. These rogues create simple but discordant icons (like Fairey’s widened Andre the Giant with the word “OBEY” beneath him) and plant them everywhere they can, inspiring viral pick-up and essentially functioning as (non-registered) trademarks. It’s the little man battling against the system of signs and symbols that are mainly controlled by corporate entities, all the more pungent as conglomerates like Disney get copyright laws extended well past traditional limits, in order to preserve earning off of their brands.
But if the movie documents a subversive art, its genius is going further in first subverting audience expectations that this will be a movie focused more on Banksy than Thierry, then again as we see street art events generating more ink, visitors and sales than most galleries and ultimately, as the story climaxes, in the complete subversion of the value of street art as perceived and participated in by art collectors and speculators.
While some have speculated that the movie itself is a fraud, much like Orson Welles’ notable F for Fake, it seems difficult to imagine how we could be watching the participants age, i.e. Fairey and Guetta, unless it truly was shot as the movie shows us. The search for some sort of meta-prank seems to me beside the point. Banksy and Guetta, together, have captured the smart yet unbridled energy of this pivotal generation of street artists by turning the true story into a romp with a bit of a punchline, and those high-minded critics who call the story too rich to be true are simply out of touch.
As someone who once lived in the East Village with prostitution and drug dealing up and down the street, where the broke made their art mainly for their friends and spent long late night hours complaining, conspiring and amusing each other into hilarity, this movie is basically a raucous celebration of life.
Enter at the ticket-taker.