REVIEW: Banksy Plays Truth and Dare in Exit Through the Gift Shop
Exit Through the Gift Shop is the first and perhaps the last movie to be made by the mysterious English street artist Banksy, and although it's partly about himself and his fellow night marauders -- among them Shepard Fairey, now most famous for that ubiquitous red, blue and cream Obama poster, but also the creator of the Andre the Giant sticker campaign of the late 1980s -- there's nothing self-aggrandizing about it. Or perhaps everything about it is self-aggrandizing. The picture strives to capture the spirit and style of street art, and to make a bold statement about its commodification: Banksy's work, in particular, is prized by collectors and fetches high prices in the art market. But if Banksy is getting rich, he doesn't seem to be too happy about it. And so he has framed his film as a rags-to-raggedy riches story in which an enthusiastic street-art fan -- a nutball Frenchman transplanted to Los Angeles named Thierry Guetta -- first becomes a Banksy disciple and then surpasses his teacher, launching a mega-million-dollar art career of his own.
Banksy, born in Bristol in the mid-'70s, is a graffiti artist who, under cover of night, transforms blank walls -- or anything he might choose to use as a canvas, including an old-fashioned red British Telecommunications phone box -- into art. Much of his work consists of elaborate stencils adorned with spray-painted slogans. Those stencils might include crisp, beautifully rendered images of monkeys, rats or people responding to -- and simultaneously becoming a part of -- the urban despair or delight around them. Many of Banksy's sentiments are anti-establishment, anti-capitalist or just plain grumpy, but his work is laced with wit, too: A sign on a bridge warns "Anti-Climb Paint," and yet several Banksy-stenciled mice scramble nimbly around the letters, flaunting any authority that would dare try to control them.
Sometime in the early 2000's Banksy, having recently landed in Los Angeles for a visit, made the acquaintance of Guetta, a wily used-clothing dealer with thick mutton-chop sideburns and an even thicker French accent. Guetta had already earned the trust of Banksy's friend Fairey; he was also the cousin of the French street artist Invader, known for installing colorful Space Invaders images, made from mosaic tiles, throughout Paris. Guetta loved following street artists around with his ever-present video camera, documenting their nightly rounds as they decorated -- or, some might say, desecrated -- public spaces in various cities with stencils, paint and posters. Although Banksy never allows his face to be filmed or photographed -- he appears in Exit only as a shadowy, hooded figure with an electronically altered voice -- he thought it would be OK to allow Guetta to follow him on his nocturnal stealth missions. Guetta, Banksy was led to believe, was working on a documentary about street artists.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is allegedly the result of Banksy's seizing Guetta's endless footage and shaping it into a viable film. And it shows how Guetta became something more, or maybe less, than just a documentary filmmaker, an artist in his own right whose fame threatens to eclipse that of his idol, Banksy. The movie has the feel of an elaborate hoax (a hoaxy?), and it probably is. Is Guetta real, or is he just one of Banksy's more elaborate creations, a walking, talking piece of street art himself? Exit made a modest ripple of bemusement when it played at Sundance and Berlin earlier this year. When I'd ask people who'd seen it what they thought, they'd respond cryptically, "It's fun." Then they'd mutter something like, "I'm not saying I buy it...."
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