Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop

The mysterious Banksy.

(Producers Distribution Agency) Thierry Guetta, Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Rhys Ifans (voice), The Space Invader, Swoon, Cheez, Neckface, Coma. Directed by Banksy

Street art is a phenomenon that grew out of the tagging and graffiti movement. Some have described it as “guerilla art” and that might not be a bad tag for it. The practitioners operate under cover of night and ply their trade with spray cans, stickers and mosaic tiles, among other mediums.

Some see it as a valid form of self-expression; others see it as blatant vandalism. Needless to say, there is a polarizing element to the art form and that can’t be a bad thing. Art, after all, is supposed to invite discussion.

French expat Guetta lives in Los Angeles. He moved there in the late ‘80s, opening up a vintage clothing store that often had big stars browsing in it. He was known in the city for constantly filming everything on his video camera. On a visit to his native land, he hooked up with his cousin, who had a quirky hobby of his own; he liked to put mosaic tiles of space invader-like figures in public places. Calling himself The Space Invader for obvious reasons, he had become a leading member of the highly cliquish street art scene which kept their anonymity with an almost jealous zeal.

Thierry grew fascinated with this scene – the dangerous aspect of it (the adrenaline rush of avoiding cops and security guards) appealed to him. Through his cousin he was introduced to Fairey, who also based himself in L.A. and Guetta videotaped his street art. The feeling among the street artists was that their art was very transitory by nature; it wouldn’t last long before someone took it down. In order to document their art, they turned to Thierry who was only too happy to oblige.

Under the guise of making a documentary about the street art scene, Guetta was given access to almost all of the leading personalities in the street art scene – all save one, the most notorious one of all. In London, the name of Banksy is well-known, particularly for his images of mice doing odd things. Banksy’s art was bold, caustic and full of a biting wit, too clever by half you might say. He was known for strictly preserving his identity, working only with people he knew well. To this day, the general public and the authorities have not a clue who he is.

At last, through Shepard Fairey, Thierry and Banksy were introduced. Thierry was very much taken by the brash young Englishman and for his part Banksy grew to trust Thierry, allowing him to film in his inner sanctum. On a visit to Los Angeles, Banksy notoriously put a figure of a hooded and bound figure alongside the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland with Thierry filming the whole thing. However, while Thierry was arrested by Disney security, Banksy got away scot free.

However, with years and years of shooting street artists and thousands of hours of footage to winnow through, Thierry’s subjects were becoming restless waiting for the documentary to be made. Thierry knew he had to at last make the film he had never intended to make. Knowing nothing about editing, scoring or anything in fact about filmmaking other than pointing a camera at his subjects, Thierry set out to create his masterpiece.

With Banksy being the subject he most admired, he screened it for him first. Banksy was mortified; the documentary was just terrible. Banksy figured that he could do no worse, so he took the footage and gave Thierry the instructions to “go make some art and put together a show.”

This documentary is the result of Banksy’s efforts and it takes a total turn at this point. Thierry adopts the persona of Mr. Brainwash and decides to put together a major event show in Los Angeles, despite knowing nothing about art or installing a show. He does know a thing or two about self-promotion and manages to capture the attention of the L.A. Weekly who give him a cover story which whips up a frenzy among modern art collectors, despite the fact most of the work is really awful and lazy; Mr. Brainwash takes existing images from the Internet and spray paints eye-patches on them, or Marilyn Monroe wigs.

We see Banksy as a narrator, but his face is always obscured by a hood and his voice distorted electronically; he really is serious about maintaining his anonymity. He wisely turns this from a documentary on street art to one about Thierry who is one of those magnificent eccentrics who give life some flavor. In many ways, he’s more interesting than the artists he was documenting. For his part, Banksy feels at once chagrined and pleased at the creation of the Mr. Brainwash persona; the artwork is somewhat atrocious but at the same time Banksy seems to admire Thierry’s fearlessness.

One gets a feeling throughout this film that we’re being conned a little bit. For example, Thierry proclaims that he had erased all the Disney footage from his camera when he was being interrogated by the security guards, but we are shown footage of Banksy crossing the fence and placing the figure alongside the track, and the trains being stopped shortly afterwards.

If it is a con, it’s a fascinating one and I don’t personally mind being conned in that way. The movie has a wicked sense of humor and there is a slickness and slyness to it that is refreshing and charming in its way. It also makes tremendous use of a great and sadly underrated song – Richard Hawley’s “Tonight the Streets Are Ours.”

There is a lot of ego involved here, from Thierry to Banksy to the artists themselves who take the stance that art outweighs all else. That’s like a blogger saying the most important things in the world are blogs and I, for one, would never assert something that preposterous. It sure as heck ain’t brain surgery…but is it art? That’s for you to decide.

REASONS TO GO: While initially slated to be a documentary about street art, it morphed into something completely different.

REASONS TO STAY: There’s a whole lot of ego involved in this project and quite frankly I’m not sure if the viewer isn’t the butt of the joke.

FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly blue language and smoking. There is also a fine line between art and vandalism here and it should be noted that those who find the lifestyle alluring might not know the difference.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fairey would later go on to design the Barack Obama “Hope” image that figured so prominently in his campaign.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely more suited to home viewing than a big theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Afghan Star

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