Sometimes a film can subvert expectations that you didn’t even know you had going in. The first time I saw Exit Through the Gift Shop I thought that I was a pretty blank slate. All I knew was that it was a documentary about Banksy, and quite frankly at that point I wasn’t all that sure of who Banksy was, but from the first few seconds of the opening credits all expectations were upended. Here was a documentary, ostensibly about graffiti, opening with the smooth lounge-inflected voice of Richard Hawley, whose song “Tonight the Streets are Ours” so perfectly complimented the ebullient footage of street artists at their nocturnal rituals that you never question how radical the selection is. Banksy’s work is about the unexpected; the serendipity of turning a corner to find something beautiful, or challenging, or funny in the mundane mix of city-walls and pavements. Exit Through the Gift Shop is no different, but what Banksy found was Thierry Guetta.
The first twist comes directly after the credits. Banksy, an almost comically shadowy figure complete with a voice scrambler, starts the film saying: “The film is the story of what happened when this guy tried to make a documentary about me, but he was actually a lot more interesting than I am. So now the film’s kind of about him.” So wait, then this isn’t a documentary about Banksy? Well it is and it isn’t. Thierry Guetta is the face of the movie, and the eyes that we see the world through. As Banksy explained in a later interview “From the outset there are problems with any movie about graffiti because all the good artists refuse to show their face on camera. I needed the film to be fronted by a personality the audience could engage with.” (All These Wonderful Things, 12/21/10) And Guetta is an appealing guy; you can tell that many of the street artists interviewed liked him, sometimes against what they might have thought was their better judgment, or as Banksy says, “Thierry’s entertainment potential wasn’t difficult to spot – he actually walks into doors and falls down stairs. It was like hanging out with Groucho Marx but with funnier facial hair. Thierry arrived at a point when my world was becoming infested with hipsters and heavy irony, so his exuberant man-child innocence was fun to be around. Maybe I convinced myself Thierry was a good subject just because I liked him.” (All These Wonderful Things, 12/21/10)
Part of Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fairly straightforward history of the street art movement, with Guetta’s “exuberant innocence” and ubiquitous video camera as your guide. Guetta became enmeshed in the street art scene through his cousin, the artist Space Invader (in a fun detail, Space Invader’s identity is shielded by pixelating his face in a way that resembles the 8-bit inspired mosaics he puts up on the streets of Paris), and his outsider perspective makes him an ideal Charon, ferrying the audience into the underworld of artists and vandals. Since Guetta has documented practically every waking moment of his adult life, there is some pretty incredible footage of street artists at work, but as Banksy said, “The film was made by a very small team. It would have been even smaller if the editors didn’t keep having mental breakdowns. They went through over 10,000 hours of Thierry’s tapes and got literally seconds of usable footage out of it.” (L.A. Weekly, 4/8/10) A glimpse of the documentary Guetta had been planning, called Life Remote Control, gives you an idea of what a herculean task the editors, led by Chris King and Tom Fulford, were assigned, and what an amazing job they did.
A lot has been made of whether or not Exit Through the Gift Shop is a “real” documentary. That is, how much of the story was manipulated by Banksy and his crew, and who Mr. Brainwash really is. You can find articles upon articles about elaborate conspiracies. For what it’s worth I believe the filmmakers when they say it’s all true, but I also think the people obsessed with the veracity of it are missing the point. What Exit Through the Gift Shop really is at the end of the day is a wickedly funny treatise on art: what makes it good, what makes it bad, and what in fact makes it Art to begin with. These are questions that Banksy as a graffiti artist who has hit the mainstream has obviously thought about (he has said: “I’m not so interested in convincing people in the art world that what I do is ‘art,’ I’m more bothered about convincing people in the graffiti community that what I do is really vandalism.” (L.A. Weekly, 4/8/10) ), and his role in the commodification of street art is something he can be seen struggling with. Exit Through the Gift Shop allows you to peek for a little while into the tangled brain of one of the most creative artists working today and realized that he both takes everything and nothing seriously, making it at its heart true in the most fundamental sense. It is itself a work of art and a wild ride at that. “I’ve learnt from experience that a painting isn’t finished when you put down your brush – that’s when it starts. The public reaction is what supplies meaning and value. Art comes alive in the arguments you have about it. If we’ve done our job properly with EXIT, then the best part of the entire movie is the conversation in the car park afterwards.” (All These Wonderful Things, 12/21/10)
Exit Through the Gift Shop then becomes that rarest of art documentaries, one that actually leaves viewers with a better sense of the gifted versus the phony. In several senses, Banksy has created a monster. – Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York