Exit Through The Gift Shop Review: Who Needs Truth? This Is Art

The most entertaining film released to date in 2010 isn't a tentpole, a potential blockbuster, a 3D epic or a high-concept fantasy. It is Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary that may be at least partially fiction. I hope it is partially fiction, but which part doesn't really matter. Purportedly orchestrated by Banksy, the most famous and elusive of street artists, the film skirts the edge of pretension as it peers into the midnight world of artists who tag, stencil and poster public spaces. But the film is orchestrated as what?

The subject is art, but the tipping points are personality and desire. At the center of it all is a schlumpy man, a retailer turned filmmaker turned artist who may actually be too perfect a subject to be true. He is a lens through which we can clearly see so much about what art can be to individuals, and what it becomes when someone slaps on a price tag, and whether is all bullshit from moment one, anyway.

(Note: The facts of the film discussed below are well-known in some circles, but if you're coming to this story completely cold — which is the best way to do it — consider this review as containing mild spoilers.)

The man is Thierry Guetta, a French businessman who makes his living selling high-priced vintage clothes, discovers a love for video cameras and subsequently videotapes everything in his life. Guetta never watches or catalogs his tapes; the act of shooting video, and the paradoxical distance and access that the camera fosters, seem to be enough. He's a playful, well-intentioned buffoon; an easy personality to enjoy, with his eager energy and absurd mustache.

A chance encounter leads to a new world, and a purpose. Driven to document the network of guerrilla street art, Guetta meets and assists artists like the famous Shepard Fairey. His holy grail is to shoot the determinately reclusive Banksy, whose identity had never been revealed. (But who has been photographed at work.)

Banksy and Guetta do collide, and the videographer becomes a part of the artist's inner circle. Guetta is little more than a surveillance camera who can also carry a ladder, and now he's working for the artist who has commented against the very idea of surveillance? You might hear the other shoe start to drop right about now. When Banksy's first LA show becomes a major commercial enterprise, the artist insists that Guetta has to make a film that tells the truth about street art.

Turns out, Guetta isn't a filmmaker at all, and he finds a new purpose. He creates his own artistic persona, Mr. Brainwash, essentially a parody of the man he once admired from a distance. Banksy has a team of assistants; Guetta fakes The Factory, hiring graphic designers to sweatshop his 'work.' Where's the line? What's the difference between them? Is this the tables being turned, or is this the process of art, where inspiration and theft can be so similar?

As Mr. Brainwash, Guetta, the former vintage retailer, comes full circle. He just opens a bigger store to push less valuable goods at significantly higher prices. And people love it. But is the frenzy driven by true appreciation, or the notion that buyers are getting an 'early in' on the work of the next Banksy? Is the empty Mr. Brainwash mania fundamentally the same as all other art fever?

Answers are not forthcoming. How could they be? The assembled art of Mr. Brainwash is obviously terrible, but he has fans. Real ones. The questions posed above, and throughout the film, basically become the same question: "what is art, and is this it?" The answers will seem perfectly evident to everyone, but everyone's answers are likely to be different.

Exit Through the Gift Shop keeps any too-serious attitude at bay with a droll narration by Rhys Ifans, presumably written by Banksy. Imagine something like Stephen Fry's wonderful voicing of the Hitchhiker's Guide applied to the world of street art and huckster cash-ins. Ifans shapes the tale, and Guetta's childish enthusiasm keeps it weird. Banksy (or 'Banksy') is like the chorus; the film cuts back to him whenever there's a point to drive home with a shrug. Back to Hitchhikers: Guetta is essentially Zaphod Beeblebrox, while Banksy is Arthur Dent plus Gag Halfrunt. "Vell, Thierry's just zis guy, you know?" Or maybe he's a lot more than that.

So, the final question. 'How much of this is real?' Is Mr. Brainwash a Banksy construction? Was the whole thing staged, the longest film con ever made? Doesn't really matter. The film is wildly entertaining whether it is objectively 'real' or not. I get the idea that, as a 'movement,' Banksy thinks street art is often a con whether you're putting his work on a pedestal, or forking over thousands for a Mr. Brainwash 'original.' But on an individual level, it remains rather wonderful.

I look at Banksy's art and see something that communicates thought and ideas. I see Mr. Brainwash's work and it looks like echoes and noise. I look at Shepard Fairey and see a man who hit the nail right on the head a couple times, and then just kept hammering. Exit Through the Gift Shop sees them all as organs of the same beast that ingests ideas, money and desire and spits out art.

/Film score: 10/10