Exit Through the Gift Shop, street-art prankumentary, rated R, CCA Cinematheque, 4 chiles
Billed as “the world’s first street-art disaster movie” Exit Through
the Gift Shop is a laugh-out-loud comedy and prank-show-cum-documentary that shows how street art was transformed from a dangerous, underground artistic pursuit into a highly profitable farce, in which celebrity onlookers like Christina Aguilera drop tens of thousands of dollars for spray-paint stencils of Queen Victoria having lesbian sex.
It is the tale of two men, Bristol street artist Banksy and Thierry Guetta, a French expat living in L.A. who is obsessed with documenting the world of street art. Banksy is a first-rate artist and a world-class provocateur. Under cover of night, he sneaked along the divisive West Bank wall in Israel to paint a mural of a Palestinian girl being lifted over the barrier by a balloon. In Alabama, he stenciled a robed Klansman hanging in a noose on the side of an abandoned building. Most stunning of all, he smuggled a mannequin — hooded and garbed in an orange Guantánamo Bay prison uniform — into Disneyland, planting it within full view of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride, a political prank that shut down the park for half a day.
Guetta couldn’t be more his opposite. A dealer of vintage clothes, he has rangy hair and mutton chops that make him look like a scoundrel out of a Dickens novel. He ditches his wife and children on multiple occasions to jet around the world, filming street artists — beginning with his cousin, known by his street sobriquet, Space Invader. Having a connection in this notoriously guarded pack of insiders, Guetta moves on to film the luminaries of a scene that narrator Rhys Ifans says was “poised to become the biggest countercultural movement since punk.”
Guetta tags along with New York street artist Swoon as she clandestinely makes wheatpastings. He scales warehouse roofs to film Shepard Fairey, the internationally celebrated street artist behind the Obama “Hope” poster. Then, most impressive of all, he begins filming Banksy, an artist so reclusive that he only appears in the film in silhouette, wearing a hoodie, with his voice altered.
It’s here where the film goes haywire. After years of filming street artists, Guetta is ordered by Banksy to make a movie. However, Guetta is completely inept as a filmmaker and ends up producing a jittery train wreck of a video that looks less like a documentary than it does a Ritalin overdose. Deeply shocked, Banksy takes control of the tapes and demands that, if Guetta is so fascinated by street art, he should start making it himself.
Guetta’s ego inflates to an appropriately Los Angelesque size. He renames himself Mr. Brainwash and mortgages his home and business to fund a small armada of painters, silk-screeners, and Photoshoppers to crank out derivative street art on a scale only previously attempted by Andy Warhol’s The Factory. He corrals Banksy and Fairey into promoting his art exhibit, exploits them to land on the cover of LA Weekly, and creates an opening for his show
Life Is Beautiful that becomes the art event of the year. Fairey looks stunned at what he’s unleashed, and Banksy seems bemused by the mercurial machinations of the art market.
Or does he? Several astute commentators have suggested that the film is one more bizarre hoax cooked up by Banksy, whose career is built around duplicity. While the thought is worth considering, Guetta, especially as his street-art alter ego, Mr. Brainwash, is a man so absurd, driven, and bizarre, he could only belong to real life. Whether it’s a fraud or not, Exit Through the Gift Shop is the documentary reckoning of street art that the movement deserves. Between the footage of Banksy smuggling his work into New York’s Museum of Modern Art and hanging it on the walls, undetected by security guards, to Fairey working on his stencil enlargements inside Kinko’s, this is the rare film that delivers on the promise of actually capturing art in all its messy, insane creation.
Beyond the comedy and the drama, the viewer comes away from the film thinking that he’s lived through one of the great moments in art history. Street art, the post-graffiti renaissance of stenciling, wheatpasting, LED art, and sticker bombing in hijacked public spaces across the world has in many ways become the Salon des Refusés of our time. You begin to realize that, just as Parisian artists twisted the arc of art history by exhibiting the work of artists rejected by the salons, today’s street artists have performed a similar service in asking us to regard our public infrastructure of highways, buildings, sidewalks, and walls as beautiful, ephemeral galleries unto themselves.
I told you, I’d have to kill you: Banksy
A barely legal elephant at Bansky’s L.A. show