OK, so here’s the setup: There’s this crazy French dude living in Los Angeles by the name of Thierry Guetta. He carries a video camera wherever he goes and is seemingly addicted to documenting everything that happens in his life. While on vacation in France, Guetta hooks up with a distant cousin who happens to be an up-and-coming street artist by the pseudonym of Space Invader. By following Space Invader around, Guetta finds himself on the cusp of a growing art movement. Soon, Guetta’s camera is pointed at the likes of Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Buff Monster, Swoon, Borf and others as they practice their quasi-legal mixture of art and vandalism. Graffiti, stenciling, stickering, postering and guerilla art installation are just some of the hallmarks of this edgy genre, and here they are, laid bare for Guetta’s little digital camera.
As a documentary about street art, Exit Through the Gift Shop has some rare insight into this underground movement and the people who practice it. For years, apparently, Guetta captured these unconventional artists and their rising fame. Chief among these street art practitioners is cheeky British lad Banksy. Mysterious, notoriously press-shy and highly secretive, Banksy has remained a phantom to the general public—even while pulling off high-style art crimes like sneaking his paintings into London’s Tate Museum or bombing (spray-painting, that is) the Israeli West Bank barrier or doing a secret Guantánamo Bay installation at Disneyland.
Banksy appears here on camera (always in silhouette or with his face hidden by digital mosaic). But he’s also credited as the film’s director. So what about our main camera-slinger Thierry Guetta? Well, turns out Guetta’s long-promised documentary about the birth of the street art movement is something of a pipe dream. Mr. Guetta comes across as an enthusiastic and quite genial, but rather hopelessly naive, fanboy. He doesn’t know the first thing about making an actual film and has simply amassed thousands of filled-up, uncatalogued videotapes. As Banksy eventually says of the ubiquitous Frenchman, “It was becoming clear to me he wasn’t a filmmaker. He was just an insane guy with a camera.” So, at some point in the course of this very documentary we’re watching, Banksy takes over, appropriating Guetta’s tapes and trying to complete the film himself.
All of which begs the question: Is this just one big put-on?
My answer: Don’t know, don’t care. Given Banksy’s propensity for pop-cultural pranks, it seems awfully likely. Yet I resisted the urge to do—even for purposes of self-edification—the most minimal of Internet searches to find out if this film’s claims are genuine. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Is Exit Through the Gift Shop a documentary? A work of fiction? A little from column A and a little from column B? Honestly, I don’t care and neither should you.
Magnificent reality or elaborate hoax, Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of the most clever-minded looks at modern art and its precarious position between the artistic and the commercial, the original and the appropriative, the high-minded and the rebellious. It brings to mind This Is Spinal Tap—a spoof so straight-faced and respectful of its subject matter that it became a valid part of the culture. Real heavy metal musicians love Spinal Tap, and the band has toured several times in legitimate concert venues. The faux has become real.
The “story” laid out in Exit Through the Gift Shop is littered with surprises, and to discuss much more of what happens on screen would spoil some of the twisted delights that await audiences. Rest assured, it’s very funny and quite entertaining. The film’s self-reflexive, mirrors-
Is it wrong for art to have a sense of humor? I don’t know. Ask René Magritte and his painting of a pipe. Called “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Which is not a pipe. But is, technically speaking, a painting of a pipe. Making it, semantic arguments aside, a pipe. So, at the end of the day and with a certain amount of art history behind us, we can all agree on one thing about Exit Through the Gift Shop: This is not a documentary.