“I mean, it’s not ‘Gone With The Wind,’ but there’s probably a moral in it somewhere”
Was it a hoax? Was it a real documentary? Whatever it is, ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’ is compulsive viewing. I’ve been meaning to watch the movie about Banksy for a while now, but chanced to see it on Netflix before doing a spot of ironing (I have to watch something whilst ironing. Last week I started to watch ‘The Resurrection of Jake The Snake’, which was a deeply moving documentary about a wrestling legend). ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’ wasn’t what I was expecting at all. Yes, Banksy was in it, but it was more about the (fictional? Real?) pseudo-filmmaker, Thierry Guetta and the history of street art. I got more than what I bargained for, in a fantastic way.
Banksy opens the film saying that there might be in a moral within it. His voice is distorted and his face is blacked out. Is it Banksy at all? That is something we’ll never know. But the documentary is not all about Banksy. Thierry Guetta is the focus of this documentary. Banksy is merely a commentator, a talking head that pops up every now and again to talk about Guetta or street art. Guetta, a French immigrant in California, has been obsessed with video cameras since he laid his eyes on one. Visiting the street artist Invader, Guetta found another, more specific obsession: filming street artists. He eventually meets the mythical Banksy, and Guetta’s life takes an unexpected turn soon afterwards…
“It was like a spiral, and I fall into it”
Obviously, the biggest question about the film is: is it real? That’s at least a quarter of the entertainment surrounding ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop.’ Guetta’s rise to fame and fortune inside the street artist world seems a little convenient and coincidental to be true. In fact, Guetta’s whole story seems too bizarre to be true. Before he started filming street artists, he ran a successful retro clothes shop. It seems he let that go after he began to film street artists. How did he afford to travel the world to find these street artists? How did he feed his family, consisting of a wife and two kids? Is he actually Banksy disguised by ridiculous sideburns and a dodgy French accent?
Insight into the work of notable street artists such as Invader and Shepard Fairey is interesting, but the man we all came to see is Banksy. We see Guetta’s footage of the aforementioned Barely Legal installation with a painted elephant. We see other footage of Banksy painting his infamous work on the West Bank. However, what really perked my interest was Banksy’s Guantanamo Bay doll in Disneyland, which Guetta filmed. Like his West Bank work, it made a statement and was controversial. Guetta’s description of the Mickey Mouse police is at once hilarious and slightly terrifying.
Mockumentary or documentary, the film conveniently tracks the history of street art, from the very beginnings, to ‘mass-produced’ street art (the big names in the industry have large staff and printing offices to create their work), to becoming a big money maker (starting with Banksy’s work being auctioned off for huge amounts of cash). For that brief history alone, the film is worth watching. To see something ostensibly illegal making people like Banksy millionaires is illuminating. Why do people pay big money for an artwork that is meant to be temporary and illegal? Is the questionable legality increase the value of it? When Banksy opens up an installation, is that still street art? Is painting an elephant street art (or, indeed, any art at all?)?
“It’s one of those things where I’m not quite sure why I’m here, but I’m excited about it”
Guetta, real or not, is an innovative, bizarre, and completely lovable character. Yes, it seems he abandons his family in pursuit of street artists, but his broken English, philosophy (“I don’t know how to play chess. But life is a chess game for me”), and bumbling persona make him a sympathetic man. At one point in the film, Banksy asks him to make a documentary about street art from the masses of footage Guetta has accumulated over the years. We see a snippet of Guetta’s documentary, ‘Life Remote Control.’ It’s an unwatchable mess, although I’d love to see the full thing! Banksy tells Guetta to go to California and create his own street art, so that Banksy can create his own documentary using Guetta’s footage (without Guetta’s knowledge). The following events are unbelievable, but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Is it a commentary on the gullibility of consumers? When people pay hundreds of thousands for purported street art, are they paying for the art’s perceived value? Does it have any value in and of itself? Of course, that question can be applied to all art. But it seems pertinent with street art, with its modern dominance (mainly thanks to Banksy).
Whether you watch is as a mockumentary or a documentary, you’ll be intrigued and gripped from the very beginning. You may not see as much Banksy as you want, but from the Barely Legal installation to the Disneyland stunt, there’s just enough Banksy to satisfy mere curiosity. The question of the film’s validity won’t be the only question that lingers in your mind after a viewing. You’ll ask yourself all sorts of questions, about the meaning of art, about the value of art, and what qualifies as art. These questions have existed since art first began (probably), but they are given a fresh spin in the world of street art. For that alone, ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’ is worth a watch. But there’s plenty more than the philosophy of art contained within it. The moral of the film may be that art only has perceived value. People can churn out any old rubbish as long as people buy it.
VERDICT: 9/10. A superb documentary, whether it’s true or fictional. ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’ raises important questions about street art and gives us a little insight into Banksy’s philosophy. As for Thierry Guetta…is he real? Or is he Memorex?
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