The question of what qualifies as art is one that I essentially have to weigh in on with each movie I review. Sure, most of the movies I cover for DVDTalk are aiming for entertainment first and artistic merit second (or at least, I hope they are), but I suppose even saying that means I've theoretically answered the question. Now, my knowledge of the subject is no deeper than the average citizen, but from what I've seen, today's art is generally focused on the minimalist, the abstract, and the meta. From people documenting every day of their life through photographs, to photographs of photographs, a good chunk of the material out there is dizzyingly self-reflexive. Does that prevent it from being art? My friend and I have spent hours debating the issue of Nigel Tomm's Hamlet -- a film I learned about via its DVDTalk review, which apparently consists of an hour of plain, white screen -- and in the past, I've come down the side that not everything can be art. Thanks to Banksy's film Exit Through the Gift Shop, I've come out thinking that maybe art is less of a dialogue between the artist and the viewer and more of an unwitting self-portrait of the artist themselves, and to that end, whe have Thierry Guetta.
In the most basic way, Guetta has art in his bones. For years, this friendly Frenchman went about his business, which in this case was a popular low-cost clothing store, while his passion remained dormant, waiting to be discovered. One fateful day, someone sticks a camcorder into Guetta's hands, and the two instantly become literally inseparable (footage of Thierry sleeping, using the restroom, and showering are presented as evidence). Something in Guetta possesses him to keep the camera around, because it's a way of expressing himself, and for years, this stream-of-consciousness project remains unfocused.
Guetta is visiting his cousin when he discovers the young man's secret passion: he is Space Invader, a local tagger who pastes pre-made tiles of characters from the popular video game in random places around France. Guetta immediately begins tailing Space Invader, and later his friends, which eventually expand to include an American named Shepard Fairey. Fairey is not only a well-known tagger, but more recently created the iconic red-and-blue Obama posters that were at the center of his campaign. Fairey isn't just a hobbyist, he's the real deal, and suddenly, Guetta's interest becomes a full-fledged obsession. For months, he follows Fairey and his friends around, having hit on the idea that he should film a documentary about street art, but his inability to focus rears its head again. Thierry shows us the sheer number of tapes he's collected while filming 24/7, and sorting it all out really seems akin to climbing Mount Everest (the sight of this insurmountable mess of data, combined with Guetta's admission that he has almost no organization system whatsoever, prompted groans of despair from my audience). Lost without a concrete goal and looking for the mythical missing piece of the puzzle, Guetta becomes focused on scoring an interview with the reclusive Banksy, one of the most notable -- and mysterious -- taggers alive.
Exit Through the Gift Shop was actually directed by Banksy himself, and it cleverly starts out with the exact same kinds of material about street art and tagging that might have comprised Guetta's documentary, had it ever made it to the big screen. But around the same time Guetta meets Banksy, Guetta's desire to create art and express himself becomes inescapable, and instead of sifting through over ten years worth of video footage, he starts creating his own street art, and Banksy, who has become his friend, decides that it might be wiser to turn the camera onto Thierry. Without getting too specific, the art that Guetta creates is completely reflexive, birthed exclusively from the fact that he has the means and is surrounded by talented artists who are clearly doing good work. Yet Guetta is almost magically, impossibly oblivious to this; his interview segments in the film form a picture of a man so innocent he could load the entire contents of a store into a truck and not know he was shoplifting.
This leads to a bigger question: is that a problem? Does that render the art invalid in some way? I think not. Guetta's motives are clearly genuine, even if he's just fumbling around in the dark, and observing this process is the heart of Gift Shop. If there was any hint that Guetta was really and truly cashing in on the works of others, he'd become a malicious monster, but the man's train-of-others'-consciousness creations feel honest, in some backwards way. Perhaps even more amazing is his resilience to criticism. The more people shuffle through his gallery and praise him as a "strong new voice" in the artistic community, the deeper he goes into his "Mister Brainwash" persona. Some people might criticize Banksy for using relative kid gloves on Guetta by the end of the movie, but I think it's the right choice. There's never a sense that the man is being ganged up on in his own documentary, and his actions are always allowed to speak for themselves.
Banksy's "interview" bits with various figures in the street art game, including Thierry himself, are wryly funny. In particular, his own on-camera sessions are funny enough that they seem as if he might have pre-written them (and, why not? He's the director), but there's no faking Guetta's extremely enthusiastic, extremely misguided, extremely French personality, and the movie is a joy. Even if Guetta's creations are suspect, Gift Shop is not; it's a funny film that makes its points about everyone involved without outright ridiculing them, while covertly painting a vivid, intriguing portrait of an artistic movement at the same time.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.