Through the Gift Shop utilizes the approach of Orson Welles'
F for Fake to satirize the art world and bring renewed focus to
the subversive nature and misunderstood philosophy of street artists.
It is an entertaining peek behind the scenes of the street art movement,
a faux-documentary farce, and extremely clever propaganda all in one.
It's also surprisingly understated, revealing its layered significance
more extensively upon reflection, after its short running time has ended.
Banksy, as always, comes across as a ballsy self-promoter swathed in
self-conscious mystery, yet somehow Exit Through the Gift Shop
never really feels like it's about him, exactly, let alone the valentine
to his own genius that it might appear to be upon first glance.
Banksy appears on-camera (maybe) in a hoodie, with his voice electronically
altered, to announce that his film is a quasi-accident deriving from
the "lost" footage of one Thierry Guetta, an expatriate Frenchman
living in Los Angeles who fell in with the street art crowd and became
their self-appointed documentarian. Claiming all the while that he was
creating the "ultimate street art documentary," the hyper-edited
film that Guetta shaped out of tens of thousands of hours of footage
of artists like Shepard Fairey, Monsieur Andre, and Borf turns out to
be unwatchable. To keep Guetta out of his hair, Banksy encourages him
to become a street artist himself, and Guetta assiduously throws himself
into producing an enormous exhibition, designed to rival Banksy's then-recent
LA blockbuster "Barely Legal." Guetta sells everything he
owns and re-finances his property to underwrite assembly line-style
art production on a massive scale - all of which he credits to his new
persona, Mr. Brainwash, or MBW. The show, which is a near-disaster in
the planning stages, ultimately opens to huge attendance and commensurate
sales: Guetta makes something like a million dollars in short order.
No matter how you take the story it tells - as legitimate or as a hoax
- Exit Through the Gift Shop is a film of minor genius that makes
a scorching point about the state of the "art world" with
exquisitely aloof restraint. Paired with 2009's brilliant The Art
of the Steal, about the City of Philadelphia's conspiracy to seize
the Barnes Collection, these two films definitively excoriate the art
world's dependence upon the perpetration of outright fraud. In its understated and
oblique way, Exit Through the Gift Shop discusses who is and
isn't an artist, how the title of "artist" is or isn't defined,
that art is collected for reasons having nothing to do with the reasons
it is created, that fraud exists at every level in the art world, and
that transparent fraud is itself often considered art by those who are
in a position to profit off of such a characterization.
As far as the question of whether or not the film is a hoax and whether
or not Guetta himself is a fictional character, my own suspicion is
that the first half of the film - detailing Guetta's attempt to document
the major street artists of our time - is mostly true, with the second
half - focusing on Guetta's emergence as a art world superstar - being
mostly a staged put-on. But I don't really care to speculate any further
- nor am I curious about what bits are "real" and which are
not. Banksy's film has a clear purpose and concept behind it, unlike
cinematic hoax of 2010.
The film works, no matter how you take it. Guetta is a wonderful personality
- someone who would be maddening to know in real life, but whose determined
idiocy makes him the perfect subject for this film which is, at bottom,
a comedy. The construction of Exit
Through the Gift Shop is narratively sound, and wisely avoids hinting
at what becomes of Guetta, allowing events to unfold with an unexpected
naturalness. Banksy himself is only on the fringes of the proceedings,
and allows themes to emerge without seeming contrived or highlighted.
Banksy's biggest achievement is to tell a story of post-modern concerns
and complaints utilizing a seemingly straightforward framework and having
the whole thing hang together without ever referring back to the world
outside of the film itself. Exit
Through the Gift Shop tweaks the nose of post-modernism while making
the best possible use of its tenets.
Image and Sound
Oscilloscope Laboratories presents the feature in a good 16:9 transfer.
The film is a compilation of material shot at (supposedly) different
times, and on different kinds of cameras. The interview footage is all
shot on what I presume is digital video, and looks best. Guetta's footage
of street artists at work looks older and less sharp, but appropriately
so. All around, the transfer works well, with the different bits of
video datable by their relative clarity and contrast. The stereo soundtrack
is immersive and balanced, and seems to reflect a higher standard than
other "guerrilla" documentaries, further suggesting that much
of it was staged.
There are only a few short extras, but they are entertaining. First
up is More Brainwashing: Deleted Scenes (about 5:30). Then there
is A Star is Born: MBW at Cans Festival (7:09). Life Remote
Control: Lawyer's Edit (15:03) is a slimmed-down version of the
90-minute "documentary" that Guetta delivered to an unimpressed
Banksy. B Movie: A Film About Banksy (13:36) is a quick overview
of the artist's life and work. As with everything else on the DVD, it's
unclear how much of his biography is true.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of 2010's best films. It is
subtle, layered, complicated, and hilarious. It is one of those increasingly
rare films that demand and reward multiple viewings - and it comes in
another solid DVD package from Oscilloscope Laboratories. Highly
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.