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Exit Through the Gift Shop
Banksy's Exit 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 that other 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 recommended.