Exit Through The Gift Shop, documentary, Banksy, street art

Having heard about Exit Through The Gift Shop for the better part of a year, I finally had a chance to sit down and watch it last night with Cami when she asked “What documentaries do we have in our Netflix queue?”

For the record, she balked on watching Helvetica. So watching famed British street artist Banksy’s documentary was kind of a compromise.

Despite effusive praise of the movie from both friends and reviewers a like, I didn’t have a concept of what the film was actually about. I was pleasantly surprised.

It’s not the definitive documentary of the street art movement, if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s not filled with a bunch of talking heads discussing the sociological imprint of this bastardized version of pop art. The history of street art informs the narrative, but Exit Through The Gift Shop is not explicitly about that subject.

Instead, Banksy takes footage assembled by a French shop owner (by way of Los Angeles) named Theirry Guetta and slowly turns the camera on him.

Guetta is presented as a passionate (if someone guileless) chronicler of the street art movement. He obsessively videotapes everything and after visiting with his cousin – the renown street artist known as “Invader” – does he fall head first into their world.

Despite the threat of prosecution for what is (in the law’s eyes) graffiti and destruction of prosecution, several street artists agree to be captured by Theirry’s lens under the assumption that he will cut together a documentary about their medium. Their art is temporary and often quickly removed. It deserved to be documented.

As the movement grows, Banksy is introduced as Guetta’s white whale. Highly prolific, satirical, political and elusive, Guetta is convinced his “documentary” cannot be completed until he captures Banksy on film. He eventually befriends the artist and gains his trust. But things turn south after Banksy prompts Guetta to make the film he’s long alluded to.

With no film making skills of his own, Guetta produces an unwatchable mess called Life Remote Control. A spastic, channel-surfing montage of footage with no coherent narrative.

It is at this point that Banksy convinces Guetta to leave the raw footage with him and prompts him to become a street artist in his own right.

Just as Guetta was once consumed with chronicling the lives and work of street artists, he takes to the streets of Los Angeles pasting buildings with his work under the pseudonym “Mr. Brainwash.”

What follows is an astonishing turn of events as Guetta creates a studio, hires hundreds of artists to construct pieces of his vision and launches a gallery show and becomes an art celebrity in record time.

The film pulls no punches by portraying Guetta’s work as manufactured and derivative. Nor does it spare any scorn for art scenesters who go along with the fraud so readily.

What ultimately emerges is an incisive critique of the art world and how something as intentionally guerrilla and ideologically subversive as street art can be co-opted, homogenized and turned into a product by enterprising entrepreneurs like Thierry Guetta.

“There’s no one like Thierry,” admits Banksy. “Even though his art looks like everyone else’s.”

Fans of street art movement might not get all of their questions answered by watching Exit Through The Gift Shop. But they’ll get an unflinching look at the role authenticity plays in creating meaning from art.