Directed by Banksy
**** (four stars)
The subjectivity of art is labyrinthine, cyclical, confounding, perplexing, and bottomless. To paraphrase the classic saying regarding one’s response to art, one person’s perception of trash is another person’s perception of the most glorious art to grace his or her eyes. In “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” the exuberant and exhilarating new documentary, supposedly directed by the elusive and unseen street artist known simply as “Banksy” (more on that later), we are graced with a film that is as labyrinthine, cyclical, confounding, perplexing, and bottomless about its subjects as it is about the nature of art itself. It is not only and easily one of the year’s best films, it is an astoundingly entertaining and fascinating trip through the wires of a man, with desires of being a filmmaker who ultimately becomes a famous street artist but actually may simply be a delusional, manipulative fraud.
“Exit Through The Gift Shop” opens upon the shrouded and electronically voice altered figure of Banksy, who confesses to the audience that the film we are about to view was originally intended to be about him but in turn, it has become about an individual who just may be a much more interesting subject. After that admonition, we are quickly introduced to eccentric French immigrant and Los Angeles resident Thierry Guetta, husband, Father, vintage clothing shop owner and compulsive videographer who possesses obsessive notions of actually being a filmmaker as he documents every single aspect of his life onto videotapes he never, ever watches after he completes them.
Throughout his cinematic pursuits while jaunting through France, he eventually decides to capture the work of his cousin, a street artist known as Space Invader (due to his artwork of recreating tile art versions of the classic video game characters), a choice which then leads Thierry into the expansive underground nighttime world of graffiti artists. Thierry’s enthusiasm and eagerness to document the work of artists whose endeavors are demolished as quickly as they are created, ingratiates him to this unique collective. Soon, doors are opened to for Thierry to document the work of more recognized talents for a proposed documentary about street artists, most notably Shepherd Fairey (known for his Andre the Giant inspired “OBEY” artwork plus the now iconic pop art image of the President Barack Obama “HOPE” poster).
As Thierry compiles tape after tape after tape of more footage, knowing fully well that he does not intend or have the wherewithal to ever create the finished product of something such as a documentary, he cannot help himself but to attempt to locate and interview the most mysterious figure within the world of street artists, the internationally known Banksy. This secretive artist, who has been known to inject his own subversive artwork directly in between the paintings at world famous museums, like the Museum Of Modern Art, is Thierry’s “golden goose.” Through a series of events, the two men meet, form a tentative friendship and partnership where for the first time, Banksy has allowed someone outside of his formal circle to document his process.
From this point, we are shown the premiere of Banksy’s Los Angeles Skid Row debut of his art show, “Barely Legal,” the reveal of Thierry’s undisciplined, headache inducing documentary "Life Remote Control," and his subsequent reinvention as a street artist known as Mr. Brainwash. Throughout the proceedings, and through Banksy's cinematic eye, we are able to view precisely how the cyclical nature of art continuously redefines itself and how the ones who were once artistically ignored suddenly rise up to become the gatekeepers who then artistically ignore the new breed.
In its scant 87 minute running time, “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” covers a mammoth amount of conceptual ground which I think will and should encourage equally mammoth discussions and debates about art. First, it is a film that explores the legitimization of an art form that is, by its nature, designed to be illegitimate. If the gatekeepers of the modern art world look upon street artists as nothing more than mere vandals, it fascinated me tremendously to see how this collective of so-called vandals, these “ghosts” in the art world, strongly desired that their work was not only seen by the public but that they would also desire a level of recognition and notoriety for themselves as well.
With the arrival of Thierry and his eventual transformation into Mr. Brainwash, it became equally fascinating to witness the street artist community’s own transformation from the ridiculed to the new gatekeepers. Ones who now get to determine the legitimacy, nature and rules for others. To see how their acceptance of Thierry when he was a fan changes to levels of disdain, irritation, rejection and disgust once he becomes a contemporary in the eyes of the public but also within Thierry’s own mind was spellbinding to me.
Continuing with the cyclical theme is the film’s central relationship between Thierry and Banksy, two compulsively watchable characters who are also engaging storytellers. Yes, we hear tales about their exploits, as if they are artistic partners in crime, especially a great anecdote set at Disneyland where Banksy deposited a Guantanamo Bay themed piece of three-dimensional art inside one of the rides while Thierry silently filmed. But, how the twosome eventually switch their respective artistic roles provided the film with extra and almost exciting narrative juice. Thierry is the would-be filmmaker who metamorphoses into a would-be artist while Banksy the artist becomes the filmmaker, all the way to directing this film and both transformation are essentially through means of artistic robbery. Thierry’s somewhat completed documentary is usurped by Banksy, who deems it a failure, but then Thierry usurps Banksy’s entire career by utilizing every single technique Banksy taught to him. “Exit Through The Gift Shop” is a tale of two thieves, compellingly and smartly told.
Above all of the colorful personalities lies the grandest questions of all: What is art and can anyone make art? This notion of who is able to create art combined with the themes of theft raced through my head as I watched and it made me think about all forms of artistic expression and how there is always a bit of thievery and pilfering involved. If you take a side step into the world of music for instance, what would Elvis Presley or The Rolling Stones be without the blues? Frankly, neither would have ever recorded a single note, in my opinion. What about hip-hop culture with its usage of samples and creating works that are built from pre-existing material that was composed from thin air by others? Is that art? When I listen to Public Enemy's "Fear Of A Black Planet" (1990), De La Soul's "3 FT High and Rising" (1989) or DJ Shadow's "Endtroducing..." (1996), it is a resounding "YES!" But, with Puff Daddy or P. Diddy or whatever he is calling himself, uh....nope!
In the world of “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” when Banksy takes a pre-existing image and manipulates it to infuse his own sensibilities and Thierry does the same thing, (albeit through a team of people he hires to do the work for him while claiming the credit for himself a la the mythical Tom Sawyer), why is Bansky’s work considered art and Thierry’s not? And what of the people who know nothing of either men and see the work freshly? How do their perceptions inform and validate the work of both men? The amount of money spectators spend to possess the work also increases the value of the art in question but why? If mass sums of money make that large of a difference concerning artistic value, then what makes a prefabricated piece from Mr. Brainwash any different than a Picasso?
And what of Thierry? Is he a manic fool, living through the lives of other’s work like a sycophant or is he some sort of a savant?
Take the name of “Mr. Brainwash.” Is that identity Thierry’s entire position to pull one over on the public and the street artists? Is Thierry literally brainwashing us all or is it just dumb luck that he even had one show in the first place? Then, there is the matter “Life Remote Control,” the 90 minute feature delivered to Banksy for viewing. The film itself, of which 14 minutes can be seen as a special feature on the DVD, is an audio/visual disaster. To my eyes, it was an aimless collage of sights and sounds but at the same time, the first thought that came to my mind when I saw the footage was The Beatles’ sound collage “Revolution #9” from “The White Album” (1968). I remember first hearing that song as a child and hating every moment of it because there was absolute nothing within the nearly nine minute piece that resembled a song in the least. Every time I listened to the album, I would get up and move the record needle past the song or back to the beginning of side four, avoiding it altogether. But then, several adults in my life, from relatives to teachers would profess the high artistic value of “Revolution #9,” a belief that would force me to revisit it every so often and now it has reached the point where I agree with those people and could not, in any way imagine that album without that piece. Certainly I have changed over the years but did the song change? When did this change, from trash to art and why?
With Thierry’s movie, it seemed obvious to me that “Life Remote Control” was a voyage through his ADD addled mind and since the film represented himself, is that not a real representation of art even if it is terrible?
And even beyond everything I have written about, there are questions hovering around this film that suggests that perhaps the whole thing is some sort of elaborate hoax. That perhaps Thierry and the unseen Banksy just may be one and the same or that the film itself is one grandly designed piece of art and not a documentary at all. I don’t know and in some respects, I really don’t care terribly much because what we do have with “Exit Through The Gift Shop” is something that forces us all to question and explore the inherent truth and lies about art and the ones who create. In many ways, this film reminded me of Director Amir Bar-Lev’s extraordinary 2007 documentary “My Kid Could Paint That,” which explored the controversy surrounding the validity and fame of then four-year-old artistic prodigy Marla Olmstead. Both films are about the intentions that revolve around the work itself and how our perceptions inform artistic value.
As far as I am concerned, whether this film was truthful or a complete farce, “Exit Through The Gift Shop” and the wheel of art it examined was an experience unlike any I have had with the movies this year and I implore you to race to your local video store to check it out.
I am anxiously awaiting the discussions we can have about it.