Exit through the Gift Shop is a movie you can approach two different ways. Either this is the story of a documentary filmmaker who set out to make a movie about street art but in the process becomes a street artist himself, or it is an elaborate put on by the world’s leading street artist, Banksy. Whichever way I looked at it, I couldn’t help but think that either option amounts to the same thing: cynical and corrupt artists becoming exactly what they think they are satirizing. It was all too depressing to enjoy.
Supposedly the movie is about filmmaker Thierry Guetta, a French transplant to Los Angeles who had an obsession with videotaping everything in his life (which has to be hell on his camera batteries). He’s one of those perennial L.A. hangers-on who never shave but always wear the trendiest clothes, looking for a way into the fame and fortune that so many come here to find. In the process of his personal documentation he stumbled into the world of street art and decided, since he wasn’t doing anything else, why not make a documentary about the world of street artists. That would have been fascinating movie, instead what we get is Exit through the Gift Shop.
I wanted to see a movie about street artists, what they are doing, and why. I was enthralled by some of the early footage about famous street artists that Guetta hooked up with like Shepard Fairey and, the grand pubah of the street art world, Banksy. We get to watch them work and see some impressive pieces of art (including Banksy surreptitiously hanging his own darkly ironic work in the British National Gallery.) I was especially tickled by the artist who spray painted in huge letters “Sorry about your wall” on the side of a building. Their works can be subversive, and are often cleverly satirical. This is a whole world that I had only been vaguely aware before: sure I had seen Fairey’s Andre the Giant Obey posters plastered all over Los Angeles, but I had never stopped to really think about where they came from. I always assumed that I was just out of the loop on some trendy gag (which I guess I was.) I’m now rethinking some of the other things plastered on city walls that caught my passing attention (like whoever it is that has been warning L.A. of the impending giant robot invasion), but I realize now it is the work of a group of young people who probably see themselves taking up the mantle of other contrarian artists like Dadaists of the early twentieth century.
This all sounds great but at some point Banksy supposedly asked Guetta to see a cut of what was really a non-existent documentary. When he saw what Guetta handed him he took over the film and decided to make it about the filmmaker – the subject turns the camera around – under the pretense that Guetta was more interesting than anything he had filmed. Well, he isn’t. Once Banksy took over the film, Guetta began creating his own street art (sort of) and set out to put together a major show in Los Angeles. With the support of Banksy and Fairey, Guetta (or Mr. Brainwash as he now calls himself – but I refuse to use that piece of manufactured nonsense) created a huge stir in L.A., reportedly selling over a million dollars worth of art.
When Banksy turns the documentary around onto Guetta the whole movie just drags to a halt. First of all, he is not a compelling character. He’s feels so phony I was never able to connect with him. Every time he speaks it feels like he’s reading from a script and not very well. And we never get a clear sense of why Guetta became an artist. In the grand tradition of Thomas Kinkade, Guetta hired a team of graphic artists to create his pieces, despite his annoying habit of calling them works “I created.” He had the idea, others with the talent and know-how actually created them. But even those ideas are obscure. When asked what it all means or what he is trying to say his answer sounds like a politician trying to explain how $20,000 in cash ended up in his freezer. I get a sense that he doesn’t even have a point of view beyond a juvenile critique of the intertwining of art and celebrity, and the nature of celebrity in media obsessed culture, themes that subversive and counterculture artists have been beating with a dead horse for about 100 years. It is clear that the only motivations are to make money and snookering the art world is one way to do it. There is nothing fresh there. Everything on the walls are things we’ve seen before – pop art in the twenty-first century. This is stuff Andy Warhol was doing forty years ago.
The picture is billed as a “film by Banksy,” It’s hard to trust anything with Banksy’s fingerprints all over it. It seems clear though that the whole documentary and the “Mr. Brainwash” phenomenon are manufactured as some sort of comment on the intertwining of art and celebrity, Guetta and his “art” are most likely all creations of Banksy, a huge piece of fake vomit for the art world to coo over while they all laugh. If so, the anger I’m expressing is exactly the reaction Banksy was after. If that’s the case does that mean it’s actually a good movie? Well, no, not really. It isn’t much of a statement if the joke is so obscure that no one except those on the inside get it.
I’m no art snob. Art doesn’t have to mean anything, but it should come from someplace genuine, even if that place is ugly or uncomfortable. Banksy’s movie is just plain cynical. How about a real movie about street artists instead of this feature length piece of obscure irony? Would anyone like this movie if they weren’t “in on it”? I doubt it. The ultimate irony would be if all these people applauding the gag found out there was no gag at all. Because whether this movie is genuine or a product of Banksy’s sense of humor, it comes out to the same thing. Anthony Lane in the New Yorker is one of the few critics who caught on to the emptiness of the movie. He says it “feels dangerously close to the promotion of a cult – almost, dare say it, of a brand. Nothing by Banksy or his acolytes would have been remotely alarming to Marcel Duchamp.” He’s right. There’s nothing subversive about what Guetta and Banksy are doing. Forget subversive – there’s nothing provoking about it. Either Guetta is truly a phony or Banksy is turning into one.
Banksy needs to be careful if he cares about his integrity at all. (And maybe he doesn’t, some of work has sold for over $500,000; if the money is all he cares about now great, but be honest about it and don’t pretend to be above it all.) In his youth Salvador Dali challenged the art world – and the world at large – to reconceptualize what art means and how we should experience it. What he turned into was a self-promoting phony without another original idea in his head. With this movie I fear Banksy is dangerously close to just that fate: constantly promoting himself under the guise of making fun of people who do just that.