Since its premiere at the Sundance Movie Festival in 2010, Exit Through the Gift Shop has been surrounded by doubt and controversy. Is the film, which presents itself as a documentary on urban street art, an elaborate hoax, or is it sincere in its portrayal of Thierry Guetta, a peculiar but genuine fan of street art?
Exit Through the Gift Shop follows the exploits of French amateur filmmaker Thierry Guetta as he records the actions and art of various graffiti artists across the globe. Guetta, with a camera always in hand, looks like a modern day anachronism: his wild facial hair is arranged into mutton chops and a handlebar mustache, and his personality is equally bizarre. An aspiring but fairly clueless filmmaker, Guetta owns an urban clothing shop which he uses to finance his many trips around the world, all to record the processes of several well-known graffiti artists. Among those featured in Exit Through the Gift Shop is Shepard Fairey, the young man responsible for the iconic “HOPE” poster used in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. But though he meets an array of eclectic and interesting street artists, one particular individual remains out of Guetta’s reach: the mysterious and elusive Banksy, an English artist whose stenciled works became the subject of international news after he created a set of images on the West Bank wall in Israel.
“I hearby dub this West Banksy. That’s not lame, right?”
Through some rather convenient and fortuitous circumstances, Guetta eventually comes into contact with Banksy, who, shadowed and with a modulated voice, provides commentary interspliced into the documentary. After meeting and befriending Guetta, Banksy encourages him to use his thousands of hours of film footage and turn it into a documentary about street art. Guetta obliges, producing “Life Remote Control,” a “film” that consists of little more than quick cuts of street art accompanied by nightmarish audio. “It was at that point that I realized that Thierry wasn’t actually a filmmaker but maybe just someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera,” Banksy says. Soon after, Banksy encourages Guetta to become a street artist himself and makes plans to open an exhibition featuring Guetta’s original art. Banksy takes over Guetta’s documentary and has it feature Guetta himself, with the end product being Exit Through the Gift Shop.
Because Guetta is focus of the film, and its only real “character,“ it is important that the audience comes to empathize with him and his actions. Though bumbling and oblivious, Guetta is presented as a genuinely caring and motivated individual whose obsession with filmmaking is rivaled only by his obsession with street art. The last half of the movie deals with Guetta’s astronomical rise to stardom in the Los Angeles art scene, and how he deals with his newfound (and some may say undeserved) fame. As art enthusiasts flock to Guetta’s exhibition (under the pseudonym Mister Brainwash), Banksy becomes increasingly surprised at Guetta’s level of success, and the lack of experimentation and failure he faced in attaining it. After all, Guetta’s art is pastiche of other artists’ work, only not as thought-provoking or fresh as the originals. Despite his newfound fame, Guetta never comes across as jaded or ungrateful, but as someone overwhelmed by his current situation.
It’s like Ron Jeremy and Wolverine had a lovechild
Whether or not Exit Through the Gift Shop is a true documentary isn’t important. The issues it raises and questions it asks have no bearing on the true intention of the film itself. The film is an exploration, and at times exploitation, of the urban art scene. Though many talented artists are shown, the film also documents artists who “art” has no message and no real creativity, but is instead a blight on the urban environment. “Sorry about your wall,” is one such message, written sloppily in spray paint. By juxtaposing this with legitimately interesting and provocative artistic statements (such as those by Banksy), Exit explores the difference between mere graffiti and art. It is a complicated and highly controversial subject, but Exit manages to carefully avoid generalizations and condemnations, all while staying entertaining to the average viewer. The film doesn’t tirelessly dwell on “what is art?” but merely poses the question to the viewer. How much this seed germinates depends entirely on you.
Much like the street art it documents, Exit Through the Gift Shop manages to be entertaining, funny, clever, and thought-provoking. Guetta, resembling a real-life cartoon character, charts the escapades of various street artists, climbing and shimmying up buildings alongside them like a fearless madman. Many times, Guetta is caught up in the legally grey area street art occupies; a fateful trip to Disneyland with Banksy provides the film with real tension and an interesting view of the Magic Kingdom. Banksy’s occasional quips give the film some levity: after all, he’s as incredulous at Guetta’s success as we are, and he doesn’t pull any punches when describing Guetta’s eccentric personality. Real or not, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fascinating look at the culture of street artistry, as well as a great character study of the…unique Thierry Guetta. Perhaps a few years from now we’ll see a follow-up documenting Mister Brainwash’s level of success, but until then, Exit Through the Gift Shop succeeds in providing a highly interesting and compelling look into two forms of art: street art and filmmaking.