Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift ShopSynopsis: This is the inside story of Street Art – a brutal and revealing account of what happens when fame, money, and vandalism collide. Exit Through The Gift Shop follows an eccentric shopkeeper turned amateur filmmaker as he attempts to capture many of the world’s most infamous vandals on camera, only to have famed British stencil artist Banksy turn the camcorder back on its owner with wildly unexpected results.

One of the most provocative films about art ever made, Exit Through The Gift Shop is a chaotic study of low-level criminality, comradeship and incompetence. By turns shocking, hilarious and absurd, this is an enthralling modern-day fairytale… with bolt cutters.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop 9.0

eyelights: its exploration of the art world.
eyesores: its ambiguity.

Banksy: “Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry really makes them meaningless.”

Ever since its release, people have been telling that I just had to see ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’. I took note of it, but I’m rarely in the mood for a documentary, let alone one about street art. I just couldn’t be bothered to make it a priority, even though it remained on my radar and I had general sense of what it was about.

Then one of best friends gave it to me for my birthday. Knowing that it would likely be relegated to somewhere in the middle of my ever-increasing pile of DVDs to watch, and being super keen to discuss it with the rest of us, the sneaky !@#$ made it a focus of his upcoming birthday gathering. There was no avoiding it.

Thank the Christ that he did! If he hadn’t I likely would have postponed indefinitely – and there are some things that you simply shouldn’t miss out on. ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is one of those. In fact, it completely justified everyone’s excitement, and we got a terrific conversation out of it – one that lasted days, in fact.

‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is a film about the essence of art and the nature of celebrity.

Please don’t check out now. Don’t do like I initially did.

While the documentary focuses on street art, it also applies to many other types of art and any type of celebrity – from all walks of life. It is broad enough that it can easily be applied to more than just its apparent subject matter. One can take it at face value, and enjoy it as is, but one can also relate it to other aspects of life.

That’s part of what makes it appealing.

However, what makes it even more fantastic is that it may not be all that it appears to be at first glance. In this sense, as we question the validity of the film, it parallels the questions one might have about what art is or about what lies behind the mask that is celebrity, about the image that is consumed versus reality.

‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, which is claimed to be a Banksy (the world famous street artist – if you didn’t already know) film started off as a project by Thierry Guetta. As the story goes, he was originally trying to make a film about Banksy, but ended up becoming the subject as he himself took a stab at the art world.

The film is already very interesting because it presents some of the main players in street art (such as Banksy, invader and Shepard Fairey) and shows them in action. Their art is quite good, but most of all, the antics that revolve around their work is phenomenal – case in point, Banksy’s painting on a wall in Gaza.

Thierry Guetta: “I don’t know how to play chess, but to me, life is like a game of chess.”

‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is also interesting from people-watching perspective, because Thierry Guetta, a French man who fanatically films everything he does and everywhere he goes, and who began to film street artists around the world (hence all the footage), is a bit of an usual character, completely quirky and somewhat nonsensical.

Thierry Guetta: “That’s why I call myself Mr. Brainwash. It’s because everything that I do… somewhere… it brainwash your face!”

But it becomes even more engrossing once Guetta takes on the moniker of Mr. Brainwash and decides to emulate those that he’d been filming all these years, approaching it from a marketing standpoint much in the way that Andy Warhol once did. Seeing his approach to the work and his degree of success is something to behold.

Now, all of this is from a purely superficial standpoint. What makes the film even more fascinating is that it presents itself as a serious film, but there are discrepancies and hints that suggest that it may be a hoax, that it is in fact not at all a documentary, but a film that passes itself off as one – a mockumentary.

Or, as one critic coined, a prankumentary.

Personally, as I watched the movie, I got a feeling that something was not quite right. The way that the film ambiguously goes from being by Guetta to being about Guetta didn’t sit right with me: it suddenly goes from one to the other without explanation, as if it were a preconceived notion, a planned effort.

The only logical thing that could have happened, if this film were real, would be that, at some point, Banksy decided to start filming Guetta before even knowing the extent to which Mr. Brainwash would succeed. Who knows why he’d do that – it’s not like Guetta displayed any signs of talent:

Banksy: “Most artists take years to develop their style, Thierry seemed to miss out on all those bits.”

But it should be noted that he also helped Guetta in his success, sponsoring him just as he was filming his subject. This suggests that he  was either experimenting with the situation to see what the results would be. Otherwise, if he didn’t feel that Guetta had talent, then why put his own reputation on the line to support him?

My theory: It’s all a set-up.

Let’s face it, we never actually know who is doing the filming and interviewing when Guetta isn’t behind the camera. It is claimed to be a Banksy film, but the work seems too professional for an amateur and it’s never explicitly expressed at any point that he’s the filmmaker – aside from the opening credits.

Furthermore, Banksy is interviewed throughout, but in shadow, with his voice concealed. He seems to be talking to someone off-screen, which suggests that there’s someone else who’s doing the filming. If indeed that is Banksy that we’re seeing. There’s actually no way to know, given how secretive he is.

My theory: He produced the film, but someone else filmed it. He might even have remained off screen, with a stand in in his place.

Firstly, Banksy is far too busy to spend so much time making a film. Filmmaking is an arduous task and this film would have been extremely time-consuming, given the span of time that it covers. It’s bad enough that his exploits seem like logistical nightmares that one person couldn’t possibly coordinate alone, but squeezing a film in all of that seems unlikely to me.

Case-in-point, Banksy claims to have gone through 10000 hours of Guetta’s footage for the film and only got seconds of useable material. The first half of ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is mostly Guetta’s footage, so that is absolutely not true. Secondly, one has to consider the time it would have taken for anyone to go through so much footage.

One person couldn’t do this alone and/or carried on with the rest of their regular activities. It just couldn’t be done; it would take years.

However, having said this, this film was put together within approximately a year or two: Mr Brainwash’s exhibit was in 2008, and ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ was released in 2010 – which means that it had to be completed in -at most- a year and a half. Maybe even less, when one considers its distribution and marketing.

Which leads me to Guetta’s footage.

‘Exit Throught the Gift Shop’ claims that Guetta put together a pastiche of his countless hours of video into a 90-minute film called ‘Life Remote Control’. ‘Life Remote Control’ is not available anywhere. On the DVD extras to ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, there is a 15-minute “cut” called the ‘Lawyer’s edit‘. It doesn’t contain any footage of the street artists that we see in ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, even though Guetta’s purported intention was to make a film about street artists.

So what’s the deal with the ‘Lawyer’s edit’ Is it tied up in legal limbo because of its content, which is surprising given that Guetta’s other footage is in ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, and that he’s intimately involved, being the subject? Since all he did for a few years was to film street artists, and that this footage is seen in ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, what could be so contentious that we can’t see it?

Which leads one to wonder: does ‘Life remote Control’ even exist? I’m not so sure. Its website suggests that it is a Banksy film, given that his art is prominently featured on it, and that it has an option for submitting footage. If it was made by Guetta with his footage, why would Banksy be on the main page and why would others’ footage be requested? It simply doesn’t hold up.

Finally, there’s the matter of Guetta himself.

Thierry Guetta (talking about meeting Banksy for the first time): “It was magic that this person let me film, you know? I felt like I had the piece that will finish the puzzle. It was like getting something in the daylight that… what you see in the nightlight. He was even more than I expected; he was, like, just incredible; he was cool, he was… he was human, he was… he was… he was… he is, you know, he’s really like a… what he represents, you know? He’s really like a… I think he’s really like a… I really liked him!”

Guetta is portrayed as a buffoon by the filmmakers. Even some of the people who worked closely with him on his 2008 exhibit complain on camera that he’s a moron and vow that they’ll never work with him again. He’s basically discredited time and time again, shown as a clown who’s barely keeping it together – and who is talentless.

Now, let me reiterate: if Banksy and Fairey were so close to him that they saw just how much of a loser he is, and had no faith in his ability as an artist, then why would they bother to support him as much as they did, basically propping him up with their own reputations, which by then had gone beyond street cred to the mainstream? It just doesn’t make sense.

I could be wrong. Perhaps this is as legit as they say it is. Maybe Banksy casually made a film about a guy he knows. But so much of it doesn’t hold up that I am firmly in the camp that thinks that this is all a hoax, that this was contrived by Banksy and his friends to make a statement about the nature of art and celebrity.

I suspect that they mounted a campaign to see just how far they could take Mr. Brainwash, and managed to push him from utter obscurity to widespread acceptance on hype alone. The results are likely more impressive than they ever imagined, which would prove a major point – or at least raise excellent questions:

  • What is art?
  • Who decides what art is?
  • Who decides what is talent and what is isn’t?
  • Why is it that, in a sea of similar art, some pieces stand out more than others? What distinguishes them?
  • What is success? Talent or celebrity?
  • What makes a person famous? Is it talent? Is it marketing? Is it both?

The title of the film suggests that art as we know it is about making money. Come see our exhibit, it says – but buy something on the way out. It suggests that there is a selling-out factor in the art world that brings to question what we consider to be great art versus what art truly is. Just because it is acclaimed doesn’t make it great, it suggests.

Which brings me to ponder: Who says that Banksy is so great? He’s now marketed as thoroughly as any other celebrity, despite his anonymity. He’s got a well-oiled machine behind him that makes even some of his “art” projects possible (ex: the murdered phone booth) – projects that would would otherwise be impossible for a person to achieve alone.

Just traveling around the world and doing all the guerrilla art that he does requires some serious coordination. Not only is it unlikely -if not impossible- that he’s doing that on his own, but he would never be able to do all of this in total anonymity and with mere pocket change; he must have sponsors and assistance of sorts.

The guy has a warehouse in London, for crissakes! London! Have you seen the real estate prices in London lately? The average person would never be able to afford it (the new head of the Bank of Britain, for instance, has a housing allowance of $7,682 per week), let alone a street artist. So either he’s rich or he’s got some serious financial backing behind him. There’s just no two ways about it.

Be that as it may, the film isn’t about Banksy or about how legitimate his work is. As fascinating as his endeavours are, what ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is is a stellar film about art and success. It may raise more questions than provide answers, but to me that’s the mark of any great documentary – it doesn’t tell you what to think, it prompts you to.

Even better, it does it with bristling humour, all the while using itself as the focal point for dialogue and debate. In an era where people are famous for being famous, when so-called talent is manufactured by money-making factories, it’s a must-see film, it’s essential viewing. Fact or fiction, it has a lot to say and leaves us with even more to reflect upon.

And, whether it be fact or fiction, the fact remains that Mr. Brainwash has since attained mainstream legitimacy, and is raking in tons of cash. Whether he is a joke or not, whether the film was a prank by Banksy on the unsuspecting public or not, this reality is no joke – it’s something to think about. Very seriously.

Banksy: “I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.”

Date of viewing: April 13, 2013

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