This film has been dogged by controversy since it’s release. There are those who would say this week’s Saturday Documentary doesn’t count, because it’s not a documentary. Is it real? Is it all a set-up? Is it Banksy taking the piss out of the art world and the poseurs that surround it? Do I give a shit? (Answers below)
Who cares if it’s real?
Exit Through the Gift Shop claims to be a documentary by the reknowned (and anonymous) street artist Banksy, about a possibly quite mental Frenchman trying to make a documentary about the reknowned (and anonymous) street artist Banksy. Confused? You won’t be. Or maybe you will.
Thierry Guetta is a French immigrant living in LA who is obsessed with filming every aspect of his life. While on holiday with his family in France, he discovers his cousin is the artist known as ‘Space Invader’ who makes small mosaics inspired by the characters from that game and pastes them up around Paris. Thierry seizes this opportunity and starts to follow Invader on his late-night sorties. A few months later, Invader comes to LA to visit Thierry and introduces him to Shepard Fairey – he’s the one who created Obama’s “Hope” poster – who becomes the latest target of Thierry’s camera. While travelling all over the country with Fairey, Thierry becomes more and more enmeshed into the street art culture and tells the artists that he is making a documentary about their secretive scene. As he becomes aware of Banksy, Thierry does everything he can and chases down every lead to get a meeting with the elusive Englishman, to no avail. According to the film, it is only by chance that the two eventually cross paths; Banksy is visiting LA and his usual guide was denied entry into the country. Banksy contacts Fairey for help, who gives up Thierry’s number. Suddenly, out of the blue, Thierry has his man.
Guetta and Banksy soon become inseparable. He spends time in London with Banksy and his team as they work on his art and, ultimately, his show “Barely Legal”. Thierry even accompanies Banksy on his return trip to LA where he placed an inflatable Guantanamo detainee in Disneyland. Eventually though, Banksy asks Thierry to produce this documentary he has spent years filming. This is where the Frenchman runs into trouble. His obsession only extends to the actual capture on tape of what he experiences. Once the tapes are full, he just puts them away in boxes without ever watching them. Suddenly put on the spot, he manages to assemble something (from the clips shown, I can’t even describe it as a film) he calls Life, Remote Control. It is a 90-minute seizure of flash-cuts, electronic music and snippets of speech, every frame of which is seemingly unrelated to its neighbours. Even Banksy himself calls it “unwatchable”. Taking possession of the raw tapes, the artist decides he will make the film himself.
In his introduction at the start of this movie, Banksy tells us that he thought Guetta was more interesting than he was, so he decided to make the film about him instead. The result is the first 60 minutes of Exit. The rest of the flick is about what happens when Guetta has started to get bored of filming others putting up stencils and stickers and decides to try it for himself. Inspired by Banksy’s advice to “put on a little show somewhere” (so that he can get some peace to go through the tapes and try to construct something coherent), Thierry hires out an empty TV studio complex in LA and, rechristening himself Mr. Brainwash (or “MBW”), fills it with his art.
Okay, that summary sort of ran away from me a bit. As well as fulfilling the essential purpose of a documentary (“to document”, duh) this film makes you question the truth of that document, particularly in the Mr. Brainwash section. You can’t really doubt the first hour, where Thierry is travelling around filming himself and these various artists, but the last part just makes you wonder. The artwork MBW creates isn’t really created by him at all. He merely hires a bunch of graphic designers and screen-printers and tells them what to do and they mass produce all this stuff. The pieces themselves aren’t even really original or inspired; one of the works seen prominently in the film is a series of pictures of famous faces like Larry King and Spock, but with Marilyn Monroe’s hair and make-up from the famous Warhol portraits. Basic photoshop stuff, really. One of the more believable theories that followed this flick around is that, while Thierry is a real person, MBW is a creation of Banksy himself; that Thierry is playing this part as a live art piece in itself, and that the art MBW displays and sells is Banksy’s big joke on the rich wannabe elitists who will spend a fortune on any old crap if someone else tells them it’s cool. Some people have even come to the conclusion that Guetta actually is Banksy, but that one is going a step too far.
Assuming it’s all real for a minute, you could look at the phenomenon of Mr. Brainwash as an examination, even an indictment, of the celebrity culture in our world today. Here is a guy with no artistic training and arguably not much in the way of talent who took the ideas of other artists like Banksy and Fairey and Warhol and essentially ripped them off for himself. He came out with a splash with that first show in LA and has just exploded. But he is big because he announced that he was big. He’s famous because he said he was famous. And now his pieces go for $500,000 at auction. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
So, is it real? Honestly, I don’t know. Like with Catfish, I think it’s better not to know. It makes the film more interesting, in my opinion. The producers Chris King and Jaimie D’Cruz have denied repeatedly that it’s a hoax, claiming that it was a shame the film was being “dismissed” as just a gag. But are those statements not just fuel to the fire? Despite protestations and arguments one way or the other, we may never know for sure. But I don’t think this film should be dismissed. It is a very entertaining look at one man’s obsession and the birth of an artistic movement, all held together by Banksy’s wry presence and a great narration by Rhys Ifans. If that’s all it is, so what?
Answers: Technically, yes. Possibly. Most likely. Not so much.