Starring: Banksy, Shepherd Fairey, Thierry Guetta
Studio/Run Time: Paranoid Pictures / 87 min.
Reclusive street art legend Banksy turns the camera around on his would-be documentarian
The premise of the wonderful Exit Through the Gift Shop takes a bit of explaining, but it’s worth it (and doesn’t spoil the viewing experience at all). Thierry Guetta is a pudgy, mutton-chopped Frenchman living in Los Angeles, obsessively filming nearly everything he does. As he begins documenting graffiti and street artists, he meets Shepherd Fairey (he of Obey and the ubiquitous images of our current president).
Through Fairey he meets Banksy, the Babe Ruth qua Deep Throat of the street art world, and eventually convinces him to approve a documentary based on his legendary work. But the source tapes of Guetta’s film are soon lost in the sea of unlabeled and unfiled tapes of his life; when he eventually submits an unwatchable mess to his subject, Banksy seizes the camera and tells him he has to now go out and make art of his own, becoming the new subject of the documentary. Against all odds, Mr. Brainwash, as Guetta christens himself, puts on the largest and most profitable street art exhibition in history.
Those are the bare bones of the story, and it’s a fascinating enough narrative on its face. But there’s so much more to Exit Through the Gift Shop. It’s delightful to watch the hyper-reclusive Banksy actually give commentary on film’s events, albeit in almost total silhouette and with a disguised voice. And his commentary is very, very funny. It’s also fascinating that the film never quite takes a side on the Warholian question of whether Guetta/Mr. Brainwash is actually a legitimate artist or has merely convinced enough people that he is (or whether those are one and the same, or whether it even matters). But the most compelling theme of the film is its cinematic exploration of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle—that a phenomenon cannot be observed or measured without simultaneously changing it. Guetta never puts spray can to wood until he’s being documented by Banksy. Does that mean Banksy made him what he is? Destroyed, in some sense, what he was? And is that good or bad, or neither?
Exit Through the Gift Shop debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Walking down Park City’s Main Street, most festivalgoers didn’t take much time to examine a piece of street art on the side of a building about halfway down the hill. But it was placed there by Banksy himself sometime in the dead of night, and it captures the Heisenberg-esque soul of the film. In the image, a filmmaker holds a flower up to his camera. But he’s pulled it up so high that it’s been uprooted, killing it. It might be a statement on the film, on Guetta, on modern art, or on the idea of art itself. But Banksy’s not telling.