But is it art? That’s the question at the bottom of this documentary from graffiti artist Banksy. The question is aimed at graffiti and at the graffiti practitioners themselves. It also—possibly inadvertently—is aimed right back at the film itself. Is Exit Through the Gift Shop art? It’s undeniably entertaining in its sheer quirkiness, but I’m not entirely sold that it’s a great movie. I don’t see that it reinvents the wheel or even the documentary. I don’t even see Banksy as likely to ever make another movie, but that’s just a guess on my part. For all I know he’s in negotiations to make Furry Vengeance 2 for a goof. In many ways, that is what I think this film is: a wildly successful goof.
Ostensibly, what we have is Banksy making a documentary about the making of a documentary that never was—all the while happily building his film largely out of footage shot for this other film. According to Banksy—whose voice has been altered and whose face we never see—this man, Thierry Guetta, wanted to make a documentary about Banksy, but instead Banksy has made a documentary about Guetta, whom Banksy claims is much more interesting than he is. He may be right. Certainly the portrait of Guetta offered by the film is more interesting than anything we learn about Banksy.
Guetta is presented to us as a very peculiar Frenchman living in Los Angeles, who makes—or made—a good living by hawking second-hand clothes to the trendy at ridiculously inflated prices. He is also a man who videotapes everything—including himself videotaping himself. He is compulsive in this endeavor, but his obsessional habit has no form until he discovers street art and artists, whereupon Guetta decides to make a documentary about them—or he at least wants to shoot the artists while they work, possibly more to be one of them than anything else. He becomes the chronicler of many of the most famous of such artists—but the biggest of all, Banksy, eludes him. One day that changes—and so does Guetta’s life.
The meeting turns out to be an agreeable one, with Guetta chronicling Banksy’s work. But then comes the point when Guetta actually tries to put together a film from all his uncataloged footage—and produces what looks like a bad 1960s avant-garde student film. It is an unwatchable mess. Banksy, however, thinks the footage could still be made into a useful chronicle of the street-art scene, and decides to work with it himself. Banksy sends Guetta back to L.A. with vague instructions to become a street artist. Guetta takes this to heart and what happens from there—which I won’t describe—defies belief, though it’s apparently true. The question is whether or not how it came about is true—and that remains unanswered.
In many ways, I think the film is a brilliant put-on. I don’t mean that I think it has all been faked, but I think Banksy’s critique of the silliness of the art world may well be just as much a critique of the moviegoing world. His movie has been positioned as the art-house movie you absolutely have to see if you don’t want to suffer a violent loss of status as a savvy cineaste. And that’s probably true, but how different is that from the brainwashing of the art world to accept that which is put before them as the next great thing (which is what the film examines)? Not much that I can see. Is Banksy’s film the next great thing in documentary filmmaking? Or are we all on the business end of an admittedly pretty good joke? You decide. Rated R for some language.