Banksy is a British graffiti street artist. His art is known throughout the world, however his identity is, even now, a complete mystery. The art he creates is often satirical; often taking jabs at government and popular culture. One of his pictures, “Naked Man” is a painting of a naked man hanging outside a window while inside a wife is shown in a state of undress and her husband is searching around for her lover. This picture was painted on the side of a sexual health clinic. That’s his style. There is a specific stenciling technique that he incorporates which is sometimes accompanied with graffiti writing; sometimes rats are shown; they are most times holding signs, balloons or paintbrushes. He has held various exhibitions, mostly in England but one titled, “Barley Legal” was held in Los Angeles. It created controversy due to an art piece containing a live elephant painted from head to toe in children’s finger paint to become the literal “elephant in the room.” As can be discerned by his many efforts to keep his identity a secret and because he instead prefers to let his art speak for itself, Banksy is clearly not in it for the fame. This movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is not about him. Not really.
Street art is a form of art that some would liken to graffiti, a higher level of graffiti, yes, but always on public property for the world to see. Sometimes the art is supposed to make a statement, sometimes it’s just a way to say “Hey, I was here.” Really the reasons for the artists to choose this type of art are as varied as the artists themselves. Street art comes in various shapes and forms: Sticker art or wheatpasting for the larger pictures, stencil graffiti, traditional spray paint, mosaic tiling, etc. As usually happens when the shunned becomes cool, street art has become mainstream, and now, art by the big names in the street art scene, like Banksy, are being sold for thousands and thousands of dollars. However, this movie is not about the history of street art either. Not really.
What Exit Through the Gift Shop IS (kinda) about is a man named Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant who moved to Los Angeles, opened a vintage clothes shop and made a decent living for himself and his family. His look reminded me of John Belushi in The Blues Brothers. Thierry has one tiny quirk. He’d picked up a video camera once and has not put it down since. He incessantly films everything and everyone around him. It became an obsession really, to document (devour) every moment, to record that “he was here.” It is speculated, by Thierry himself, that the fascination began when he missed his mother’s death and a boy taunting him in the streets informed him that she was dead. Whether or not this is the reason, Thierry carried his video camera wherever he went. When he went home to France for a vacation, his cousin, a street artist with the moniker of Space Invader (since he fashions the little monsters of the video game from the tiles of old Rubik’s Cubes) became the focus of Thierry’s home movies. Thierry began following Invader around Paris as Invader put up his art on various walls and bridges. Then through Invader, Thierry was introduced to other street artists, eventually, finally meeting Banksy. He filmed them all; always under the pretence that he was making a documentary.
The thing is that he was not making a documentary; in fact he was taking all the tapes he was recording, placing them in boxes and forgetting all about them. Filming, for him, was the end result — not sharing with others, not to re-watch and reminisce. All he did was capture. When street art started losing its poignancy and began adorning the walls of art collectors, Banksy told Thierry it was time to release his documentary and tell the real story behind what street art was all about. But Thierry had no idea what to do and his efforts to make a movie were ill-guided. So Banksy took all of Thierry’s footage and told him to go make his own art. Thierry did. It turns out that self-importance turns bad character even worse. Though the art he created borrowed heavily (read: ripped off completely) from other artists such as Andy Warhol, Shepard Fairey and Banksy himself, he was a complete success — both financially and critically.
Exit Through the Gift Shop begs the question, “Is this real?” Banksy is known as a heck of a prankster and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think that he fabricated the entire story. If he did, however, then it really is a stroke of genius to tell the story of a man with no real talent, no training, and no real ambition but to become famous as a metaphor for what Banksy thinks of street artists who sell out. While in the same breath, he is telling the story of street art from its humble beginnings through to its gross commercialism which has grown so money hungry it swallows up anything that has the semblance of the street art. This power grab that allows a man like Thierry to become a successful “artist.” Banksy is also able to tell his own story and his feelings about what street art used to be and where it’s all ended up. If it’s not real, it is superbly written. Yet even if it is real, it is still so well structured, so multi-layered as to encompass all of these ideas and stories into a very entertaining and compelling narrative.