Monday, June 7, 2010

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Exit Through The Gift Shop by Banksy, 2010

I would not call myself a street art aficionado. Although the movement and talent interest me, it has never grabbed me the way other mediums have. I respect the work and lengths these artists go to in order to produce their pieces, and the secretiveness of it all is exciting, but for whatever reason, I haven't explored the art further.

I was introduced to Banksy's work a couple years ago when my roommate received a book of his work from her uncle. As soon as I saw the cover, he became familiar. It was like a song playing on the radio that you know, but you don't. His iconic images are seen everywhere - all over the world - his style recognizable. Painted silhouettes of rats and kissing British policemen now have a name behind them.

Hearing about the release of this film, Banksy again became familiar to me. I remember recalling my roommate's book, thinking "oh, it's about that guy." After being released here in Toronto for a couple weeks already, I finally went to a screening yesterday, maybe more to enjoy the medium of documentary (and to see what all the buzz was about).

But Exit Through The Giftshop's main subject, surprisingly, is not Banksy. It is a man named Thierry Guetta, AKA Mr. Brainwash, a man obsessed with filming everything on his camcorder. Running a vintage store in Los Angeles, Guetta begins to befriend various street artists. He claims to be collecting footage for a documentary on the movement, filming these artists making their marks in different cities, spray-painting and stenciling their signature images on the most daring pieces of wall and billboard.

The filming of these acts becomes an obsession for Guetta, and he travels all over the world with his new friends to capture anything they do. He befriends the most infamous street artists, but one evades him. The most elusive, yet well known street artist out there: Banksy. It becomes Guetta's personal mission to find Banksy and film him creating his pieces. When Banksy needs an assistant during an LA visit, someone suggests Guetta, and to Guetta's utter shock, the two meet and eventually become friends and accomplices.

But is Guetta actually a filmmaker? What are his motives for following and filming these artists, night after night, day after day, city after city? A bigger concern arises when Guetta decides to become a street artist as well. He wants to do big things, and fast. How valid is his work when there is too much too soon, and all of it looks very familiar? Is Mr. Brainwash an artist, a copycat or both?

These last questions are what made Exit Through The Gift Shop so much more interesting than I expected. While I was surprised by the film's focus, I was also glad for it, as Banksy's need to keep himself a mystery would have grown tedious if the film were just about him. Guetta's rise to fame, and how he achieved it really make the viewer wonder how easy one's status is gained. My friend made a good point when he said that after the screening he wondered if the whole film was a ploy by Banksy to just show how much of the art world is really a joke. As Banksy is the director, his access and tactics seem a bit self-serving. He keeps himself hidden, but uses Guetta's own footage against Guetta. Was the interview footage of Guetta filmed by Guetta, or did Banksy concoct it all?

At first, like Sam over at Wonders in the Dark, I was taken aback by the use of voiceover. God knows a terrible voiceover can ruin a film for me (Vicky Cristina anyone?), but I quickly looked past it's overt sarcasm, and became really involved with the story. Images of street artists grappling over bridges and climbing out windows in order to create their art were intense. Since these acts of artistry are purposely done while no one is around, it was like seeing your pets talk while they think you're not home. The narrative was also fascinating, unraveling the story so we are hooked and shocked in the appropriate places.

If Banksy directed and edited this film to serve as a commentary on our consumerism and the shams of the art world instead of a portrait of an artist (the title fits this perfectly), he completely succeeded in hooking me into this strange little world. Assuming the film would be all about Banksy, I became very involved with this unexpected commentary. Maybe now I can borrow my old roommate's book and look at this medium a little differently.

4 out of 5

1 comment:

  1. Dave, thanks for the mention. This is a terrific appraisal of a documentary that is probably the most widely-celebrated this year. Your review is frank and it conveys how the film has grown on you. Yeah, i had an issue with teh voiceover, though some of teh material seemed redundant. I still think it's a strong film (and your star rating is fair) but I was more intimately involved with Terry Zwigoff's CRUMB, though as I say a case could be made for this film reaching a wider audience.

    Marvelous, perceptive piece.