‘I DON’T REALLY know what the moral is,’ says the reclusive, elusive street artist Banksy at the end of his entertaining and cheerful documentary debut film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which tells the bizarre story of how a voyeuristic Frenchman armed with a video camera became the multimillionaire artist Mister Brainwash almost overnight.
The film opens to the tones of Richard Hawley’s ‘Tonight the Streets Are Ours’ and a montage of various street artists at work in cities around the world. Banksy, his face and voice obscured, explains how the film is a sort of counter-documentary before saying, with typical self-deprecation, that ‘it’s not Gone with the Wind.’ The subject of the film is an energetic and obsessive Frenchman called Thierry Guetta, who passes off old clothes as expensive vintage items to gullible Angelinos. Thierry is obsessed with his video camera, and says as much. In fact he says the thrill filming gives him is ‘more than drugs’. His daily routine of marching around L.A. hassling celebrities like Jay Leno and Noel Gallagher is interrupted by a visit from his cousin, the urban artist Invader, who leads him into the emerging and counter-cultural world of street art.
Banksy has Guetta come across like a voyeur and fantasist––always watching and never participating, like a sort of Tom Ripley––whose constant presence seems simultaneously to amuse and alarm various street artists such as Shepherd Fairey, Zeus and Monsieur André, all of whom he somehow ends up filming.
The mood for this bizarre story is markedly light-hearted and mocking, and this is reflected in the derisive narration of Rhys Ifans, whose casting is something of a masterstroke. Underpinning this, however, is something slightly sinister. Banksy has Guetta come across like a voyeur and fantasist––always watching and never participating, like a sort of Tom Ripley––whose constant presence seems simultaneously to amuse and alarm various street artists such as Shepherd Fairey, Zeus and Monsieur André, all of whom he somehow ends up filming. The Dickie Greenleaf to Guetta’s Ripley is of course Banksy himself, the most famous and elusive of all street artists, and in an ironic twist, it’s Banksy who extends his hand. Guetta had been telling people that he was making a documentary about street art; he wasn’t, but it got him access to the biggest names in the movement, and the anonymous Banksy was convinced that Guetta’s filming might have some value.
Banksy pushes Guetta to make his film and the shambolic result (‘It was at this point that I realised that he maybe wasn’t a filmmaker. That he was maybe just someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera.’) makes him decide to re-edit the footage himself, the result of which is Exit Through the Gift Shop. Guetta, meanwhile, is sent back to Los Angeles to immerse himself in the art scene and try to put on a show and weeks later, and now calling himself ‘Mister Brainwash’, unveils ‘Life is Beautiful’. MBW’s ‘unique’ creations are a confused mixture of the signature styles of the artists he filmed, and Banksy seems to have been his main source of ‘inspiration’. And, in part thanks to the apparent misuse of endorsements from Banksy and Fairey, this hilariously unoriginal display is a wild success.
MBW’s ‘unique’ creations are a confused mixture of the signature styles of the artists he filmed, and thanks to the apparent misuse of endorsements from Banksy and Fairey, this hilariously unoriginal display is a wild success.
Banksy pitches what he perceives as Guetta’s cynicism and commercialism against the undoubtedly mischievous and playful but largely idealistic world of street art, which, despite its polarising, is-it-art-or-vandalism? character, involves mainly serious artists who have spent their lives developing their own unique style. But Banksy stops short of moralising, opting instead, in his characteristic style, to approach the subject with humour and irony. The documentary also offers an interesting insider’s look into the world of street art with all its midnight outings and building-scaling and thrills of hiding in plain sight. But it isn’t so much about street art as it is about Thierry Guetta.
Since its release in 2010, Exit Through the Gift Shop and its subject have been accused of being an elaborate Banksy prank. The best argument for this that I can see is that Guetta’s wife is impossibly tolerant of his peculiar, eight-year obsession. Overall it seems unlikely that Exit is a hoax, but people more interested than I am have done their own investigating, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s funny, occasionally sinister and an illuminating glimpse at the world of street art. And if there is something approaching the ‘moral’ that eluded Banksy, it seems to be the statement ‘I am not for sale’.