Billy Gray

Exit Through The Gift Shop

In Movie Reviews on May 11, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Exit Through The Gift Shop doesn’t take much seriously, least of all itself. Part street art documentary, part art world farce and maybe all a hoax, the Banksy-directed (sort of) movie has moments of striking power despite its nebulous form and non-stop winking.

Most of those powerful moments come from Banksy as subject rather than director. The enigmatic graffiti artist, who is filmed in shadow and speaks through a voicebox (“some of my work falls in a legal…gray area,” he explains) didn’t set out to make a movie. A Frenchman named Thierry Guetta planned to shadow him and his rouge peers for a documentary about the members of the graffiti subculture who set out at night to transform bland urban landscapes into cheeky visual statements.

But, as Banksy puts it, the clumsy and colorful director outshone his subjects, especially after he put down the camera, picked up a brush, threw up a hideous hodgepodge of atrocious art in a derelict warehouse and became the toast of the LA art world overnight. Guetta’s movie had to be about Guetta. Or did it?

Guetta seems too good, or painfully bad, to be true. With his comically stilted English and sideburns that would make Vegas and rhinestone-era Elvis reach for the clippers, the corpulent frog, you’re convinced, must be Banksy’s latest creation, his most recent act of inspired insolence. Real or not—and the media notices about his gallery do, however inconceivably, suggest he’s real—Guetta is a riot. But his shtick wears thin, and you wish the film hadn’t switched gears and narrowed its focus on him so quickly in its last third.

Unsurprisingly, you want more Banksy.

It’s Banksy whose art gives you chills. His masterpiece might be the murals he put up in the West Bank. In one a photorealistic beach paradise screams out against the drab gray barrier in what Banksy’s stencil work makes look like a gaping hole in the wall. Two children—you presume one is an Israeli and the other a Palestinian, though Banksy is too smart to spell that out—smile and hold sand buckets underneath. Another features the silhouette of a young girl and the balloons that carry her over the structure.

Then there are his more lighthearted paintings: a naked man dangling from a windowsill while his girlfriend’s husband looks for him in the other direction, a classic red London phone booth welded into a right angle and put back in place, even a generic tag saying “Banksy is a sellout!”

Exit Through The Gift Shop’s history of street art is as kinetic and exhilarating as the stealth operations required to put it up. And the inevitable commercial bum rush that quickly threatened to co-op the raffish movement is handled with comedic grace and a lot less paranoia or anger than you’d expect.

In fact maybe these artists are too above the mainstream trying to consume them. The art world, with its dogged trend-seeking auctioneers, clueless loaded collectors and obscene price gouging, deserves to be mocked. Curious, if equally oblivious, regular Joes—“suckers”, in the words of one friend of Banksy—lining up for Guetta’s show and making wildly uninformed but earnest pronouncements on its quality should be afforded a little more sympathy.

Then again, who am I to feel bad for these well-meaning dolts when the joke might be on me? Exit Through The Gift Shop is tough to criticize because it’s just as evasive as its director. (Snapping a current photo of Banksy is the contemporary hipster-artist equivalent of stumbling upon the Holy Grail.)

Is Thierry real? Are we clever for thinking his codename, Mr. Brainwash, is too heavy-handed to be legit? Or dupes for thinking we’re clever for thinking that? Wouldn’t Disney employees find it odd when Banksy spoke through a voicebox while visiting the park? Is Thierry Banksy?

“I don’t know who the joke is on,” says (likable!) street artist Shepard Fairey about Thierry’s $1 million in gallery sales. I don’t know how much, if any, of Exit Through The Gift Shop is a joke or whose expense it’s at. Despite minor frustration with its too-smart-for-the-room facetiousness, the truth is it is smart. And quite funny.

Echoing Fairey, Banksy closes out the movie saying, “I don’t know what the moral is.” But he alludes to it himself when commending Guetta for filming street artists at work. The genre’s products, he points out, are inherently ephemeral. Even a comparatively staid permanent record would be appreciated.

Exit Through The Gift Ship goes further and mirrors street art’s punk transgression and verve. It’s the rare commentary on art that qualifies as art itself.

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