Of the more negligible factors that differentiate the practice of street art from most other art forms, as witnessed throughout and in the very genesis of Banksy’s vagarious Exit Through the Gift Shop, is the use and arguable necessity of pseudonyms. This is, of course, due largely to the questionable legality of many of these works, but it also speaks to the shadowy nature of the work’s authorship. The “artists”—a dubious colloquialism that itself gets the run-around in the film—being tracked by the film’s central figure, Thierry Guetta, who himself goes by the tag name Mr. Brainwash, are not known by their given names, but by personalized aliases, such as Invader, Monsieur Andre, Borf, and Swoon, among others. Publicity, at least at first, was never their forte because their work had an incredibly short shelf life, but the form’s acceptance as fashionable, even historic art in the mainstream effectively changed their practice of obscure authorship, making newly minted “artists” like Banksy and Shepard Fairey, as well as their stylistic tendencies, something of a commodity and their anonyms as bankable in their own way as Jay-Z or Daft Punk.
This fact, knowingly or not, is alluded to not far into the film when Guetta, a French expatriate and family man who relocated to Los Angeles to run a vintage clothing store, records Monsieur Andre tagging a wall with “Samo” and a small crown, the tag used by Jean-Michel Basquiat before he was, for lack of a better word, discovered. Guetta himself uses a camera (which rarely leaves his hands) where his friends and acquaintances in the world of street art use spray paint, stickers, posters, and instillations, but he never identifies himself as an artist, referring to the camerawork simply as his “passion.” Nevertheless, this passion leads him to becoming the unofficial documenter for a litany of street artists, a position that climaxes with a highly sought-after position as the videographer for both Shepard Fairey and Banksy, most notably on the latter’s instillation of an inflatable Guantanamo Bay detainee in Disney Land.
Speaking in broken English that gets progressively more grating, Guetta introduces himself to people as a documentary filmmaker in the same way Exit Through the Gift Shop introduces itself as a documentary, but Banksy quickly instills doubt as to the sincerity of the film’s subjects and helmer. It isn’t until after Banksy orders Guetta to deliver a finished product that he goes about actually crafting a film. The result is Life Remote Control, a pseudo-experimental hodgepodge of footage involving street artists, Guetta’s family, and random bystanders which Banksy politely dismisses as being “like nothing [he’s] seen before.” Believing to have wrongly encouraged a lunatic, Banksy, forever obscured by a hood or graphics, instructs Guetta to hold his own art show back in L.A., an idea that culminates in “Life Is Beautiful,” a warehouse-size monstrosity filled with second-rate Banksy knockoffs more the work of Guetta’s staff than the “artist” himself. Heralded by California hipsters, graffiti enthusiasts, and art hounds, the exhibit draws massive crowds, nabs a cover story in L.A. Weekly and garners over a million dollars in sales.
At several points, the question of whether Guetta is a genius, a moron, or simply a kook is put to the audience and several of the interviewees, but it becomes more of a question of whether he is sincere or an elaborate, reflexive creation a la Borat. That question is something of a tipping point that leads to what constitutes being an artist and what constitutes art and if either deserves the critical and self-seriousness with which seems to be invariably handled. Banksy, who claims that he put Exit Through the Gift Shop together out of the remnants of Life Remote Control, handles such weighty themes with his characteristic ambiguity, but their implications can be felt in even the most indulgent of the film’s narrative pleasures. Among its bouts of severe humor, philosophical twitches, and the numerous other conundrums it lays out in its brilliantly paced 87 minutes, Banksy’s witty whatsit of a film conveys that giddy, inimitable thrill of art as well-constructed prank—a label it earns by the simple fact that it causes nearly every viewer to question every facet of its impressive production, right down to Rhys Ifans’s narration. In its own way, the film is both as essential and useless as Banksy’s counterfeit dollars featuring Princess Diana, which were unknowingly honored and given value in shops and pubs.
More confounding than Catfish and funnier than I’m Still Here, Exit Through the Gift Shop runs as much on the questionability of its narrative as it does on the electrifying footage it gets of street artists in their practices. Before he debuts “Life Is Beautiful,” Guetta puts up horrendously derivative posters of celebrities wearing black shades and stickers featuring his illustrated visage, but they are aptly disenthralling as compared to watching the genesis of the shadow paintings by Zeus, Shepard Fairey’s “OBEY” posters, or Invader’s Rubik’s cube aliens. For sheer bravura, however, no one is quite on the level of Banksy and the film takes special care in showing his process, which is one of the few things that may be construed as conventional favoritism in the film. Regardless of such minor trifles, Exit Through the Gift Shop is about as perfect a summation of an art form in transition as I’ve ever witnessed, rife with self-parody and refreshingly direct in its uncertain outlook.
Oscilloscope Laboratories has retained the film's original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and the transfer is, generally speaking, quite good. The mixed quality of the footage results in some spots of graininess and some instances of high light exposure, but overall clarity is excellent while colors and black levels remain well-balanced throughout. It will be very interesting to see where the Blu-ray (available next year) will put its focus, visually speaking. The audio is handled equally well, even with the constant use of voice filters. Dialogue is kept clear as a bell and out front, though atmospheric noise on Thierry Guetta's camera overwhelms ever so often. The music, ranging from Air's "Kelly Watch the Stars" to Richard Hawley's "Tonight, The Streets Are Ours" to Roni Size and Geoff Barrow's original music, is beautifully selected by Banksy and maintained throughout.
The extras available are basically culled from extra footage from the project. "B-Movie," a featurette on Banksy's rise to prominence, is the most intriguing and includes interviews from Massive Attack's 3D and a gaggle of English art critics. A 14-minute "Lawyer's Edit" of Life Remote Control, which is seen in snippets in Exit from the Gift Shop, is certainly funny, but it adds little to understanding the twisty logic of Banksy's film. Deleted scenes, stickers, postcards, and limited edition 2D glasses are also included.
A cinematic treatise on the vagaries of authorship, trends, and the art world itself, Exit Through the Gift Shop is funny and thought-provoking where most documentaries present themselves as trustworthy and invariably factual.