I saw Exit Through the Gift Shop soon after it came out and liked it a lot. Banksy, the street artist who made this “street art documentary,” is dryly funny as he tells the story of Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Frenchman who loves this form of art. We see and hear from Thierry himself as he obsessively films street artists, and his footage and a smart voiceover read by Rhys Ifans give us a quick gloss on the form in general and the work of Banksy and Shepard Fairey, both of whom play with iconic images to critique popular leftie targets like corporate control, the military-industrial complex, and consumer excess. We also learn that Banksy has tweaked pretension and power with some pretty good visual jokes, like hanging some of his goofy drawings alongside the certified masterpieces in the Tate Gallery and the British Museum, where they stayed undetected for a surprisingly long time.
Up to this point, Exit Through the Gift Shop is an entertaining but apparently conventional documentary. Then it takes a left turn and gets a lot more interesting, becoming an exposé on the art world. To get this movie done, Banksy tells us, he had to take over Thierry’s footage himself, since Thierry couldn’t finish the task. And while the street artist turns filmmaker, the filmmaker turns street artist, churning out hundreds of canvases to put on a show that’s described as L.A.’s “hottest art event of the year.” Thierry’s art is pretty awful: mindless, baldly derivative, and often outright ugly. But he promotes it brilliantly, whipping up a froth of anticipation that apparently hasn’t died down yet, since I just passed a gallery in the Meatpacking District that’s showing work by Mr. Brainwash, Thierry’s street art alias. Banksy has no illusions about the quality of his friend’s work: His film sardonically presents the selling of Mr. Brainwash’s art for tens of thousands of dollars per canvas as a symbol of all that’s wrong with the hype-happy commercial art world.
But the best part of this film was yet to come. As usual, I’d read as little as possible about the movie before I went, so it wasn’t until I got home and Googled it that I learned what you probably already know: A lot of people think Exit Through the Gift Shop is not a documentary at all, but a film-length Banksy prank. Some people think Thierry is just pretending to be a bad street artist. Some even think Banksy himself plays Thierry, which is unlikely but possible, since Banksy is fanatical about never letting himself be photographed except from behind or with a facemask or hoodie obscuring his face.
Feeding the art world dreck just to prove that it will gobble up anything, while using the prank to burnish his own image, sounds like the kind of thing the smartly satiric and cannily self-promoting Banksy would do. It also sounds like just what the art world deserves. I found myself wanting that theory to be true, so I went back to the movie last night with my husband, planning to watch it the way I watched Memento and The Usual Suspects the second time around, searching for clues I had missed to the twist I hadn’t seen coming.
This time I was more aware of the relentless hyping the film did of Banksy. He’s treated as Thierry’s Holy Grail, the most mythical and elusive of the street artists, and described in the tongue-in-cheek hyperbole that peppers the voiceover as “taking vandalism in a whole new direction.” I also noticed that we never see Thierry actually creating any art, and I noticed more than before how laughably inarticulate and evasive he is whenever people ask about his work. I wondered if the clandestine footage he supposedly took of graffiti artists was staged, since we often see him in the shot (who’s filming him?). I even started to wonder about things that had nothing to do with Thierry, like how Banksy could have spent all that time painting visions of escape along the concrete wall built to separate Jews from Palestinians in the West Bank without getting shot at, or at least arrested. All that wondering even made me wonder if there was a message for us in the funny Paranoid Pictures logo that opens the film by knocking off the Paramount logo. But the more I wondered about how and why this movie was made, the more I liked it.
I still don’t know if Thierry’s art is for real, though I hope it isn’t. But whether it is or not, the reaction it’s getting from gallery owners and collectors is clearly real, very entertaining, and more than a little horrifying. As Banksy says: “I always used to encourage everyone I met to make art. I used to tell everyone they should do it. I don’t really do that so much any more.”
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.