My first encounter with the work of British street artist Banksy was during a trip to New York City in the fall of 2008 when I accidentally stumbled into his exhibit, “The Village Petstore and Charcoal Grill”. It was a bizarre display with chicken nuggets pecking at seed, fish sticks swimming in a fishbowl, a robotic rabbit putting on make-up in a mirror, and a leopard print jacket formed into the shape of an actual leopard — wagging tail and all. It was unlike anything I had seen before and was clearly the work of someone with a message.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is a Bansky film in disguise of a documentary about street art. At least that’s how I perceived it and the message, like any great work of art, is open to interpretation. It starts out as a straight doc looking at thrift shop owner Thierry Guetta, who has immigrated to Los Angeles from France, explaining how he’s been filming everything with no particular purpose for many years. He has endless amounts of tapes stored away and just can’t put the camera down. During a trip back home he discovers his cousin is Space Invader — the artist who places mosaics of the iconic Space Invaders video game characters all over the world. Thierry becomes intrigued and focuses his filming on Space Invader until he meets other street artists, such as Shepard Fairey (if you’ve seen the Barack Obama “Hope” poster you’ve seen his work), who allow him to tape them doing their craft.
He films and films and films and also gets involved with helping these people put their work up on billboards, signs, and tall buildings. Once he’s trusted in the community, and bored with filming the same characters, he decides he needs to get to the one artist no one knows much about — Banksy. Thierry becomes obsessed with finding him. No one knows what Banksy looks like or where he’s based. He doesn’t have a phone or use email. He is an enigma. Then, by chance, the two meet. They hit it off and Banksy invites Thierry around the world with him to document his work so that it’s not lost forever. This is where I started to smell something fishy. Why couldn’t Banksy just film his own work? Finally the decision to cut together Thierry’s footage and create the definitive doc on graffiti and graffiti artists is brought forward.
Months pass and Thierry edits something he can show Banksy. It’s a disaster. Banksy is horrified at the film, which is a lot of fast cuts and loud music and not much else. During all of this time Thierry has also started to do his own art under the moniker Mr. Brainwash and he’s been plastering an image of himself holding a camera on every surface he can find. Banksy asks Thierry to leave the footage with him to see what he can cut, and sends Thierry back to Los Angeles with a new objective: to continue with his own art. What Banksy doesn’t realize is that he has just created a monster.
Thierry hires a group of people to create and mass produce his artwork, which is mainly altered works of famous pieces he finds in The Art Book. He plans a big show in the abandoned CBS Studios in L.A. and sets forth promoting it. He even gets Banksy and Shepard Fairey to help get the word out via their websites. He becomes rich and famous almost overnight. And if you believe this then you’ve been had by Banksy. No, the filmmakers have not admitted Mr. Brainwash or the documentary is a fake (I’ve actually seen one of his works in New York City — an image of Leonard Nimoy with Marilyn Monroe’s hair) but there are too many things wrong with this picture for it to be real. For one, a lot of the work looks similar to a Banksy trying to not be a Banksy (such as the Nimoy). And Thierry won’t do any press for the film, which is a shock considering how much he loves being in the spotlight according to his portrayal in Exit Through the Gift Shop.
My theory, and I’m not alone with this, is that Banksy made the film to show how easily people can be duped into believing that something is the hottest, greatest thing of the time. As a film, Exit Through the Gift Shop is entertaining and fun to watch and does show off some fine work. For those looking for a true documentary on street art they might be turned off by the direction it takes even though this could be Banksy’s best work.
Narrated by Rhys Ifans.
**** out of 5 stars
Top image: A scene from Exit Through the Gift Shop. Courtesy Mongrel Media.
Middle image: The work of Banksy at his exhibit The Village Petstore and Charcoal Grill. Photo by Brian McKechnie.
Bottom image: Leonard Nimoy gets the Marilyn Monroe treatment by Mr. Brainwash. Photo by Brian McKechnie.