It seems that nobody can make a documentary nowadays without someone denouncing it as a hoax; from Joaquin Phoenix having a public breakdown in I’m Still Here to the alien shenanigans of District 9, both of which I maintain to be true accounts of real-life incidents. Now we have Exit Through the Gift Shop, a hilarious, incisive look into the cult of contemporary street-art by its most famous member, the artist and provocateur Banksy.
The film revolves around Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Frenchman living in Los Angeles, and his decade-long quest to create the ultimate film about street-art. That Thierry is a nut is evident from the start as he explains his insistence on documenting every facet of his life and the lives of those around him. Soon he moves from filming his family to street-artists, and from here his little hobby mutates into an obsession. Thierry becomes less of an observer and more an active participant, clambering over walls and up roofs, even putting down his camera to help put up a poster. During this period Thierry racks up miles of film shooting some of the biggest names in street-art except for one, the mysterious and elusive Banksy.
From here the film takes a turn into the surreal, and becomes all the more amusing for it. Thierry basically begins to stalk Banksy around the world, filming the creation of his most infamous works of art, from his defacement of the West Bank wall to ‘Barely Legal’, the LA show that made Banksy a star. Finally Thierry has enough footage to produce his opus, his love-letter to the scene, the result is Life Remote Control, a film which Banksy describes variously as ‘unwatchable’ and ‘shit’.
Although Exit is labeled ‘A Banksy Film’ it is not about him, rather it is about the crazed character of Thierry and, more widely, the superfluous and empty nature of art and celebrity. Clearly bemused by Thierry’s work Banksy challenges him to switch roles; Banksy becomes the film-maker, and Thierry his subject. In scant months Thierry dubs himself ‘Mr. Brainwash’, and begins a career in street-art that morphs wildly out of control. Mr. Brainwash’s output is derivative to say the least, often doing little more than applying an assault-rifle into the hands of a pop icon, or a Marilyn Monroe wig on the head of Marilyn Manson. Much of what Thierry creates, or at least what he tells his legion of professional graphic designers to create, has absolutely nothing to say. This is art for arts sake and nothing more, and the critics lap it up, netting Thierry millions in the process.
This is the point when something begins to smell fishy. Like I’m Still Here the story is almost too strange to be true. Meanwhile the wry comments from Banksy, enshrouded by his hood and with a voice electronically garbled so as to befit the mystique of one whose face the public has never seen, are of a perfect timing and quality. He comes across as a likable gentleman, making bon mots such as ‘There’s no one like Thierry, even though his art looks like everybody else’s.’ I must be a naïf however, because at the time of watching I didn’t think of it as being anything other than the real deal. Thierry’s personality is too bizarre, too idiosyncratic to be a work of fiction. The fact that Thierry is a real person adds to this, as does the fact that his car-crash film Life Remote Control is available on the internet (or is it? I see torrents, and a website, but are these just placemats laid by Banksy in order for us to better enjoy his created reality?). Nevertheless, just as art is meant to make us appreciate the intricacies of real life through subterfuge, so does Exit lay many of our realities bare, particularly in respect to art itself.
What makes graffiti and its little brother street-art so unique is its transience. No sooner does a piece go up, than some council official order it to be destroyed. Street-art can be at most a mordant little comment on life and society, and at best something to make you smile as you walk by. Banksy has never professed to anything greater than that. Exit is an arch criticism of a culture that can apply a sometimes grotesque monetary value on something that is essentially quite useless, and can be seen in its natural environment for free. Street-art was once one of the most democratic forms of expression, free from economic restraints. Graffiti in its modern form had firm proletarian roots, being a member of the sacred Four Elements. However, as Banksy shows, nothing can exist for long in a Capitalist society without a price.
Eurgh, text-book Marxism. I swore off the stuff when I got kicked out of uni, yet here it is again, infecting my prose like a red plague. Just like the style of art that is its subject, one shouldn’t disseminate the film too closely. Exit succeeds because it is entertaining, because it brushes everything with a light stroke. Because of Banksy’s profile he was able to bring on-board a crack team of collaborators, including Roni Size and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow on music duties and Rhys Ifans to lend an amusing narration. The editing is crisp and the film is very accomplished for a first-timer. It also reveals more about Banksy’s personality than anything else he has done, letting us know that he isn’t just some punk-done-good with a spray-can, parka and a big bank balance.