Published May 06, 2010I lived in London, England for several years, and it's impossible to imagine the Big Smoke without the reassurance that a Banksy original will adorn several walls along the morning commute. "One Nation Under CCTV," the Pulp Fiction with Bananas series, the Rats series, the Tate Britain scandal, £10 notes featuring Princess Di, the "Designated Riot Area" in Trafalgar Square, these are just a few examples of his infamous street art that were created with stickers, stencils, spray paint and the occasional blowtorch.
Much ink has been spilt trying to decipher his enduring mystique. Even entire tours and walking guides are geared toward Banksy. Yet no one, after all his celebrity and notoriety, has ever seen his face, and his anonymity has inspired much speculation, conspiracy theories and urban mythology.
So when French-American pseudo-filmmaker Thierry Guetta, who had been documenting the exploits of L.A. street artists like Space Invader and Shepard Fairey (who was responsible for the popular blue/red Barack Obama rallying poster), decided to follow Banksy with a camera, little did Guetta know that Banksy would, in true counterculture fashion, trick Guetta into turning the camera on himself.
Inspired to give graffiti a shot, but without inspiration or direction, Guetta becomes a style-less, premature, derivative street artist before our eyes, taking Andy Warhols and making them even more meaningless. And yet somehow, success comes a-knocking. The result is a documentary that is less about the controversy concerning the right of street art in public spaces, nor the graffiti-ist versus graffiti artist debate, but more about the commercialization and packaging of art.
We love street art because of its savage and wild quality. Art in galleries is carefully controlled, while outdoor art is untamed. But when Guetta (who is so scatterbrained he spouts lines like, "He's really like... he's really like... Uh. I really liked him?") takes notes during Banksy's wildly successful Barely Legal show and discovers how lucrative it can be, he turns an organic craft into a manufactured, over-hyped, moneymaking venture.
The documentary's most engaging scenes reflect the high stakes involved in doing street art: zany escapes from the cops, falling off ladders, roofs and paint spill mishaps, but the most riveting is Banksy's ode to Guantanamo Bay on Disneyland property, all of which were captured on film (and resulted in Guetta being detained and interrogated for four hours by the "Mickey Mouse" police). Banksy, interviewed in shadows with voice-alteration, retells each anecdote with impeccable comic timing, and has the ability to sum up the most surreal Spinal Tap-esque moments with the merest of upward inflections or spot-on pauses.
Exit Through The Gift Shop, under the direction of Banksy, and narrated by Rhys Ifans, is a taut, colourful, hella funny satire that is all too brief for the quantity of awesomeness contained within. Through the buffoonery of Guetta, who gives himself the ludicrous moniker Mister Brain-Washed, we the audience realize we are all culpable for buying into any type of hype we are fed, turning talent-less hacks into mega-pop icons. But the unanswered question is: is the joke here on Guetta or on us?
Traditional art is either cast in bronze or oil on canvas, ensuring it has a long life. Street art, on the other hand, due to its very nature, has a short existence. So documenting it here in this fashion, from creation to practice, is extremely important. Liveable and democratic, street art is the biggest counterculture movement since punk rock, and at its heart, Exit Through The Gift Shop endeavours to remind us that we cannot dismiss it any longer as mere vandalism. (Mongrel Media)