A majority of my friends who I would consider hard core movie junkies, like a certain individual who writes a blog the title of which has the initials R.R., kept asking me if I saw a film called “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” The answer I kept giving them was the truthful one, that no, I hadn’t seen the film, but I would get around to it eventually. When I was pestered by several of them to provide a better answer, I merely stated that I had a number of other movies, DVR’d shows, and books that were ahead of it on the pecking order of priorities; but deep down I had another reason, which I didn’t share because I really didn’t feel like engaging in a debate on the subject of graffiti.
I am the first to admit that there are some truly exceptional street artists who produce works of stunning vision, and capture my imagination, but for every one of these, there are a thousand so called street artists who are nothing more than vandals. Think about it. How often have you been out for a walk, or driving in your car, and saw the wall of a building, a street sign, or a road overpass was marked up by graffiti? If you stop to look long enough you’ll notice that the majority of the street art, at least in my opinion, lacks imagination, and showcases almost no artistic talent on the part of the person who created the drawing. I will state unequivocally, that I don’t feel I am in a position to draw (no pun intended) the dividing lines between what should be considered spiteful destruction of property, rebellious creativity, and aesthetic beauty. I don’t have a degree in art, or art history for that matter, so who am I to proclaim what art should be revered and what should be viewed as trash? I will leave that question to be discussed by others who have a greater understanding and appreciation for what goes into creating a work of art, namely the artists themselves. But, when I see that the “so called” artist has just written their name in big letters or sprayed a bunch of lines that have no rhyme or reason to their pattern, I am not impressed in the least. Conversely, I was extremely impressed with the French immigrant and Los Angeles resident, Thierry Guetta. He is the former vintage clothing shop owner, amateur filmmaker, and now successful artist who is the star of Exit Through the Gift Shop, the provocative documentary film, which is the subject of this week’s blog.
The film, directed by “Banksy” and narrated by Rhys Ifans (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2010 and has gone on to gross $4,790,751. Exit Through the Gift Shop is not a traditional documentary. For starters, it was a production that, from the time of its inception, took eleven years and over ten thousand hours of amateur video footage before it was ever screened for an audience. In the end most of the ten thousand hours produced a mere eighty seven minutes of usable film for the final product. The reason director Banksy and his producer Jaimie D’Cruz had such an inordinate amount of footage to draw from for their film was the result of Thierry’s Guetta’s constant documenting of virtually every waking moment of his life. The Frenchman credits the reason for his obsessive behavior to the untimely passing of his mother. He desires to capture moments on film, so he can go back and view them “as is” instead of through the prism of his own memory, which he feels can be distorted by the addition or subtraction of important details. Along the way, while capturing on film everything from the mundane of his merely looking at himself in the mirror to the birth of his three children, Guetta learns that his cousin is a man known in the world of street art as Invader. Once this discovery is made, from that point on the amateur filmmaker takes the first step on a journey that will ultimately change his life. In addition to that, in this blogger’s opinion, the film poses the following questions: What makes a piece of art work desirable? Is it the craftsmanship or special set of learned skills that go into constructing something that will receive adulation from the masses? Perhaps it is nothing more than the powerful ability to hype one’s work to the point where people not only have to gaze upon it, but for those who can afford the finer things in life, a desire to own a particular piece by a given artist becomes a paramount endeavor.
I’ve seen a multitude of documentaries so far during my movie watching life; some I thought were excellent, a few I found to be downright atrocious, but most, I felt, ranged from okay to good. During the course of watching several of them, I noticed that while a particular documentary might begin by focusing in on one subject, a filmmaker who is attempting to stand out will surprise the viewer by introducing an unforeseen twist in the story. The same can be said for Exit Through the Gift Shop; however, the Banksy film takes it a step further. Not only does the film spiral away from its original subject matter, but it in turn begins to be created by someone else.
The insane part of the whole movie is that when Guetta began filming his cousin, the internationally known street artist Invader, he wasn’t attempting to make a documentary film or immerse himself in the world of street art; he was just doing his thing. He was filming what he was watching and after the tape ran out, he would merely eject it, toss it into a cardboard box, and put in a new tape to record some more. A desire to document other street artists besides his cousin takes hold of him, but again, not for turning his hobby into something that will result in a commercially viable product that will reward him with monetary gain; he just wants to film more street artists, plain and simple. Once Guetta learns about the renowned stature of graffiti artist Banksy, whose work can be seen everywhere from London to New Orleans and even on the separation barrier of the Palestinian West Bank, he begins a quest to meet the man who guards his privacy to the hilt for fear of prosecution.
It would take a while before Guetta would get to meet the elusive Banksy; in the meantime, thanks to a hook-up by his cousin Invader, he does spend considerable time with another well known street artist. The artist’s name is Shepard Fairey, creator of the world wide OBEY designs which feature the face of iconic wrestler Andre the Giant and the designer of President Obama’s “Hope” image which, during the 2008 presidential campaign, was featured on everything from t-shirts, posters, and buttons, to avatars for people’s facebook pages. He is another artist who, while under the impression that a documentary showcasing street art is being made, allows Guetta to film his work. Again, Guetta puts himself into a position to meet other street artists who he captures on film, most of whom, with the exception of a few, are more than happy to have their work documented for posterity.
Fortune smiles on Guetta when one of Banksy’s accomplices is not allowed through customs in Los Angeles. On his own, and in need of a guide, Banksy places phone calls to his contacts seeking someone who is available to help him, and that is how Thierry gets to meet the crowning jewel of the world of street art. After the artist is finished in LA, Guetta accompanies Banksy back to his native England, where much to the chagrin of his crew, the Brit allows Guetta to film his activities, provided his face is not shown, and in the final version of the film, Banksy’s voice is also altered. Banksy’s main motivation for allowing the intrusion of an outsider into his heavily guarded world is because he feels that street art needs to be documented because of its short shelf life. What might be an explosion of creative talent on the side of a building one day will perhaps be painted over several days later erasing all traces of the painstaking work that had been done by an individual artist.
Banksy eventually asks to see Guetta’s documentary film, which doesn’t exist in any sort of coherent form. Guetta comes back and screens for Banksy a film that is in essence one long clip show of various street artists with no narration or flow to the story. Banksy offers a proposition to Guetta: He, Banksy, will become the filmmaker and Guetta can become the street artist. Therein lies the twist of this documentary. It is a proposition that Guetta gladly accepts and in doing so he adopts the street artist name Mr. Brainwash.
For a while, Thierry Guetta follows in the footsteps of those street artists who came before him, and places his own art all over Los Angeles. But, he soon grows bored with that, and, on Banksy’s advice, decides to produce his own show of work entitled “Life is Beautiful.” Little did Banksy know what that piece of advice would springboard into……
I feel to write more about what transpires in the documentary both before, and from that point on, would be to play the role of spoiler for those of you who have not yet seen it, and that is not a role that I relish, so I will refrain from further commentary. I will, however, add one more interesting thing about this film, and that is that there is a good deal of speculation as to whether the film is nothing more than an act of collusion between Banksy and Guetta, who are deftly playing a joke on the movie going public. Is that the path that we as the viewers have been led down, or is the film a genuine work of non-fiction? You can rent Exit Through the Gift Shop at Blockbuster or on Netflix, or purchase it at major retailers such as Best Buy. You can then decide for yourself as to whether it is fact or an elaborately contrived fiction. I’d love to know what you think.
If you do take the time to watch this documentary, in this blogger’s opinion, it will be eighty-seven minutes well spent, and I think you will definitely see why it was listed as “number five,” on Moviefone’s countdown of the best fifty movies of 2010.