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Exit Through the Gift Shop

Art Mimicking Life?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Billed as the “world’s first street art disaster movie,” Exit Through the Gift Shop, is a documentary directed by graffiti artist/social activist Banksy, a pseudonym for the yet-to-be-outed British artist.

In the film, Banksy turns the camera on Thierry Guetta, an excitable, LA-based French immigrant, who videotaped street graffiti artists, ostensibly as part of a documentary project. Over the course of 90-plus minutes, Banksy covers Guetta’s transformation from obsessive videographer to, ultimately, an artist in his own right with a well-regarded art show in Los Angeles and a hefty bank account.

Guetta became immersed in the street graffiti world when his artist-cousin, identified only as “Invader” allowed Guetta to document his nocturnal forays in and around Paris. Almost immediately, Guetta became an active participant in Invader’s work, acting as a lookout and otherwise encouraging his actions.

With an assist from Invader, Guetta met Shepard Fairey and was allowed to document Fairey’s obsessive nightly LA trips to paste up various version of his “Obey” street art — a blown-up close-up of the late Andre the Giant’s face with a single word, “Obey,” below his picture.

Again acting as lookout, and sometimes as assistant, Guetta became Fairey’s friend. Guetta also followed and documented the work of other street artists, but he had his eye on Banksy, the elusive, anonymous British street artist known for stencil-based art that combines humor with social, cultural, and political commentary.

Guetta ultimately meets Banksy through Fairey and once again repeats the pattern he set with his cousin. Banksy allows Guetta to follow him around with a video camera, but doesn’t let Guetta shoot his face. When Banksy suggests Guetta finally create the long-in-gestation documentary on street artists, the result is less a documentary than a rapid-fire, montage collected into 90-minutes of sensory-numbing, non-narrative film. Banksy then suggests that Guetta is not a filmmaker at all, and he should become a street artist.

It’s at this point in Exit Through the Gift Shop that expectations about what we’re seeing and where we’re going get upended. Banksy turns the camera on Guetta, filming Guetta’s rapid transformation from street graffiti artist to millionaire, mainstream artist. Skipping the intermediate steps, Guetta risks everything on an LA art show, and becomes an overnight success, much to Banksy and Fairey’s collective chagrin.

But is Guetta’s rise from videographer to artist really what’s going on in Exit Through the Gift Shop or is Banksy, with Fairey and, presumably, Guetta’s help, putting us on, and faking us out? Is Guetta “real” or a Banksy creation? Is Guetta one of the luckiest artists ever or a calculated critique of the art world, the media, and gullible art consumers?

If the latter is true, it’s still ongoing. Guetta had a recent art show in New York, and did the cover art and designed the interior of Madonna’s greatest hits album. Either way, Banksy isn’t saying, leaving the question unanswered for anyone who sees Exit Through the Gift Shop.