Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

A film about Banksy that's not really about Banksy but turns out to be by him about a guy who was making a film with Banksy in it. Still with me? Right. Exit Through the Gift Shop was sold as "The incredible true story of how the world's greatest Street Art movie was never made" and it kind of holds true.

The film follows the street art inspired adventure of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant living in LA who made a living buying cheap old clothes and turning around selling them as designer and vintage to the hipsters of the city of angels. Guetta spent his life chronicling everything in his life through his video camera and when he falls in with some of the world's most prolific street artists, by chance really, they take an instant shine to him and his camera.

He travelled the world under the guise of being a filmmaker, following around the biggest names in guerilla art telling them that he was making a film to make permanent an artform that is at its core ephemeral thanks to its relationship with the law. Then he ran into Banksy.

Banksy, probably the most famous street artist, both loved and hated by the community in the scene (check out his feud with Robbo for the latter), inadvertently inspires Guetta to become an artist himself after he finally gives in and produces a film. It's from here that things get a little... strange.

Guetta goes on to piss over everything that street art is, or is supposed to be. There's little to no effort made in working his way up and actually creating art of his own, but he just buys his way into the scene. In a perverted Andy Warhol style he creates pieces of work that are collages of seemingly random bits of pop culture chopped up and stitched together. It's like what a fifteen year old who's "really mature for their age" would create if they were trying to channel Banksy. There's a lingering sense throughout the second half of the film that, if someone had just held off picking up their pay-cheque for a second and asked "Why?", this whole thing would have ended very differently.

Nevertheless, the people of LA and beyond eat it up. Thierry makes a boat load of money and sells a hell of a lot of merchandise and thus sets the film up to be interpreted as less than the truth. There's been a lot of speculation over whether Guetta (or as he later names himself: 'Mr Brainwash'") is genuine or a fabrication of the notorious Bristolian himself. Once the idea's been planted, it's pretty hard to shake. I only heard all the conjecture after I'd seen Exit for the first time, and watching it again now everything seems to line up a bit too perfectly to send a message.

In the film, Banksy describes meeting Guetta as a catharsis: "After trying to keep everything under wraps for so long, to just let someone in and trust them was a bit of a release". But following all the criticism Banksy's (rightly, I think) received for selling out to the mainstream and the gallery shows it's hard to imagine that the creation of Mr Brainwash wasn't the real catharsis. It smacks of an artist addressing the fact that they're successful in a field where being poor and working literally on the street is a bonus to your credibility, or even the entire point. With Mr Brainwash Banksy, and to a lesser extent his partner in crime Shepard Fairey (of Obey and Obama 'Hope' fame), there's a statement being made that says "Yes, we're successful and we've made money off this, but we did it the credible way. This is how we'd have done it if we were actual sell outs".

Whether or not you want to buy into the hoax theory, Exit Through the Gift Shop is worth a watch if you want a well produced documentary looking at the nature of art and credibility.  great opening montage of amateur footage of street art in action, Thierry's guerilla shaky cam antics with world class artists and the slick production applied by Banksy and co later on creates an eclectic mix that reflects nicely on the changing landscape of the street art scene as it moves kicking and screaming gradually into the gallery from the gutter.

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