NZIFF ’10: “Art Crimes”: Exit Through the Gift Shop

nziff ’10: Exit Through The Gift Shop
Dir. ‘Banksy’ | uk/usa | 2010 | 87 mins.

No-one really knows who or what the street artist known as “Banksy” is. If you trust The Onion—and, really, you should: it’s “America’s Finest News Source”—the person spray-painting all that funny stencilled graffiti about homosexual police officers and how London is being overrun by cctv cameras is actually a 98-year-old woman from Camden Town. (“It sure does help to pass the time,” she told the newspaper.) Or he could be just some shady dude in a grey hoodie who, depending on your ability to believe what appear to be some pretty far-out ‘facts,’ helped give a California-based Frenchman his 15 minutes of fame. Whatever the case there is a very funny film with his name attached to it. Exit Through the Gift Shop begins with the enigmatic street artist himself—hiding in the shadowy hood of his jacket and with his voice modulated down to a growl to protect his identity—describing how he came to know Thierry Guetta, a second-hand clothing store owner in one of the hipper parts of downtown L.A.

Guetta had a penchant for video cameras—he obsessively documented his daily life down to the most minute of minutiæ, like filming himself shaving—and wanted to make a film about street art. He’d already started filming and talking to a few local artists about their work, but his most sought-after interviewee was Banksy. “He wanted to make a documentary about me,” says Bansky, “but he was actually a lot more interesting than I am, so the film is actually about him…” Guetta’s cousin is a street artist who goes by the nom de peinture “Space Invader,” and Guetta had long been interested in artwork that exists outside the bounds of the establishment—and often outside the bounds of the law: many of the artists he films are working illegally, spray-painting billboards they have no right to cover, tearing down subway posters and replacing them with parodical facsimiles, and so on.

Though what we see of Guetta’s film is interesting and wonderfully entertaining, the film becomes so much better—and so much funnier—when the cameras turn on Guetta himself, and he takes a piece of advice from Banksy, that he should set up his own art show, a little too seriously. Guetta begins planning a gargantuan exhibition under the name “Mr. Brainwash,” and commissions an army of freelance artists, designers, builders and other creative types to create a few hundred works of art to sell in the show—far more than would normally fill a space of the size Guetta has chosen, even given the cavernous ex-office building which he’s selected for his foray into the art world. More than a little clumsy at the best of times, the first sign of bad luck is when Mr. Brainwash breaks his leg and has to wheel around chaotically barking orders at people left, right and center.

Things just get funnier and more extravagant from there, as the show opens and we see a lot of very hip people taking his work very seriously; the exhibition gets a write-up in L.A. Weekly, and, all of a sudden, Mr. Brainwash has arrived, his adoring public gushing over what is quite clearly a gigantic collection of very derivative (Warholian/Banksy-esque) works. (Perhaps the only real feat with the exhibition is logistic: getting that many pieces of art ready to sell and up on walls around an unused building and prepping for a show in short order is quite an achievement.)

Whether Banksy really made this film—whether he’s even a single, real human being or some sort of amorphous blob, a loose affiliation of artists working in a collective masquerading as a visionary artist, or a blue-haired nonagenarian from London who enjoys creating “life-sized stencilled images that satirize modern society’s mores and its inherent political power structures”—we may never know. Whether Thierry Guetta was really an artist, or whether the whole film is a complete and utter hoax, doesn’t really matter: the fun lies in having the wool pulled over our eyes and laughing the whole way through.

Exit Through the Gift Shop will almost certainly be re-released at Rialto and similar cinemas in the near future.