Maybe we should start calling this the year of the performance art documentary. Just months after I'm Still Here caused audiences to wonder in horror whether Casey Affleck had really filmed the destructive downfall of brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix, we get another grainy, low-budget film that begs similar questions regarding its authenticity. However, while one's enjoyment of the Phoenix documentary is directly correlated to whether the whole truth is revealed (I gave a good review to I'm Still Here a week after Affleck revealed the whole thing was a hoax, and I would have hated it without that knowledge), no such information is necessary to enjoy Exit Through The Gift Shop.
In fact, it's the not knowing and subsequent guessing of motivations that makes it a fascinating film. For the record, I think the entire second half of the film is, on some level, a hoax. But to call it a mockumentary wouldn't be accurate either, because the street artists here are all real people, the climactic art show really happened and many "connoisseurs" paid thousands of dollars for art of—I'll say this nicely—questionable provenance.
More accurately, Exit Through The Gift Shop is a mocking film. It mocks how our society defines modern art, how it's possible to create a superstar artist overnight despite a lack of any discernible talent, and how we the sheep will pay exorbitant amounts of money for that art on the basis of an invented reputation. Really, one needs to look no further than the title to understand there might be something a little deeper going on than just a film about graffiti artists.
From the beginning we are led to believe that the star of this documentary is an eccentric Frenchman named Thierry Guetta. It's unclear how Guetta makes a living, but what we know is that he videotapes just about everything he does every single day. Guetta slowly gets to know some of most famous European and American members of the graffiti world—a mysterious subculture of subversive artists who do their work on street corners, sidewalks and buildings in the dark of night.
- The grim reaper confesses to his love of the arts.
Among the infamous artists Guetta becomes acquainted with are a man known only as Space Invader and Shephard Fairey, an L.A. graffiti artist who several years later designed the memorable Obama "Hope" poster. Guetta gains their trust as he films the artists at work and begins to consider making the first comprehensive documentary of the subculture. But first he must find Banksy, the most famous of all the underground artists, known as much for his work and political activism as for his anonymity. No one even knows his real name, but Guetta manages to track down the Brit and even convinces Banksy to participate in the documentary, though he still won't show his face.
Amazing? Not as much as you think. Guetta does make his documentary, combing through thousands of hours of footage and spending nearly a year in the editing room. He calls the film Life Remote Control but by all accounts it is a truly horrible documentary. The few clips we see appear to confirm this fact.
Which brings us to the larger point: Exit Through The Gift Shop is not directed by Guetta; Banksy himself is at the helm. Somewhere along the line—probably when Guetta showed them the first cut of his film—Banksy and his cohorts decided to turn the tables by turning Guetta into one of them.
Here is where the line between real and fake becomes more than a little fuzzy. The latter half of the film documents Guetta's transformation from mediocre filmmaker into "Mr. Brainwash," modern art's hottest commodity. With no portfolio to his name, Guetta seemingly transforms overnight into an ultra-prolific, modern-day Andy Warhol. In less than six months he amasses a warehouse of original prints and sculptures. Much of it is bad, which we're told is what makes it good. Much of it also looks curiously similar to the work of other graffiti greats.
However you want to define it—hoax or not—this is a wonderfully entertaining film. Guetta—who gets the most camera time of anyone—tells his story with an earnestness that makes us want to believe him. At the same time, the deadpan narration of Rhys Ifans gives it all a very Spinal Tap feel. Exit Through The Gift Shop and "Mr. Brainwash" himself should be considered Banksy's best piece of performance art to date.
Exit Through The Gift Shop continues at the Wilma Theatre.