Myths and Meaninglessness
Fake fame indistinguishable from real fame in this ribald, circuitous portrait of an underground
From Horatio Alger to Andrew Carnegie, P.T. Barnum to Jay Gould, all the best fables of American exceptionalism have happy endings. And Thierry Guetta's is no different. Guetta immigrates to America from France and finds success running his own business. He picks up a video camera and begins shooting every facet of his life. He stumbles into the world of an emerging subculture, street art, and with his camera infiltrates every aspect of it. He tries to turn the passion of his filmmaking hobby into an actual document of an era--and fails. Magnificently. He begins to try making his own street art. Encouraged by his street-art friends, he decides to create a solo show of monumental importance. He refinances his home, worries his wife and kids, and sinks every penny into a do-or-die gamble. He breaks his foot a few days before the opening. He sideshow hypes the event. It almost doesn't happen. And then, like stout Cortez staring at the Pacific, inside of a week, he becomes a star.
Of course, Cortez didn't see the Pacific first, and why Keats chose him--to maintain meter? to convey a sense of continued awe?--matters less than the fact that it works. Sometimes, a story's truthiness matters less than the telling. Besides, nobody loses in Guetta's fascinating up-by-the-bootstraps saga recounted in the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. Except, well, art. Maybe. Or something like that.
Pay no attention to the man behind the voice manipulator: Although ostensibly directed by Banksy, the British street-art provocateur who has bombed everything from the Israeli West Bank barrier to the interior walls of the Tate Britain with his insouciantly political works, the artist's role here is no more or less authorial than it is in his tags and street installations. A man reported to be Banksy appears onscreen, in jeans and a hoodie, his face obscured by shadows and voice electronically altered; back-in-the-day footage of Banksy is shot over the shoulder or with his face digitally distorted. You'll see a man identified as Banksy working on stencils, putting together pieces, and rifling through boxes of fake £10 notes featuring Princess Diana--prompting the priceless quote, even in an altered voice: "Holy shit, we just forged a million quid"--but don't come to Exit looking for any insight into Banksy, per se. If that's your ultimate catch, you're better off trolling for info online.
And yet--yes, and yet: If there's a better document about the restless energy of street artists, a more articulate expression of street art's subversive spirit, a more succinct exploration of the chasm separating art practice from the art market--all of which intimately involves the world in which Banksy operates--it hasn't hit screens. Even before it gets to its title card, Exit announces its elusive appeal, opening in a montage flurry of street artists at work under cover of night and one escaping over a wall and into the dark when a pair of cops show up. Banksy himself soon shows up in interview to announce that this documentary was originally going to be about him and street art until somebody more interesting showed up.
The entire movie is spiced with such moments of oblique motions and misdirection: It shifts from Banksy to Guetta, a Frenchman who settled in Los Angeles in the 1980s and ran a fashion store--where he up-priced discarded and damaged items he bought in bulk--and who went everywhere with his video camera. Guetta's cousin is French street artist Space Invader--so named for his mosaic tags of creatures inspired by the old video game--who introduces Guetta to street art and eventually to Los Angeles street artist Shepard Fairey, whom Guetta follows around the world, documenting Fairey's work and meeting other street artists--and videoing their work--before eventually coming into contact with Banksy himself. As media attention pushes street art from buildings' sides to gallery walls, Banksy tells Guetta he should shape his nearly decade of footage into the definitive street-art documentary. At 87 minutes, Exit pushes you through this storyline like a raft over rapids, and once Banksy finally sees Guetta's edit, everything is going tits up.
Some of Exit's best white-water twists are still to come, and those zigs and zags don't even include the ongoing online chatter speculating that the entire movie is a Banksy prank; that Guetta looks a bit like a French Tony Clifton only makes such rumors all the more entertaining. But, you know, just because something doesn't sound real doesn't mean it isn't true, and just because it's totally fake doesn't mean it can't convey truth. And it's in this liminal space of public perception that the movie operates, because it is intimately concerned with how stories, people, and ideas get turned into products in contemporary consumer culture. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a sharp investigation of the way subcultures get repackaged and regurgitated into the commercial marketplace, told from an insider's perspective involving one of their ostensible own. Banksy texts often operate in the realm of improvisational aphoristic agitprop, and here he offers his own twist on yet another: Print the legend.