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Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) ***1/2

January 8, 2011

produced by: Holly Cushing, Jaimie D’Cruz & James Gay-Rees
directed by: Banksy
rated R (for some language)
87 min.
U.S. release date: January 24, 2010 (Sundance Film Festival) & April 16, 2010 (limited)
DVD/Bluray release date: December 14, 2010 (DVD & Netflix Watch Instantly ) & March 8, 2011 (Bluray)
The best kind of documentaries are ones in which you are informed and/or educated about something you knew very little about and are entertained at the same time. Such is the case with “Exit Through the Gift Shop” a film that exposes the always-present yet seldom seen artists of the street. You see their work on buildings and street poles, they come in all sizes, and are often considered graffiti art. But who are these people? Where did they learn how to do what they do? Do they get paid for it? If not, how do they afford to do it? Not all those questions are answered but you will undoubtedly ask them while watching this smart, funny, and charismatic film that seems to be winking at the viewer the whole time.  

Directed by a man named Banksy, a mysterious British street artist and urban legend, the film proposes the age-old question: What is art? It also speculates who should be considered an “artist”. A hooded Bansky bookends the film, his face never revealed and his voice distorted (although at times it does sound like the narrator, actor Rhys Ifans), and also pops up at times throughout the film. He reveals that originally this was to be a film about him, but apparently he turned the tables and shined the lens on French immigrant, Thierry Guetta, a clothing proprietor living in Los Angeles.

Guetta is that guy who takes a video camera wherever he goes and records everything.
Always. The guy may consider himself an artist, but he definitely is a compulsive documentarian (almost to the point of voyeurism) of real-life with no actual purpose but to record. He doesn’t even do anything with the footage except stockpile it. This becomes an annoyance to his friends and some family as well as some local celebrities. I must admit, it was fun seeing Jay Leno get pestered.
Life takes a turn for Guetta when he visits family in France and finds out that one of his cousins is a street artist who goes by the name Space Invader. He begins filming his cousin’s process, which includes replicating characters from the video game he’s named after and plastering them on signs and buildings. Together, they travel all over Europe as Guetta is introduced to several other artists. Back in Los Angeles, he hooked up with local artist through his built contacts and meets Shepard Fairy (know for those “Hope” Obama posters), and eventually Bansky himself. Months pass and although Guetta is taken in by these artists, he also proves to be an irritant as well. His wife is shown as well and I have to say, she must be very patient. Despite how he comes across, the pudgy Fenchman with porkchop sideburns retains a quirky jovial demeanor about himself.
All the while, Guetta has talked about filming a documentary about street art, but his distraction and short attention span gets the best of him. This is a guy who shoots 24/7, yet the footage is never seen by anyone. Until now, at least somewhat, and that’s when the reclusive Banksy goes from being Guetta’s exclusive interview to his documentarian. In an act of irony, the artist turns the camera on the wanna-be artist and the result is a hilarious tour of street art, that may leave you curious about whether or not what you just watched was real. I myself, didn’t really care. I was hooked, with my intrigue intact from the start and maintained all throughout.

The film takes an interesting turn around the time Guetta and Banksy meet, when Guetta decides to embark on his own street art work. Culling the knowledge gleaned from his experience filming other artists, he feels another creative bug has bit him. Ignoring the possibility of compiling the thousands of hours of footage he has, he names himself “Mr. Brianwash” and somehow employs others to help him mass produce his work. In doing so, he totally (and most likely unintentionally) misses out on the hipster-artist mentality and instead seeks to monopolize on his work. Well, at least that’s how it may seem.
No wonder Banksy turns the camera to Guetta. His transformation is an undeniably odd one and at the same time almost magical to behold. His art is nothing groundbreaking which makes you wonder if he’s trying to make an intentional statement about the art that he’s immersed himself in. Is he saying that anyone can create street art or is he just a harmless fan wanting to partake in this subculture? Whatever he is, what he and Banksy create becomes quite entertaining.

The viewer is forced to come up with their own conclusion about Guetta and I felt the guy was genuine, observant and oblivious. When the film focuses on his big event, preparing a massive warehouse gallery of his work, he shows an obsessiveness but this came as unsurprising considering this is a guy who has worked on his own for so long. We see other artists upset at the attention Guetta gets and the crowd he draws, thinking he is a poser trying to cash in on their turf. It’s understandable since Guetta does set up a gift shop at the conclusion of his gallery. The thing is, there is never any real malicious intent from Guetta and in turn it seems like Banksy, both the artist and the director, just shakes his head at him.
I can see why “Exit Through the Gift Shop” has become a cult favorite. It’s a gateway into a world that the average person would seldom be exposed to. I enjoyed watching these artists at work as much as Guetta seemed to and I got a kick out of the enigmatic Banksy just as well. Banksy could have ridiculed and demeaned Guetta, but he presumably understood how misguided and enthusiastic a character he is and just let him be. What is shown is a funny and intriguing portrait of a man who unknowingly invades an artistic movement. It’s one of those word-of-mouth movies that will eventually come your way, and when it does, do yourself a favor and check it out.  

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