I’m always behind with the Academy Award documentaries. As it is today’s film was nominated just last year for Best Documentary (and lost unfortunately). Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fascinating documentary not just about street art (aka graffitti), or the elusive figure known as Banksy, but also how one small man rose to the top of the art world without lifting a finger. Some consider this a movie about success and mystery, while others consider it one man’s rise to the top while stepping on those who made him.
Thierry Guetta becomes fascinated by the world of street art and the people who risk their lives to create something that is seen as both art and an eyesore. When he goes on the hunt to interview the most prolific and elusive artists, Banksy, Guetta starts to become interested in creating his own art.
One of the predominant questions surrounding this film is: Who is the movie about? Is it about unmasking and learning more about Banksy, or is it about Guetta’s rise to art respectability? It’s about both and I felt one story was slightly more intriguing than the other. I loved the Banksy story as the man, covered in a hoodie with a modified voice, is such a compelling and mysterious figure. We don’t learn anything more about him than we do coming into the film, but the movie shows the lengths he goes to in order to create art, including scaling tall buildings.
The various artists we see throughout the movie’s 86 minutes, with interesting names like Space Invader, Borf, and Swoon, all have reasons for doing what they’re doing. I would have enjoyed going into the personal stories of a few of these characters. For the most part we hear a lot about Space Invader, who is Guetta’s cousin, a little bit about Banksy, and the rest of the characters just pop in and out to draw something and leave. I really connected to the character of Borf who mentions his name came from a friend who killed himself. The name, and the art, all are created to make a statement and leave a lasting impact. Many mention that the art is temporary, and is quickly covered up by the next day, but this story that’s told shows the art is about creating a new breed of immortality. Borf uses this name to keep the memory of this person alive, we didn’t know him, but through the spreading of his name in the art he lives on. I would have enjoyed focusing on the multitude of street artists that are out now and telling their stories.
You see these stories come through in the art drawn as mentioned above. The film has an amazing opening montage of the differing forms of street art. There’s big pictures drawn on the sides of walls, small pieces on signs. Some have political messages, like Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” pictures, while others are just simple messages like “I love you” and “Peace.” The opening tells you that street art isn’t just gang tagging, and in the fact that most of these artists make a lot of money off their art, it is a new form of popular culture. There’s several comparisons and mentions of Andy Warhol in this film and while you see that some of these less popular artists aren’t commanding money, that it’s now “cool” to own these pieces. The world of street art slowly transforms into a fake world where Banksy can paint an elephant and still get Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and Jude Law to come and revel in his work. It seems artificial, the new cause celebre.
The elephant story is juxtaposed with one of the movie’s most intense moments, where Banksy and Guetta try to make a statement at Disneyland. I don’t recall hearing this story, and I’m a Disneyland blog follower, but it next to the elephant story it shows one of the most disturbing elements of mass media. Banksy and Guetta go to Disneyland to protest Guantanomo Bay by putting a puppet on the railing of Big Thunder Mountain. Here’s the stunt below:
Guetta then tells how he was interrogated for four hours by Disneyland security before being released. The next scene is a news story about various animal rights groups being upset over the painted elephant. What’s disturbing is that broad attention is given to this elephant, and showing how Banksy has “arrived” with his star-studded art premiere. Meanwhile, Disneyland is labeled an insidious organization where possible violators are interrogated like felons. It’s an intriguing contrast and again, wished it had been delved into further.
The movie becomes almost a selfish ode to Guetta and what he had to do to be famous. There’s the theme of “capturing” that runs throughout the film. Guetta has a constant need to record and “capture” every moment of his life and the reason is showcased in a sweet montage of his life. We learn Guetta’s mother died when he was a boy, and he wasn’t there when it happened. Since then, he feels the need to record every moment because it can never be regained. It’s this scene that makes you identify and understand Guetta…and then watch as he becomes kind of a dick. Much of the street art, like his need to capture moments, is temporary and you understand why he finds street art such a worthy thing worth making a documentary about. The movie is just as much about unveiling Banksy, as it is one man’s ability to find meaning in his life and give him a purpose. Guetta mentions he’s a “ghost” when he records the artists, and it’s easy to see why he’d want to come out of the shadows.
His relationship with Banksy starts out like a paparazzo stalking his prey. Guetta climbs the ladder of artists before he meets Banksy, and once he does the two form a symbiotic relationship. Guetta gives up everything to devote his life to recording Banksy and the street artists. We meet his three children and poor wife but they aren’t important because we never see them again. In fact, Guetta never mentions his family or what it’s like to be away from them. He mentions he’s “like a bird” and can’t stay cooped up too long. It’s shocking to hear at the end that his wife is still with him because he’s no help to his family.
Eventually, Guetta starts making street art and blows up, commanding thousands of dollars for his work. We learn that the documentary he’s making has been highly tweaked by Banksy, and the move to street art looks like Guetta’s desperate fallback plan. He’s not an established filmmaker, nor does he have any knowledge of art. Depending on your perspective, Guetta looks like a guy who just got incredibly lucky, or he used his social connections to borrow ideas and become successful as street art was becoming culturally artistic. There’s debate on how “scripted” the movie is but it definitely comes off like Guetta capitalized on his friends.
Banksy seems the most bitter about Guetta’s success, mentioning that he didn’t pay his dues “Most artists take years to develop their style, Thierry seemed to miss out on all those bits” and how his art “looks like everybody else’s.” The most stinging barb told by Banksy has to be this little nugget, “Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry really makes them meaningless.” The film’s final lines are Banksy saying, ” I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.” It really feels like the man has been duped and you’re left to wonder whether Guetta is a good guy or not.
Personally, I liked Exit Through the Gift Shop, but I wasn’t as enamored of it as others. Guetta comes off like a jerk by the end, and he comes off as guarded throughout the movie. Aside from the flashback of his childhood he doesn’t discuss his family or even take the time to ask them anything. Where Banksy refuses to reveal himself because his work is illegal, Guetta has no reason to be forward with his life, I mean he was responsible for doing the documentary in the first place! The world of street art is fascinating to be sure, and the movie gives just a taste of it.
Moving on to some general website stuff. The poll from last week has closed and with 57% of the vote your favorite movie decade is the 1940s! I’ll be doing a list of my favorite movies of the 1940s soon, glad to know I’ll be pleasing a lot of people. There’s a new poll up now for the week asking about your must-see movie of May. The banners for the Leading Man Tournament are almost done! I’ve gotten a few lovely bloggers already interested in helping promote the tourney. If you’re a blogger or have a Facebook page, or just want to post up one of my banners let me know! Till tomorrow!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.