That it’s called “a Banksy film” could mean a directing credit for the adored, elusive British street artist, or just that it was made in the best spirit of his work: prankish, double-take-inducing, immediately appealing.
In any case, Exit Through the Gift Shop‘s ostensible subject is one Thierry Guetta, a French-born Los Angeles clothier and would-be documentarian — really, a footage hoarder; he is a fan of what he calls “the capturation” — who gets initiated into guerrilla-graffiti mysteries by the likes of Banksy, Space Invader and Obama iconographer Shepard Fairey, and then himself becomes “Mr. Brainwash,” a sort of self-made Warholian monster.
Wow, what a great idea for a movie. Of course, it only works if it’s true — or at least if it’s in that increasingly familiar but somehow not yet played out mindfuck mode of who-knows-what’s-really-real-anyway documentary. Yes, the result is so assiduously hip and so of its moment that in 10 years or less we’ll all be blushing to remember our enthusiasm for it. But meanwhile it doesn’t hurt for posterity’s sake to chronicle the dubiousness and gloriousness of urban DIY street art finally having its day.
The largely self-selecting audience for this merry venture will include anyone who might enjoy assembling stencil templates at Kinko’s by day and prowling artfully around big cities by night, all the while contemplating the vicissitudes of anonymity, ubiquity, cult of personality and of course gullibility. With rakish narration by Rhys Ifans, Exit Through the Gift Shop makes short work of the requisite conversation about art-scene commodification, authentication and blah blah blah. That title alone speaks volumes, although the movie itself is ultimately warmer and less snarky than might be implied. It’s a colorful cocktail of subversiveness, self-seriousness, wonder, horror and joy, and there is genius in its way of seeming at once calculated and quickly whipped up.
And there is also the reliable, rather old-fashioned pleasure to be had from simply watching artists make their art. Here, the art itself — at first unsanctioned by the establishment but aesthetically rarefied nonetheless, later something like the opposite of that — will not be to all tastes, but the thrill of its inventive vitality should be obvious to anyone.
Anything called a Banksy film will need serious curiosity, but also a durable sense of humor. Exit Through the Gift Shop allows that these ideals aren’t easy to reconcile. As one observer puts it, “I don’t know who the joke is on; I don’t even know if there is a joke.” What makes this movie great, though, is its willingness to find that sentiment exhilarating, not exhausting. Perhaps excepting the bit with the inflatable Guantanamo prisoner at Disneyland, which seems uncharacteristically less affirming than cruelly harrowing, it’s all in good, smart fun.