The sub cultural world of international street art is captured firsthand through the eyes of a French immigrant in America, who opens his own gallery at the encouragement of his own documentary’s central participant.
AWARDS: Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, 2010.
If you recognize any of the names billed in this energetic and much-hyped documentary feature, then you apparently have a solid grip on the pulse of the elusive and renegade world of street art and have little to learn from this film’s examinations. But this is not to say that you should skip it.
On the contrary, those who have a fondness for the guerilla-style production of post-graffiti and conceptual outdoor artwork will doubtlessly be entertained by getting the backstage perspective of these artists hard at work as they blend their wheat paste mixtures and spray-can aerosols with their passions and political opinions.
However, if, like me, you are new to this subject, then this movie can serve as an excellent tutorial to this enigmatic and subversive culture that can be considered outlawed expressionism. And, therefore, you probably have several questions regarding the subject matter.
First up: what is street art? The New York City born artist John Fekner, who was instrumental in the Street Art movement, defines the medium as “all art on the street that’s not graffiti.” This assessment creates a follow-up question: when does graffiti cease to be vandalism and become artwork? This conceptual inquiry can be re-worded to express an age-old conundrum that has plagued art lovers around the globe: Is it art just because it is on display?
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” presents a street art lover’s dreamteam of designers and conceptual escapists. And since these are the ones whose work is largely done without official approval in public places, this enables some great footage of them running from the police and pasting their designs in the small hours of the night under paranoid surveillance.
Most of the artists depicted in “Exit” are known by their pseudonyms and practice their craft in guarded secrecy, eluding the fans and authorities alike. Enter the director, Banksy.
Banksy is a world-renowned British graffiti artist of unconfirmed identity. With his face blurred and voice distorted on camera, the underground art superstar appears like a fugitive from justice or a witness in a federal relocation program. His manner of speech is eloquent and confident, yet not boisterous or self-righteous unlike so many popular and celebrated artists. His altered appearance in this film only magnifies his intriguing persona, which was already fairly captivating at the start.
Ever see that Simpson’s couch gag where the 20th Century Fox logo becomes the sweatshop for enslaved doll makers and caged unicorns? That’s Banksy.
“Charlie Chaplin used to say, ‘Once I talk, I’m like any other comic’,” he told LA Weekly. “I figure I’d follow this lead.”
Like Chaplin’s meandering tramp, his achievements are global, as he has tagged the far four corners of the globe with his stencil knife and spray can. Fans of his work will definitely treasure the scenes of him and Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, infiltrating the civilized camp at Disneyland with an inflatable Guantanamo Bay prisoner doll. You have to see it to believe it.
And the greatest trick he performs in front of your eyes is the hijacking of the documentary you are currently watching.
At the film’s onset, “Exit” appears to be produced by the French wannabe-filmmaker Thierry Guetta (MBW). But after watching Guetta’s assistance and direction, which at times border on aimless and inept, it becomes obvious that Mr. Brainwash could never have put this package together. He may have shot tons of footage of these artists in their individual elements, but is this the man who could have edited something so flawless and engaging? (This question actually applies to MBW’s own subsequent artwork, which can be criticized for being anything but creative).
The answer is no. It is Banksy, the Lone Ranger of Street Art, who is responsible for the thriving heart beating behind this documentary. And while everyone discusses who will win the Oscar for Best Picture, I am more keen on seeing what will happen if he wins for Best Documentary.
In ways that seem magical, the subject and filmmaker switch places when Banksy discovers that Guetta (yeah, Mr. Brainwash) is incapable of editing a coherent story. Among all of the projects worthy of discussion presented in “Exit”, none makes the least sense as his self-promotional documentary “Life Remote Control”, which Banksy summarizes perfectly with a polite and softly mutated “errrrmm”. By taking charge of the filmed material, Banksy encourages MBW to produce his own gallery in Los Angeles, which raises even more questions behind the glorification and creation of new art.
And there is suspicion looming here as well. Like Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s captivating documentary “Catfish”, the story structure feels almost too perfect to be believable. There is, for instance, speculation that Banksy and Mr. Brainwash are the same person and that Guetta is only a figurehead for an even deeper system of subverted art. And before completely dismissing these conspiracies, ask yourself this: how did Guetta accumulate that much art so quickly?
But according to Banksy’s report in the LA Weekly, “every bit of it’s true.”
“Thierry is the living embodiment of the American dream,” he continues. “America’s capacity to be infuriating is matched only by its capacity to reinvent itself into something brilliant.”
And if you think a statement like that is hauntingly cryptic, wait until you see the English phone box he murdered in a London alley. There is also the elephant that Banksy painted with children’s watercolors and released at his own art show. Appropriately, nobody pointed it out.