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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop

SPOILER WARNING: This column contains moderate spoilers for the film Exit Through the Gift Shop … just in case it hasn’t already been spoiled by all your friends arguing about it.

After watching Exit Through the Gift Shop twice, I’m still not entirely convinced the whole thing isn’t an elaborate display of cinematic graffiti by street artist Banksy.

A great opening sequence of various street artists in action at night, set to Richard Hawley’s “Tonight the Streets are Ours,” sets the tone for the movie we think we’re going to see. Then we meet a hooded character in shadow — that’s Banksy, the mysterious graffiti artist at the center of the film — who tells us that this guy was going to make a movie about him, but it turned out the guy behind the camera was a lot more interesting than Banksy.

And so just like that, the filmmaker becomes the center of the narrative arc, as the set up shifts to introduce us to Thierry Guetta, A French emigrant to LA who was obsessed with filming everything with his videocamera. Almost by chance, we learn, Guetta fell into the world of the punk street artist and became obsessed with the players.

Does he follow them with his camera because he senses the need to capture this moment in art history with a video camera? Because he’s obsessed with his camera and so in the habit of using it that he doesn’t think not to? Because he realizes the camera will offer him an foot-in-the-door into an insular world of artistic rebels who are, after all, as prone as the next guy to the tug-and-pull of vanity when a camera is focused on them? I don’t know that it matters. If he accidentally captured a movement at the time it was unfolding, well, at least he captured it, right?

Guetta’s a fascinating character, the kind of guy who if you knew him, you’d maybe think he’d be a good character to have in a movie, and you’d be right. So what we have here is a movie about a guy who sets out to make a movie about street art and ends up as the main character in a documentary about himself. Or we have a documentary about a street artist who turns the tables on the art world that legitimized his work, playing a game of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” with Thierry Guetta at the center and the hipsters and art lovers of Los Angeles as the ogling crowd.

And it’s hard to judge whether the film itself is brilliant, or just another layer in a hoax, another level of “gotcha!” with Banksy laughing in the shadows at the idea that his film is garnering awards and is Oscar shortlisted. Because the last thing a punk street artist who’s been accused by his community of being a sell-out would want is to win an Oscar, right?

There’s been a lot of fierce debate over whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary, an elaborate hoax, or some hybrid thereof (I think the title itself is a clue as to which it is, but maybe that’s just me). If you’re filming a series of events that end up folding together into a prank, or an artistic statement, or whatever, it’s still a documentary. Even if certain events are staged and set up, it can still be a documentary, depending on the context.

My impression is that the first part of the film, at least — with Guetta filming Space Invader, meeting Shepard Fairey, up to and through much of the footage of Banksy in action as a street artist is not a hoax … or rather it was perhaps a bit of a hoax at the time it was shot, in that Guetta was not actually a filmmaker as he purported to be, but it’s not a hoax now in the context of how it is used. Confused yet?

I think all of that bit likely happened much as we’re told by the film, and then at some point Banksy had the idea to use Thierry and his footage to make an artistic statement of another kind altogether. By the final third of the story, Thierry, who shot something like eight years of footage of street artists that’s all been stored in tubs without looking at any of it, tries to cut together a movie from thousands of hours of footage.

The result of that effort, called “Life Remote Control” — whether it was really made by Guetta or cut together by Banksy to enhance the story he’s spinning — is not something I’d want to watch for 90 minutes, but it’s oddly compelling for a minute or two as a reflection of the way new media has given birth to a generation with an attention span so short it’s changing the landscape of how we communicate and entertain. It kind of reminded me of some of the installations they’ve had in the interactive art space at Sundance over the past few years, actually.

Anyhow. It becomes apparent to Banksy that Thierry lacks what you might call a director’s sensibility, much less any ability to cull through all that footage to find the bits that fit together to tell a coherent story. There are directors who can edit, and probably editors who can direct, and then there is Thierry, who can aim a camera at an subject and end up capturing, in spite of himself, something interesting. If I gave my four-year-old grandson a flip camera for a year and he carried it everywhere, chances are he’d do pretty much what Thierry did: aim it at things that caught his eye and use the zoom prolifically, and end up capturing at least a few things that were pretty cool.

Here’s where I’d like to point out that a lack of technical ability does not necessarily negate the historical value of what he captured. I’m thinking here of another Oscar shortlisted (and then nominated) documentary, Trouble the Water, in which filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal turned amateur video footage of Hurricane Katrina captured by New Orleans resident Kimberly Rivers Roberts on a video camera she bought on the street, into a compelling statement on the failure of a government to protect its poorest citizens from a natural disaster.

What’s interesting about Exit Through the Gift Shop, then, is that it’s not the shooting, for the most part, that makes the film; it’s Banksy applying his artists’ eye to the problem (we have all these years of footage, much of it poorly shot, that captures the birth of the street art movement … what the hell do we do with it?) and finding a solution.

The solution, it seems to me, is that Banksy has made a film that does exactly what he’s done as an artist: take something that’s become corrupted and make it art. In this case, what’s become corrupted is the anarchy, the energy, the very punkness that made the street art movement what it was at the beginning. What does it mean when we say that an artist has “sold out?” Generally, we mean that the work the artist creates has become too popular, which implies that the artist lowered his standards in some way to sell his idea to the masses. If he makes money off his art, that’s even worse. And that’s what we see unfold with the street art movement in the film.

Suddenly, street art becomes “The New Black” and art collectors are going wild and paying six figures to have them some street art for their collections. In particular, a they want a Banksy. Banksy put his work out there, he placed his mark upon the world in ways that garnered attention (tagging the West Bank Wall? What?!) and he did what he did so well that it made him the flavor of the month, which was probably not exactly what he intended. What’s a punk street artist to do when he’s trying to stay cutting edge and rebellious while art collectors are paying $400,000 for a something he created?

I think, after watching this film, that what Banksy did was pull an enormous prank on the world of hipsters and art collectors by encouraging Thierry Guetta to become a street artist of sorts named Mr. Brainwash, and then showing how hype and publicity can legitimize the ridiculous. Guetta abandons his film to become Mr. Brainwash, but rather than take years to hone his art, he (or Banksy pulling the strings?) flips it around and starts at the end, churning out publicity and hype that convinces the art world that he’s some sort of genius. Much of the “art” we see created for the exhibit that ends the film is crafted by a staff of artists Mr. Brainwash employs.

This in itself doesn’t make his work less legit; artist throughout history have used apprentices to help them execute their ideas, and modern-day Robin Hood Banksy himself, we learn, has a legion of Merry Men and Women who help him pull off his installations. But Guetta has very obviously gleaned liberally from the work of the street artists he followed with his camera, most notably Banksy. His exhibition was huge, with so much work you’d think he’d been working for years or decades to create it. But he didn’t, he regurgitated other peoples’ ideas like a human copier machine — a heap of artwork that ends up selling for over a million dollars. It all reminded me rather a lot of another documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, in which art collectors pay staggering sums for paint randomly splashed on a canvas by a four-year-old.

There’s a point in the film where Banksy talks about film as a canvas, and I think this is a giveaway for what he’s doing here. He’s still the same lively prankster who covered walls around the world with starkly stenciled imagery, but he’s shifted his canvas to film. The end result is smart and artistically rendered, but the last third, in particular, is a stinging indictment of pop culture and how things come to be “popular” that could be extended onto Hollywood itself, which, whether it gets the joke or not, is lauding Banksy’s skewering of the popular culture of which it is a part by shortlisting the film for an Oscar.

For me, the biggest indicator that this film is intended as a subversive work is how the big exhibit by Mr. Brainwash gets a ringing endorsement by the LA Weekly, that harbinger of all things important for the trendy LA hipster, which results in thousands of people lining up to be First! to see it Mr. Brainwash in action and garner a custom print — “customized” by a minion pushing the wheelchair-bound Guetta up and down rows of prints on the floor so he can randomly splash some paint on them. What, they were out of four-year-old geniuses?

Then comes the seemingly endless parade of artsy types and serious art collectors fawning over Mr. Brainwash’s work — many of them spurred by the LA Weekly’s endorsement to snap up items in advance of the exhibit. The whole thing is a circus of ridiculousness (one of Guetta’s assistants notes without irony that he thinks perhaps his employer is retarded), and I had to think while watching it that anyone who actually went to that exhibit and went gaga over Mr. Brainwash and his “art” has to be shaking their head now at their own gullibility.

It’s like no one wants to be the one to stand up and say, “But the emperor has no clothes!” and so they all go along with the joke, not even realizing they’ve become a part of it, and pay for the privilege with their wallets. Which is really no different than what happens at movie multiplexes around the country week after week, as Hollywood churns out a seemingly endless supply of crap while folks line up with their wallets open to shell out millions of dollars on any given weekend to be entertained for 90 minutes with action films, giant robots and cheesy rom-coms (what you might call “pop art”) while the “real” art in arthouse cinemas struggles to rake in enough of a per-screen take to keep everyone involved in ramen noodles until their next effort.

But then, given that the film’s coda tells us that Mr. Brainwash was commissioned to create the cover for an album of Madonna’s greatest hits, maybe not. Seems like he brainwashed the masses pretty successfully, and that all it takes to legitimize nonsense is plastering a city with your name, and an endorsement by the LA Weekly. Who knew?

The thing is, when Banksy said in an interview with All These Wonderful Things’ AJ Schnack, ““…if the movie was a carefully scripted prank you can be sure I would’ve given myself some better lines,” I think he means that.

If Banksy is the artist he seems to be, he wouldn’t view what he’s done with Exit Through the Gift Shop as a prank, anymore than tagging the West Bank wall was a prank. It’s a political statement by a punk street artist seeking to redeem his cred, which makes the success of Exit Through the Gift Shop critically both a blessing and a curse, because a real punk doesn’t need — or want — the stamp of approval of the hipster, the critic, the cultural elite.

Still, I get the sense that Banksy’s laughing behind his hand about the whole shebang, which makes me unsure of who the joke’s really on: Guetta? Popular culture? Hipsters and hangers on? The idea of art being legitimized at all? All of the above? Whatever it is, I liked Exit Through the Gift Shop enormously, which I guess means the joke is on me, too.

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2 Responses to “Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop”

  1. chris says:

    Nice write up. It’s a testament to the film that it can spawn such debates and discussions over its validity, intents and meanings. And nice analogy to the pop films that people shell out money for while ignoring the “artier” movies playing at small indie theaters.

    Watching this movie, I was reminded of another doc I saw earlier this year at the Florida Film Fest, Con Artist. In that one, a wanna be artist also employed a warehouse full of people to create art for him to sign and sell as his own, and it’s pretty fascinating when he gets recognition and rewards for work that he had practically nothing to do with (like getting a commission to create a statue for the British Royal Family, and then farming the work out to an employee, only to present the statue to the Queen as his own and take all the praise himself). Ahhh, the art world. So fascinating.

  2. Kim Voynar says:


    I think what this film shows, in part, is how subject even those who seek to be original and different are to the herd mentality. It’s a stinging indictment of the “hipsters and hangers on” Banksy found himself surrounded with (which he discusses in that interview with AJ Schnack), but it also shows how easy it is to sell the masses an idea.

    People want to differentiate themselves, but they also want to be seen as “smart,” and being smart about something that’s completely subjective like art requires some sort of stratification system in which others are less smart than you. It also, in a rather contradictory fashion, requires that other smart people approve your smartness, which in turn sometimes leads to a giant herd following each other off a cliff.

    In this case, Guetta’s flooding of Los Angeles with intriguing brand imagery combined with the endorsement of the LA Weekly was all that was needed to convince the hipsters of LA — and, in turn, serious art collectors that Mr. Brainwash was brilliant and if you wanted to be in the know, you’d better jump on the bandwagon. It’s all a pretty fascinating case study into our gullibility, but also not terribly different from the branding marketing that large corporations do all the time to convince us to buy this product over that one.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon