A documentary that's gleeful. Or is it guileful?
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, April 30, 2010
A celebration of pranksterism and perhaps a superb prank in its own right, the documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop" captures the outlaw, monkey-wrenching glee of the graffiti artists who became art stars at the turn of this century, while raising profound questions about authorship, the truth claims of nonfiction film and that old chestnut "What Is Art?"
Since making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" has inspired both praise and deep skepticism. It purports to be directed by Banksy, the shadowy British street artist whose stencils of rats and puckish acts of mischief have made him a huge international success. (Brad Pitt was an early fan.) But whether the film is on the level or just another of his political-cultural provocations has been open to question.
One reason for the suspicion is that "Exit Through the Gift Shop" features a protagonist who seems too weirdly good to be true. Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles, turns out to be the real star of "Exit Through the Gift Shop," even though the film features Banksy and the equally famous Shepard Fairey (known to many for his ubiquitous "Obey" murals featuring Andre the Giant; known to millions for his iconic red-and-blue Barack Obama poster).
Guetta was operating a thrift shop and starting a family when he acquired a video camera, which he used to record virtually every moment of his daily life. When a relative -- who later became known as the graffiti artist Space Invader -- began doing street art, Guetta naturally filmed his late-night escapades, resulting in an interest in graffiti artists that turned into an obsession.
Propelled by Guetta's remarkable video footage (or someone's remarkable video footage) of the artists at work, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" takes an even more compelling turn when, after making a hopeless first effort at assembling his own film, Guetta turns into a graffiti artist himself. Leveraging his friendship with Banksy and Fairey, the wily showman turns into the personification of all that's wrong with the contemporary art world, where hype, greed and narcissism too often out-shout genuine talent. (With his lamb-chop side whiskers, portly profile and porkpie hat, he even looks the part of old-school ballyhooer.)
Some of this material has been visited before, in the 1997 documentary "Andre the Giant Has Posse" and 2008's "Beautiful Losers." But, its ensemble of unreliable narrators notwithstanding, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" offers an absorbing glimpse of a bracingly subversive slice of the culture, as well as some tantalizing images of Banksy at work. It may raise a lot of questions, but they're all the right ones.