Mark Reviews Movies


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Banksy

MPAA Rating: R (for some language)

Running Time: 1:27

Release Date: 4/16/10 (limited); 4/30/10 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 9, 2010

The line separating art and commerce has been crossed, and street artist-cum-director Banksy reflects the process in Exit Through the Gift Shop, which simultaneously sells the street art movement, slyly bemoans the hype, and smashes the entire concept of selling a revolution. Yes, those first and last intentions run contrary to each other, and that's only part of the subversive joy of watching how Banksy shows how one man's good intentions can turn into a pile of overpriced crap.

See, though, we're getting ahead of ourselves here. First off, this isn't Banksy's film entirely, or at least all of the footage isn't.

The subject is Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant who owns a clothing store in Los Angeles, where he admits to selling flawed clothing he buys on the cheap and marking it up as a "designer" piece. That's an important bit of information for the type of guy Guetta is, but once again, that's getting too far ahead.

Guetta's defining quirk is that he is obsessed with filming things. He carries a camera with him everywhere, recording whatever he sees, from trivial walks through the grocery store to the important events in the lives of his children. His reason: His mother died when he was a boy, and thinking he missed out on such an important moment, he never wants to miss anything again.

His cousin is a street artist named Space Invader, and since—as Banksy puts it in the most diplomatic way possible—his and other street artists' work exists "in a legal gray area," Invader's face is blurred out. Similarly, Banksy's face is always in shadow and his voice is distorted, but this has more to do with his existence as an enigmatic persona than for fear of being caught. After all, a lot of other artists whose work also borders legality, including Shepard Fairey (who is involved in a legal battle over the famous red, white, and blue Obama campaign poster), are seen in full view in interviews and even while creating their art under cover of darkness while Guetta films, helps out, and, of course, watches for the cops.

So goes the first section of the film, following Guetta following artists here and there. Guetta records every second he can, and after several months, someone finally asks why he's filming all this material. At that moment, Guetta decides he will make an all-encompassing documentary about street art. As all good documentarians know, the best place for all those videos is in storage boxes, sight unseen. For Guetta, it's the capturing of the moments that's important, not the pesky watching them later.

The only person Guetta hasn't recorded yet is Banksy, whose habit of placing his work alongside the greats in galleries and paintings on the wall at the West Bank brought him to international attention. Through a twist of fate, Guetta, now very familiar with the terrain and the work, serves as Banksy's chaperone to the best places to paint in Los Angeles.

All the while, Guetta is capturing the rise in popularity (and hence the fall of legitimacy) of street art, from its humble origins of late-night spray-painting sessions to a Banksy gallery in Los Angeles, which is attended by the stars of Hollywood and where the media falls right into the joke of a literal elephant in the room.

Then things start to get really strange. Guetta starts making his own art on walls around the city. Banksy's art begins to be sold in art auctions. By the way, what the film doesn't mention is that Banksy doesn't actually sell his art, so if someone buys, say, a Banksy piece on a billboard, they'll have to pay for the removal of the billboard, too. In a way, Banksy's silence in explaining the concept of his work and his refusal to sell prints of it points to a level of honest integrity in his art—even if it is illegal.

This is a man wholly uninterested in the commercial value of his work, even when it begins legitimately appearing in galleries and museums. So repulsed by the publicity, Banksy decides it's time for Guetta to make his street art documentary to counteract the exposure. We see a few seconds of Guetta's attempt, completely buying into the hype in its rapid-fire editing and pounding soundtrack, and Banksy's decision to kindly suggest that Guetta leave all the footage with him makes perfect sense.

Out of Guetta's footage, Banksy has crafted a loving observance of a most rebellious art form. He has also presented Guetta as a sort of hero to the whole movement. When an artist scales a roof to paint in just the right spot, Guetta climbs even higher, just to get the right angle. When Banksy puts a piece about detainees in Guantanamo Bay right next to a roller coaster in Disneyland, Guetta is the one held and questioned by park security for hours, while Banksy changes clothes and rides Pirates of the Caribbean.

Guetta, though, has a few surprises in store for Banksy and his fellow street artists, though. Don't forget, this is the same man who set out to make a documentary without knowing the first thing about the process, started riding on his subjects' coattails to make public stamps of himself on the same walls they did, and once sold defective clothing as must-have items.

Guetta opens his own art studio. This turn, so weird, so characteristic, and so hilarious, makes Banksy's point about the commercialism of art. Here is a man, who in six months, gets rave notices in L.A. media, has art dealers lining up to buy his work, and has thousands of people waiting outside saying what a revolutionary experience the show is. All of this, and not a single person has seen any of Guetta's work (He doesn't select which pieces will be in it until the day of opening). It is, indeed, such a perfect turn of events that some have begun to question whether the entire thing is some kind of publicity stunt, perhaps Banksy breaking into performance art. If it is fake, the happening is executed with such realism and sincerity that it truly achieves the goal.

Still, there is that nagging suspicion that Exit Through the Gift Shop is the real deal, so strange and so appropriate to theme as it is.  Real or manufactured, Banksy's film is a triumphant deconstruction of the commercial bastardization of art.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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