Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Nog Exits Through the Gift Shop (With Banksy!)
The title, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is never used in the film, but it perfectly illustrates what becomes the central concern: the uneasy balance between art as art and art as commerce. Banksy's documentary is an odd film, and a bit hard to describe (though the execution is perfectly fluid and easy to follow). Essentially, it begins as the story of Thierry Guetta, an exuberant, eccentric Frenchman living in Los Angeles obsessed with filming every aspect of his life (Rhys Ifans' narration offers an explanation for his voyeuristic compulsions). Guetta's documentation is aimless until, on a trip to London, he begins filming his cousin "Spaceman," a street graffiti artist, and becomes fascinated with his work, soon managing to insinuate himself into the lives of more prominent figures in the movement (notably Shepherd Fairey, he of the Obama poster) and finally, unlikeliest of all, Banksy, the legendary unknown British graffiti artist and provocateur (who appears in the film only in disguise, hooded and voice obscured). Guetta allows his subjects to believe he's working on a documentary about street art but, in truth, Guetta has zero skills as a filmmaker: he just likes filming things. When finally pressed to produce an edited film on his subject, it's incoherent, just a slapdash collection of quick-cut images. At which point, Banksy himself steps in and assembles Guetta's work into the film we are now viewing (unless you believe the whole thing is some sort of elaborate hoax, as some critics do). Nuttier yet, Guetta then abandons his camera to become a street artist himself (albeit an awfully derivative one), dubbing himself Mr. Brainwash and, with his skills of self-promotion, orchestrating an art show in LA that becomes an "event" and nets him a lot of money. The film ends with Fairey and Banksy and others reflecting on what all this "means." They seem (and I suppose rightfully so) skeptical that Guetta's work exists for the "right" reasons and of the fact that one can simply emerge on the scene as a fully-formed artist. But also, and even more fascinating, Guetta's instant celebrity and financial success seems to force them to question and rethink the value of their own work. The film ends with Banksy saying that he once encouraged everyone to make art but (he adds dryly) he no longer does that. It's a laugh line, but one that resonates beyond its immediate humor, leaving viewers with the question that the LC often poses: Is it art, or isn't it? Excellent film.