Exit Through the Gift Shop is the best film of 2010 made by possibly the worst filmmaker of all time.
Thierry Guetta is a muttonchopped Frenchman living in LA. For years, he’s been obsessively videotaping everyone and everything around him, with enough footage for the next decade of Paranormal Activity movies. When we finally see his collection of tapes it’s like watching one of those shows about animal hoarders with the nut job in a trailer park surrounded by 200 cats. Like any hoarder, he’s either eccentric or crazy (maybe retarded). The root of Thierry’s fixation goes back to age 11 with the death of his mother. Since then, he’s been obsessed with preserving memories. That’s what eventually draws him to street art, where works of graffiti are often sandblasted the next day.
Thierry starts filming his cousin Space Invader, who installs little pixilated mosaics of the videogame ectoplasms throughout the globe. There are hundreds all over Paris and watching this movie was worth it alone just for the “oh that’s what the fuck those are” revelation. Anyways, Thierry gets right in the center of a movement, following around cult street artists like Shepard Fairey (aka Obama poster guy) and finally, after years of searching, the holy grail of street artists, Banksy (seen here unleashing English dry wit with his face blacked out and his voice lowered).
The artists learn to love the French weirdo and feel a need to document their work. Plus, he’s supposedly making the official insider-story street art documentary. The movement is gaining steam. Or rather, disparate artists are starting to become a movement.
Judging from the art scene in Paris, there is a definite resurgence. Basquiat is getting hyped up with a blockbuster retrospective and a documentary (see my colleague’s review of The Radiant Child). Modern street artists seem to be carrying the torch, even paying homage to Basquiat by tagging his trademark SAMO and three-point crown. So are Banksy and co. doing anything radically new, as Exit Through the Gift Shop sometimes suggests? Not exactly. People have been doing graffiti for ages (although I don’t think “street artists” like the term). So why is street art just now resurfacing? Well, Thierry might have a lot to do with it. For one, he draws everyone together. What does every street artist have in common? They’re all followed around by a mad French guy. His connecting factor is all the more important since many street artists work anonymously and secretively.
The ever-anonymous Banksy
Because it’s illegal, street art gains a strong undercurrent of subversion. Exit through the Gift Shop catches the rush of energy that seemingly makes street art better than much of what’s in galleries. I mean, you can’t spend months struggling with your inner demons when the cops are on your tail, and you don’t have time for alcoholism when you have to jump across rooftops.
Often, street art lives off of arrested development. Take Borf for example, whose graffiti is a tribute to a childhood friend who committed suicide at age 13. Borf’s art is made to capture the spirit of the two teenagers running around the city, throwing bottles for no particular reason. Street art feeds off this regression, which actually deepens it instead of cheapening it. Same old shit indeed.
Adversely, much of street art can seem obvious when it takes itself too seriously. It can have an exaggerated sense of it’s own rebellion— often aimed at consumer culture and authoritative politics. Fairey’s ubiquitous “obey” slogan strikes me as a bit sophomoric. Banksy’s art can also remind you of the kid who grew up with too many Che posters in his room. It’s best when riffing off private jokes and obscure clues that aim to leave the viewer confused rather than riled up. However, seeing Banksy’s acts on video gives them the context they deserve. In one expo he paints a live elephant the color of the room’s wallpaper. When I first heard about the stunt I thought it a bit message-y. However, the real fun came from watching clueless reporters try to explain what exactly was the elephant in the room. War in Iraq? Gap between rich and the poor? Oh shut up already. Banksy’s art is always laughing at our interpretation of it. Especially whatever PETA has to say. Another cunning stunt where Banksy chained a blow up doll of a Guantanamo inmate to a Disney World rollercoaster seemed like a misaimed political message. Sure Disney World represents consumerism and consumerism is American and so is waterboarding but is there any real there there? However, actually seeing it is hilarious. Disney World shuts down the ride, and then whole sections of the park. They interrogate Thierry for four hours, while he erases all his footage before their eyes (in the time being, Banksy goes on Pirates of the Carribean). Disney World more than proves his point.
By being in such a public space, street art is simultaneously performance art. Exit Through the Gift Shop adds to the art it films where most other art documentaries flatten it. In this way it becomes like Rivers and Tides where all that’s left of the art is the film. Andy Goldsworthy’s icicle statues and beaver dams melt and drift away while space invaders get stolen, and blow up Guantanamo inmates deflate (along with the children’s joy). Luckily Thierry was there to capture the performance. He’s recording a movement. He’s making the official documentary.
Well… er…the problem is, Thierry’s no filmmaker. In fact he’s a hilariously bad one. He sends Banksy an unwatchable 90 minute film of solid rapid cutting and cheap effects—a street art Koyanisquaatsi on cocaine. Bansky in return pulls off a brilliant move and re-edits the 10 000 hours of raw footage to make a movie about Thierry. To get rid of Thierry, Banksy tells him to go make some art himself. Thierry goes a bit overboard. He mortgages his house and his clothing business to set up his own screen-printing studio. There he (rather his staff) makes hilariously derivative art as his new persona, Mr. Brainwash or “MBW”. In one hideous picture, Thierry does a Warhol style Michael Jackson with Marylin Monroe’s hair and lips. Yikes. Another painting is Elvis holding a plastic gun instead of a guitar. Thierry’s analysis is deep: “eet is satire because eenstead of gun there ees Fischer Price!” Banksy disagrees saying “Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry …really makes them meaningless.”
Thierry plans an enormous art show but breaks his foot the week before the opening. The whole thing seems doomed to failure. We see Thierry pre- show, fully enjoying his new artist persona, dishing out pearls of wisdom like “I don't know how to play chess, but to me, life is like a game of chess”. An angry staffer walks up to him and says, “Thierry you need to get back in there. None of the paintings are up on the wall”.
Against all expectations, the show is a total blitzkrieg and Thierry sells $1000000 worth of art in the first week. Banksy, Fairey and other street artists react with everything from sardonic amusement to disgust. They’re laughing at the highbrow art world being duped. The funny thing is that their judgments of Thierry put them in the position of the new critical elite.
Message board junkies will insist that Mr. Brainwash is a hoax masterminded by Banksy to show the stupidity of the art world. People want to prove they’re in on the hoax before they get Joachim Pheonixed all over again. Indeed Thierry may be a type of Borat sent out to expose the superficiality of the art world. Now, if that’s true, the movie would be a brilliant work of fiction. It doesn’t real matter how you take the movie. Either way it’s genius.
Terrible. But secretly genius?
Street art is supposedly just now getting commoditized (hence the title). It’s becoming high art, if only by critical reappraisal. Banksy used to be considered an outsider but his works can now sell for up to half a million. He himself must’ve seen this coming, as he nailed up his own spoof paintings in the British Museum and the Metropolitan. Exit Through the Gift Shop probably overemphasizes the high art/low art boundaries just to prove a point. I can’t really see how the two are that separated since Basquiat started showing in galleries in the 60’s. Maybe people just forgot. For instance, it’s shocking to learn that London still removes Banksy’s graffiti from city walls. That’s self-vandalism if you ask me; those things are worth a lot. It’s probably better for Banksy’s art though—he’ll stay subversive. You can’t have publically endorsed subversive art. It would be the death of him. As he eloquates, “You could stick all my shit in Tate Modern and have an opening with Tony Blair and Kate Moss on Rollerblades handing out vol-au-vents, and it wouldn’t be as exciting as when you go out and you paint something big where you shouldn’t”
Exit Through the Gift Shop really does ask all the right questions about what makes good art. It’s easy to dismiss Mr. Brainwash’s art until you start to think that it might be brilliant. If the art is the artist, then this guy is clearly eccentric enough to carry a truly unique vision. Not to mention that his life lived through a video camera gives him an eye for form and representation. Like the best artists, he channels his obsession. What’s not debatable is that he’s an absolute genius of advertising. He spray paints ads for his show all across LA, gets blurbs from Fairey and Banksy and then spray paints those all across LA: “Mr. Brainwash is a force of nature, he’s a phenomenon. And I don’t mean that in a good way.” - Banksy. Is success its own indicator of merit? Even if Thierry’s art doesn’t deserve success, he certainly does.
Plus some of his art actually works. His repurposing of the Campbell soup can to make a spray paint can is so emblematic of street art that it’s head-slappingly obvious. Yet Thierry was the one to do it. By the end of the movie, there’s no feasible way to deny his brilliance, if only for just being part of the movie.
Exit through the Gift shop is an insider anthology of street art as a whole. It’s the first and undoubtedly definitive glance at the movement. In this way, it feels not only wickedly funny, but also important. What Un Chien Andalou was to surrealism, Exit through the Gift Shop is to Street Art. It’s an MO and probably a catalyst for more to come. But it has another layer—the human story. It succeeds on each layer, and then it inverts the layers and has them comment on each other, and then it comments on itself, and then it comments on us and by the time we get around to comment on it, it’s already commented on us commenting on it so the only thing left to do is comment that you’ve just been mindfucked 5 times over. It’s not just a movie. It’s its own universe, and we should be honored to be allowed to look inside. If life is a game of chess then Exit through the Gift Shop just threw checker pieces on the table. and then lit the table on fire and urinated on it.
9.4 (although maybe it’s awful and I’ve just been duped)
Me: I would have commented on your comment, but since there's all ready quite a bit of commenting going on, I just added some pictures.