It's hard to believe this entire production isn't a huge elaborate prank. In mentioning this to a friend I've been told there are critics referring to the film as a "prankumentary." I love how these descriptions creep out of nowhere and suddenly shove themselves into public consciousness.
Having personally followed Banksy for a few years, my walls automatically go up when considering authenticity in his daring stunts. It's not that I don't enjoy him, or the many stunts he's pulled off over the years -- I downright love the mysterious Brit, and think his stunts are off-the-charts ingenious. I love him like I love Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir. I guess I love performance art and eccentric activism in general. These kinds of artists are so outlandish in their work that it inspires laughter at the absurdity of their schtick.
I spent a lot of time laughing during my screening of Exit Through the Gift Shop. It is truly a remarkable, laughable, mysterious, and completely absurd film. But when it's laid on as thick as it is here, you've got to wonder whether you're dealing with the real deal, or a street artist's version of Spinal Tap.
You walk into the film thinking it's going to be all about Banksy. And depending on how you want to interpret it, it could be that, I guess. But the story itself tries to convince us it's actually about Thierry Guetta, AKA "Mr. Brainwash" (MBW) -- a name itself which still sounds quite like a Banksy invention, considering the 500 copies of Paris Hilton's CD he repackaged and snuck into record stores around England.
Banksy, if anything, has always been a challenge and confrontation to a good brainwashing.
Guetta, a somewhat well-off clothing store owner, one day stumbled upon a video camera and instantly became hooked. The camera never left his hands -- he was addicted to taping everything he saw. He never looked at the results of his videography, he was only compelled to tape. He taped everything within reach of his camera's gaze: family, friends, clients, himself, until --
Somehow Guetta stumbled upon the mystery of street art, these vandalizers who go out at night and create works that are something greater than your ordinary run-of-the-mill vandalism. Over time he got to know a few of these art obsessed folk and obtained permission to tape them in their work. Artists like Shepard Fairey and Space Invader were some of the first he followed around, continually taping their spray paint or stencil art on L.A. buildings and trains. He also learned how to watch out for the cops. He travelled wherever he could to catch them in action. But the one person he couldn't meet -- that one artist who proved so mysterious and elusive -- was the one artist he really wanted to get to know. Eventually they met.
Guetta traveled the globe taping Banky's exploits. They went to the Gaza strip together and decorated the dividing wall. They went to Disneyland, where Guetta was the only one caught and was interrogated for hours by the Mickey patrol. He taped the L.A. exhibition in which Brad Pitt and countless stars showed up to finally get a glimpse of Banksy's "serious" work on display, and a giant pink elephant in the room. Guetta began to get so much footage of Banksy and others like him, it was suggested he edit together his tapes for a real film. "Editing" was a foreign word in the Guetta video vocabulary.
That the film Guetta put together was horrible is really not much of a surprise. It gave Banksy a reason to step in and use the footage to create a video work of his own, and what happens from this point is very much like Lars von Trier's pushing of Jørgen Leth in The Five Obstructions. A drama asserts itself and the film becomes less about the art, or the "obstruction," and more about the man behind it -- in this case, Thierry Guetta. (Whereas in The Five Obstructions the film becomes high praise and admiration for Leth, here Guetta becomes the stain, so to speak, on the "integrity" of street art.)
Guetta stops taping and becomes a graffiti artist himself, relying on the knowledge of all he's learned in taping street art and the ability to outsource "his" creations to other artists. He has huge success in the range of millions of dollars when he puts on an exhibition in L.A.
Two things at this point give us pause to consider:
1. Who is now taping the events at Guetta's hugely successful exhibition? and
2. Is it possible the exhibition took place exactly as presented in the film?... Is Guetta real, and are his exploits as presented in the film exactly how things took place? Or is he an actor, a friend of Banksy's, who has gone out of his way to Punk us all?
Roger Ebert believes the story as presented is true. In his review he reveals an article in the L.A. Weekly from June 2008 which shows that MBW's showcase really did take place. He says: "Common sense dictates that no one would rent a CBS studio and fill it with hundreds of art works in order to produce a hoax indie documentary. Nor would they cast Guetta, indubitably a real person, as himself. Right? Right?"
And that is exactly where I differ from Ebert. Notice Ebert had to ask "Right?" twice. Even he isn't certain.
When all is said and done, a crafty point is made about the integrity of art itself -- a hilarious notion, since we began the film talking about a cast of characters who are simply obsessed with defacing public property. And hype in the media push the integrity question to fruition when quite a few of these characters make a lot of money for their work. So we have artists who originally made a "pure" statement, avoiding the police in the process, artists who don't care about the money or the fame but do it simply for the glory of the craft, making their greatest statement yet by becoming rich off the media-ized and brainwashed masses.
Which once again begs even a few more questions: What is art? What is it worth and why is it worth what it's worth to you? And when you pay millions for a Banksy or a Guetta, are you as dumb as the duped people who bought the Paris Hilton CD?
The icing on the cake is that Guetta, as Ebert points out, did have success, and he may or may not have even been real. The events that went into his exhibition, where it looked like he wasn't even the true creator of any of the art sold, are all very hard to believe. So not only can the masses be "brainwashed" into buying a Guetta in the first place -- they may have even been brainwashed about his true existence in general.
Even trying to figure all this out is convincing me this is my favorite film of the year so far.
It's a mystery that will remain for quite some time, but with the release of the film there will be a lot more attention given to the anonymity and mystery of Mr. Banksy.