As we gear up for Sunday’s Oscar telecast, this might be as an appropriate time as any to take a thorough look at Best Documentary nominee Exit Through The Gift Shop. A word of warning before we begin, however, as the piece below contains major spoilers and it is advised that you watch the film before continuing. The film does contain genuine surprises for those unfamiliar with the story and is certainly worth the effort. Now that that’s out of the way, why don’t we just get on with it?
“There’s probably a moral in there somewhere”
Let’s start by addressing the giant, painted, elephant in the room and go from there. This film is being billed as a genuine documentary directed by elusive street artist Banksy, but there are those who believe that the film is a hoax and that the whole thing is just another art piece by the artist born out of the Bristol, England underground art scene. Without knowing anything about the man (including his identity) it’s easy to let your imagination run wild and dream up all sorts of scenarios where Banksy has tricked his audience and the world of high art into taking the bait and illustrating his criticisms of art and celebrity. If true, then a lot of people put in a lot of effort and pulled off a hell of a job while keeping mum about the whole thing the entire time. While that may be a tempting story of drama and intrigue, I tend to think that the simplest answer is often the correct one. In this case, I think the narrative of real life went along with his criticism of society because there was weight to what Banksy was saying. While the message remains consistent, whether it’s legitimate or a hoax, the birth of Mister Brainwash is a cautionary tale to the world of art.
Street art – very much a part of culture since culture’s beginnings – grew into what we have become more familiar with seeing in the early years of Reagan. The concept of tagging (identifying gang areas and turf) grew into its own art form and eventually merged with the grassroots guerrilla art movements that took shape during the Nixon administration. It was a way for the voiceless to communicate to a larger audience, to make themselves known and to make themselves heard in eras where only a certain few had that luxury. As the movement developed, the techniques became more sophisticated. Always a culture eager to outdo itself, street artists developed ways in which to produce intricate large-scale works that could be completed quickly. Pre-fabricated pieces became more common with sculptures, stickers and, perhaps the culture’s biggest advancement, stencils, became more widespread. Complicated pieces could be completed by dawn and street art took steps that rivalled the invention of printmaking in the fine art world. These pieces, once temporary ideas shared with the few lucky enough to catch a glimpse on the street, gained new life with the spread of internet access. Local personalities became global icons. It is here that we join Banksy as he tries to show us the world’s first street art disaster movie.
“What do you do?” asks Fairey. “I film” Guetta responds.
The movie begins with Banksy explaining that the film was originally a documentary about him, but as he came to realize that the film maker was more interesting than the original subject, it became about the film maker instead. It is here that we learn more about Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles, and his obsession to film everything in his life. We are told how the death of his mother when he was only 11 devastated him. The discovery that his mother’s illness had been kept from him made him feel like he was robbed of the opportunity to share that experience with her and fuelled his obsessive-compulsive tendencies as an adult. He films every waking hour, to the point where his friends and family no longer notice his camera, and hoards away memories on mostly unlabelled and unwatched tapes in unorganized boxes in a desperate attempt to never miss a moment again. He seems to make his living reselling clothing in LA and lives with his – presumably very patient – wife and children. After a family trip to France sees him follow and document the work of his street artist cousin, Space Invader, Guetta finds focus to his filming in this exciting and dangerous new world and decides he will begin collecting footage of other street artists. He returns home and soon, a visit by Space Invader nets him introductions to several area personalities, including prominent artist Shepard Fairey, the man most people know as the creator of the Obama “Hope” posters.
Guetta becomes a documentarian, more as an excuse to collect more footage than as an actual film maker. In Guetta’s mind, the process is completed once the filming is done. His subjects, however, are none the wiser and take Guetta at his word. He begins to follow Fairey regularly, becoming trained in the finer points of filming illegal street art like looking out for the police and not drawing attention. Fairey, keen on the idea of somebody documenting the rising street art movement, takes Guetta all over the rooftops of Los Angeles and abroad while he does his work. All the while, Guetta dreams of filming the mysterious Banksy who has been making headlines with his work including several pieces on the West Bank barrier wall in Israel. He finally gets his chance when someone meant to help Banksy during his trip to LA is turned away at the border. Fairey recommends Guetta to Banksy, who agrees to be filmed on the condition that his face not be shown and that he be able to review the footage later.
“I guess he became my friend”
Guetta makes his way into Banksy’s inner circle with his tenacity and dedication. He’s loyal, even when questioned about his participation in a risque Banksy stunt in Disneyland that draws more security interest than his West Bank piece. Guetta earns Banksy’s trust and friendship and proves his worth. He witnesses Banksy’s process and his lead-up to the show that will gain him widespread notoriety in North America, his “Barely Legal” exhibition in Los Angeles, where Banksy bypassed the galleries to create his own space to showcase his work. Barely Legal became such a huge success that it sparked a massive interest in street art from the collector’s market. Suddenly, street art was being bought up by people sight unseen because it was thought that no collection was complete without it.
“Put up some more of your posters and make some art, have a little show. Invite a few people”
Worried that the culture’s new-found popularity has produced an environment where copy cat artists and collectors are more interested in hype and money, he asks Guetta to complete his documentary and bring the stories of street art’s modern innovators to the masses. It is here that Banksy learns that the person who he thought he was working on a film with is, in fact, a construction. Guetta is by no means a film maker: he takes random, unmarked tapes and strings together footage with other unrelated images that are then spliced into split second flashes of the world he has witnessed. There is no context. There is no meaning. He delivers a schizophrenic’s fever dream, not a documentary. Shocked and disappointed, Banksy asks for Guetta’s raw footage so that he can tell the tale himself. He sends Guetta off to go “make some art, have a little show,” an offhand instruction intended more as a way to keep him occupied than as a meaningful piece of advice. There is no way for Banksy to know how badly Guetta will misunderstand this direction.
A telling scene comes when Guetta is describing what it is about Banksy that makes him so appealing. He stumbles looking for words, fading off before finally returning with “I like him”. The man seems to have little idea what it is that Banksy does with his art or what he’s saying. To him, it’s fun and interesting. But it’s important to note that this was obviously footage Banksy wanted us to see, underscoring that Guetta has no handle on any of the concepts at play here. While Guetta misses the intent and messages of these artists, he does learn the methods they use to create the art.
Before long, Guetta has an illustrator draw up an image based on a photograph of him holding a camera and begins to post the image in public, first as small scale transparent stickers before graduating to full-on Fairey-esque posters (We actually see Guetta covering up one of Fairey’s pieces with one of his own). He begins to appropriate the identities of the people he has been following, more as a desperate act of wanting to belong than as a malicious act of thievery. Never having found his own voice in life, he takes what he has recorded and spits it out as if it were his. The video camera that has been his most trusted companion turns out to be a metaphor for who he is as a person. He takes in the images and concepts he has been exposed to and regurgitates them whole, losing the meaning behind them in the process because, much like the camera, Guetta seems to be incapable of thinking but only recording. He reasons that both Banksy and Fairey were brainwashing the public with their radical ideas so he dubs himself “Mister Brainwash.” Self-anointed, he enters a new phase of his life as a “street-artist,” and who’s to argue? I mean, he has Banksy’s backing, right? Right?
“I always used to encourage everyone I met to make art. I used to think everyone should do it . . . I don’t really do that so much anymore”
Guetta takes Banksy’s suggestion and runs wild with it. He remortgages his business, refinances his house and hires a full time staff to make his art for him. Using the formula that he saw work for Banksy, he rents the former CBS studio complex and prepares his own show, “Life Is Beautiful”. He has his staff create truckloads of pieces based on images he finds in art books while he concerns himself with hype and pricing out his works. Asking Fairey and Bansky for quotes, he uses the reputation of his friends to legitimize his work. He creates a media circus. Losing himself in the venture, he becomes the very character that Banksy initially wanted to warn the world against with Guetta’s original documentary, a detail that certainly factors in to most rumours labelling this film as a hoax. You desperately want to see him fall flat on his face but feel for his family who have everything on the line. Not surprisingly, the event is a major success, despite Guetta’s liberal borrowing of ideas, underscoring that most can’t tell good art from bad. The artists who have dedicated their lives to living and breathing their work are left wondering who the joke is really on. Street artists practice their technique and find their voice over time, as they would in any medium. Guetta skips this developmental process and, as a result, ends up with no voice of his own.
Street artists regularly flout society’s laws and don’t play by the rules because, in their eyes, there shouldn’t be any. But there’s an honour among thieves and an unspoken code of conduct that rarely has to be enforced due to its common-sense nature. But it’s Guetta’s wilful ignorance of these unspoken rules that seems to leave Banksy almost speechless. How does one become upset when your mantra is supposed to be complete freedom? How do you tap someone on the shoulder and accuse them of breaking the rules when there are no rules? Guetta’s journey is a warning, but not just to artists and their community. Guetta loses himself completely in his recreation. His obsessive filming, originally born out of the loss of his mother and his paranoia of missing life’s precious moments, leads to his ignoring and jeopardizing his own family’s well being. Though lucky with the eventual outcome, he could have cost his family everything and cost himself his family. Exit Through The Gift Shop is indeed a cautionary tale, but it could have just as easily become a tragedy.