Exit Through The Gift Shop Reviews
The documentary is about the obsessive effort of a seemingly quirky and endearing cameraman, compulsively filming everything he experiences, to capture the budding movement of street art and subsequently meets his newfound idol, and then manages to become a successful street artist with sold-out, over-capacity art show. Not quite. It's about the rise of a man dedicated to moving above the kafkaesque banality of everyday life and building an empire à la Walter White by engaging in illegal activities. Not exactly. It's a modern portrait of domestic life, exploring the toll that obsession takes on a family when the patriarch, suffering from an existential midlife crisis, puts the family's funds at risk for his own personal endeavors and pride. Not quite there just yet. It's about Banksy, the famed street artist, weaving fact and fiction to catapult a talentless hack into the contemporary art canon and mainstream notoriety just because he can. Getting closer. It's about Banksy, just like in his Barely Legal art show with the painted elephant, showing the audience that they can't really see what is right in front of them, revealing his true identity as a French hipster and tricking them yet again.
Perhaps, but that still doesn't sound right. It's about the question of truth and whether there is a singular, actual material reality that is objectively measurable or if every part of our realities are constructed by narratives competing for power and belief. It's about whether any interpretation or instance of imposed meaning can be any more than the others existing in the pluralistic virtual space where we dream up our wildest conspiracies and paranoia in some postmodern act of throwing our hands up at everything in disbelief, knowing there's no longer any one Truth. Exit Through the Gift Shop, taken at face value, is about the efforts of Thierry Guetta, a French expat with a camera who films everything he experiences and ultimately stumbles upon the world of street art where he mingles with Banksy, who hijacks the film he is making, and then becomes a street artist himself. The documentary could be about any one of the above, all of them, or none of them. The point, I offer, isn't whether or not there is a true story behind all of the skepticism and misinformation and disruptions in the discourse, but instead how and what constitutes truth and whether any narrative we have can be judged as "better" or "more accurate." Whether they can be valued differently is not in dispute; because of this, my analysis is essentially my own interpretation of the documentary and will not attempt to make any unverifiable claims with some indisputable evidence. My own performance and interaction with the art is creating a new construction of reality and meaning and symbolism, and that, I assume, is one of the points.
Because it is hard to pin down a particular reading, it is difficult to say which of Nichols's documentary modes it is. It is hard to classify something that successfully refuses to be classified. If the film were to be taken at face value where the audience accepts the events as true as they are presented, then we could classify the documentary as an expository mode, presenting the narrative of Guetta and his interaction with street artists and the building of his empire. It is certainly presented as such - all evidence points to Guetta's identity as true, and Banksy remaining anonymous is not a gimmick so much as it his (or her) "thing." Guetta's insistence on filming everything lest he miss out on something important or should things change rapidly is in line with the pathos the film creates for his character: his mother died when he was young, and her illness was allegedly kept from him, leading him to not want to be left out of anything else. The documentary could also be in the reflexive mode. Banksy begins the film discussing how it used to be about him, but he decided to turn it around to make Guetta the subject. Guetta's process is shown and his original documentary, Life Remote Control, is horrendous; it is perfectly believable that Banksy would have hijacked it. Banksy and Guetta both discuss the making of the documentary and attention is constantly called to Guetta's use of the camera. The audience is never allowed to forget that there is a camera and there is a cameraman. It could also be a performative documentary in the sense that it could be a gigantic hoax, an elaborate art performance by Banksy and Fairey, with Guetta potentially being complicit on the joke.
The last part - the question of whether or not this is all a big joke - is planted in the audience's mind in the end when Banksy says "maybe it means art is a bit of a joke" and one of his friend's saying "I don't even know if there is a joke." Banksy himself says "I don't think he played by the rules." If Guetta indeed did not "play by the rules," which we can take to mean the rules of documentary and the truth about the events that played out that the audiences expect, then perhaps Guetta was another one of Banksy's art pieces where he calls into question the commodification of art, the ownership of art, and how his endorsement can suddenly give seemingly inferior pop art meaning and value, especially economic value. The characters are plentiful but any notion of their true identities is dubious at best. Perhaps they, being the filmmakers, are making a statement about essentialism and truth as it pertains to understanding ourselves, which is a popular topic in contemporary academic discourse. It would tie in well with Banksy's counter-canon sentiments. The concept of a "subject" is brought into question when Banksy first appears, his material form enshrouded in literal darkness and his voice obviously edited for anonymity purposes, and he announces that he was to be the original subject of the film Guetta was making but shifted the focus back to the original filmmaker when he realized Guetta had no talent for editing and compiling footage. Perhaps this actually happened, but whether or not we know for sure is besides the point. People in the documentary are real people, undoubtedly, and figures like Invader and Shepard Fairey are real street artists, which further blurs the lines of identity. The notion of identity and the comfort some take in the concept of an essentialist "core" or "subject" is an obsession perpetuated by prevailing liberal ideologies about individualism and morals about the importance of character and integrity.
The reading of the character of "Guetta" can be plural: he could be Banksy; he could be an endearing but mentally limited filmmaker duped by Banksy and company; he could be in on the joke, pretending to be an unrelated-but-interested third party, brilliant in his own way, out to make fools of the pop culture consuming mass audiences. There's a Reddit AMA about a man who allegedly worked with Guetta claiming his realness and the truth of the documentary but, again, that could simply be Banksy flooding the discourse with misinformation and noise. Allegedly, the documentary Guetta produced with the footage he captured was submitted to film festivals but was an atrocious, epileptic mess. Life Remote Control used quick and jarring transitions to string together the footage Guetta had captured. This is either an earnest, but creatively lacking, documentary that Banksy took control of or evidence of a giant performance spread out over several years because of a respectable commitment to the joke. If the documentary attempt was real, then how did this man, with very few financial resources and what some would consider an uninspired approach to art, manage to single-handedly buy a studio and host a successful art exhibit in Los Angeles, ultimately raising a million dollars? Guetta's family provides the pathos for the film, as the audience cannot help but feel for the mother and children who are left behind when the father goes on a journey of change for himself and risks everything they own to gamble on his own art.
The real conflict at the heart is "truth" and of what it is constituted. The documentary was trying ultimately to accomplish the goal of forcing the audience to question what is true and what is fiction, and what is to be valued. It wants us to consider who owns art and what value there is in it if it is commodified. It wants us to question the film by constantly referring back to its construction and whether the truth presented before us can be believed. The film utilizes the unlikeliness of the situation and abundant uncertainty to call into question the ethos of the documentary and what credibility there is, if any. The "truth" of the substance of the documentary is called into question when Banksy said he hijacked it; if he did, and Guetta is a real man whose efforts at producing a film were bad, then what story did Banksy construct? The "truth" of Guetta's talent is called into question by the fact that the audience never actually sees Mr. Brainwash creating any of the pieces he sells off at his Life is Beautiful exhibit. We only actually see him using a can of spraypaint and spraying over things. If he did create those pieces, then why did Banksy choose to eliminate any footage of him creating it? If Banksy created those pieces for Guetta to sell off, then what does that say about the value of a piece of work endorsed by notorious people with a lot of cultural capital? Furthermore, the sheer unbelievability of the film's events, that Guetta, a clueless man, was able to happen upon the dangerous world of street art and follow them around and never compromise them, meet Banksy, and ultimately sell off his clothing shop and make enough to hold an exhibit where he then raised a million dollars, force the audience to question whether or not the events they see before their eyes are true or constructed. And if they are constructed and this film is a giant hoax, then the audience is left to wonder about the truth of art and of the other films they made and how meaning is constructed and perpetuated by those around them.
There are a few moments in the film where logos, and thusly the "truth" of the film, is brought into question. The aforementioned unfolding of events is unbelievable but not necessarily impossible. There are certain moments that provide a break in logic and act almost like glitches where other truths are suggested. For instance, when Guetta suffers an accident, he is carted out of the hospital in a wheelbarrow. This is never addressed or given any attention; why not a wheelchair? The logos is further disrupted when images of "fake things" are shown. Banksy shows Guetta the boxes of fake money with Princess Diana's face on them that he personally forged. If he could do that, then it only follows that other forgeries are possible, and the audience must wonder if this documentary itself was a forgery of events that parades them off as true. Banksy allegedly placed a piece commenting on the torture at Guantanamo Bay in a DisneyLand train ride, so it's not unlikely that he would want the audience to be embarrassed or forced to question their own constructions of reality and truth.
Art is all about "preservation through change." Because the world around us constantly shifts and changes, art too has to change so that it can constantly comment, replicate, and change the reality around it. Banksy's art pieces are constantly unfolding and becoming different things, from a wall painting being changed into an Instagram picture or a documentary meaning different things to different people and encouraging them to react differently to create their own interpretations and art. Exit Through the Gift Shop presents the audience with a series of unbelievable events and forces them to either accept what they see or to challenge it and then follow that up with subsequent critical engagement with media, constantly questioning its validity and credibility. Whether or not we choose to believe that the documentary is a joke or a succession of unlikely but still legitimate events, Banksy has effectively introduced misinformation and noise into the discourse, a welcome glitch disrupting the noise we hear and images we see, forcing us to reject any singular Truth.
'Exit Through the Gift Shop' is the result, and I am tempted to say it is a work of genius. It starts as Banksy's film about Guetta's film about Banksy, but over time it morphs into a slightly resentful character sketch of Guetta. Why? Because when Banksy tells Guetta to "go make some art", the latter piggybacks off Banky's unwitting endorsement to start his own artistic career as 'Mr. Brainwash' and becomes a roaring success despite a complete lack of talent. He even sets up a kind of assembly line of creative people to make art for him, focusing only selling the work. In other words, he becomes a comically unaware capitalist - symbolizing everything that his "work" parodies.
This is a confusing shift in tone that makes the film seem a little disjointed towards the end, but there comes a Eureka moment that encapsulates the spirit of the film. Mr. Brainwash has crossed $1 million in sales, and a bemused spokesman of Banksy is commenting on the dizzy irony of the whole situation. "I think the joke is on..." He pauses, puzzled. "I don't know who the joke is on, really. I don't even know if there is a joke."
The kicker? There is speculation that the whole film is an elaborate hoax, with Mr. Brainwash being Banksy's greatest work of art - or even Banksy himself.
This film documented what makes a graffiti artist by telling the making of Pierre guetta and his inspirations, I.e. Banksy. I especially enjoyed how it shows a glimpse into how complicated their lives can be despite their simplistic approaches.