Sundance 2010: EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP Review

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Sundance 2010: EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP Review
[Our thanks to Ryland Aldrich for the following review.]

This year's Sundance Spotlight Surprise slot was filled by the documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop, directed by the enigmatic artist Banksy.  The film is a documentation of the rise and subsequent commercialization of the street art movement, told via the narrative lens of one of the movement's most bizarre and commercially successful members, Thierry Guetta aka Mr. Brainwash.  The film is wildly successful at both capturing an art form that's practice has been mostly hidden behind the cover of darkness, and at telling that interesting story of a truly kooky character.  But the real success of the film is the questions it raises about the formation of the artist, the commerce of art, and the authenticity of documentary film.

The movie opens with a shrouded and vocally distorted Banksy explaining that while this movie was started as a documentary about him, he found the original filmmaker far more interesting. That man was the Frenchman Thierry Guetta - and his story starts in Los Angeles where he ran a successful vintage clothing shop. Thierry carried a video camera with him virtually everywhere he went, filling up tape after tape with a running documentation of his life.  That life changed dramatically on one trip to France when Thierry took his camera out one night to put up art with his cousin Space Invader, an early player in the street art scene famous for his mosaics depicting characters from the videogame of his namesake.  Thierry was immediately enamored by the thrill of the counter culture he had stumbled into.  When he returned to LA he sought out Shepard Fairey (whose Obey Giant and Obama "Hope" images should be familiar to everyone).  Shepard and Thierry struck up a friendship and the two spent many late nights bombing the city.  As Shepard puts it, Thierry may have been kind of weird, but he was a valuable asset to have along as a lookout and he was always willing to scale the tall buildings necessary to find the best spots to post art.

Due to his relationships with Shepard and Invader, Thierry met many other street artists and, because of his ever present video camera, became the de facto documentarian of the growing movement.  But the one artist who eluded his lens was the subversive English artist Banksy - a man whose gall and ingenuity (he hung his own paintings in the Tate Modern, MOMA, and the Met) had made him the best known name in the street art world.  As fate would have it, it was Banksy who, new to LA and in need of a guide, one day called Thierry.  Banksy was intrigued by the odd Frenchman and bought into Thierry's desire to document the movement.  So for the first time, Banksy allowed someone to capture his process and application.  After Banksy's "Barely Legal" art show in LA brought in millions of dollars and spelled the coming out party for street art, Banksy told Thierry it was time to release his documentary to the public.  Not really knowing anything about filmmaking, Thierry took a stab at it - cutting together 90 minutes of free flowing ideas and imagery.  As Banksy put it, the film was utter shit.  So Banksy asked Thierry to leave the tapes with him (to ostensibly create this documentary) and told Thierry to go home, work on his own art, and put on his own show.  Thierry did exactly that, building a street art factory and cranking out thousands of pieces of art under the moniker Mr. Brainwash.  His 2008 "Life is Beautiful" show earned him over $1 million and marked his overnight entry to the ranks of elite street artists. It also earned him the scorn of the very people whose trust he had worked so hard to earn: the artists who had labored years to find the success that Thierry rode to fortune.

This extremely interesting film is important for a number of reasons - not the least of which is as pure documentation.  Because of issues of questionable legality, street artists are notoriously distrustful of cameras.  But through his perseverance, Thierry proved both trustworthy and useful enough to the artists to earn his place.  'Who is the crazy French guy with camera?' quickly turned into, 'We're going out, call Thierry.'  The explosion of the street art movement at the turn of this century and its subsequent transition to the big money world of art collectors is comparable to the French Impressionist movement at the turn of the last century.  Without Thierry's odd need to film every aspect of his life, this level of documentation simply would not exist.

Or would it?  The subversive nature of street art can't help but lead to a certain level of healthy skepticism.  Might Thierry just be a pawn - another contribution in Banksy's invented narrative of the movement he has already played such a role in creating?  Thierry is quite the captivating character.  The meteoric rise of the Mr. Brainwash brand raises numerous questions about the intersection of art criticism and commercial consumption.  Can art be considered successful if it is popular to the public but not accepted by the community of artists?  Questions like this are certainly not new, but the film provides an interesting context for their further exploration.

One way or another, Banksy is responsible for the creation of Thierry and Mr. Brainwash. This film is either Banksy taking credit, or pleading his excuse.

[Ryland Aldrich is a screenwriter and freelance writer based in Los Angeles.  He blogs at enderzero.net]

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godonovanFebruary 4, 2010 8:15 PM

I read about this and the "controversy" surrounding Brainwash recently. I knew about bansky, but I had no idea about what the Life is Beautiful show was when I saw the billboards. I'm looking forward to this one and am curious to hear about the artists hating on Brainwash. I think his pieces are cool, but i'm intrested to hear why some dis-like him, seems like his success in the face of their struggle burns them.

Ryland AldrichFebruary 18, 2010 3:34 PM

The film's premier this week at the Berlin Film Fest finds both IndieWire's Eugene Hernandez and the NY Times' Manohla Dargis pondering some of the same issues I raised above. While I think Dargis is off the mark in suggesting that Banksy and Thierry Guetta (aka Mr. Brainwash) might be one and the same - there is no doubt that some elements comprise more than meets the narrative eye.

...Or maybe not. Maybe every piece of the story is exactly how it is portrayed in the doc. Is it really so hard to believe that Banksy took over the editing duties from the schizotron Guetta and was able to put together this fascinating piece of documentation? Maybe it is simply hard for us to believe that someone as subversive as Banksy would do anything that straight forward. How can we trust a man who won't even show his face?

Regardless, the real story here is how successful the film is at documenting the movement. Just imagine if cameras were rolling when Cézanne and Pissarro were first experimenting together with impressionist landscapes - or when Duchamp and Man Ray were questioning art's very definitions. Exit Through the Gift Shop gives us exactly this look at the rise of street art - even if Guetta's/Banksy's lens is a bit greased up.

More thoughts at enderzero.net