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Exit Through the Gift Shop

by on June 9, 2010
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“Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a documentary about a fake documentarian, who segues from chronicling street artists to becoming one himself.

These artists, who work guerilla style with spray cans and such in public places, then observe with resentment as the faux filmmaker they thought was making a movie about them usurps their style and becomes rich and famous.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that the entire enterprise, including this film, is a hoax.

Whatever it is, this highly engaging film directed (we think) by the anonymous street artist known as Banksy will provoke thoughtful discussions about what is art, as well as the film’s own veracity.

Try to keep this straight: We open with the mysterious Banksy, hiding his face and voice, who says the project started with a guy purporting to make a documentary about the street art scrawled on walls in cities all around the globe, often to be scrubbed away or painted over in a matter of hours.

At some point, Banksy says, this filmmaker — a Frenchman living in Los Angeles named Thierry Guetta — decided he was more interesting than the artists he was recording. So he set down his camera and started imitating their work.

Left unsaid is that Banksy then decided to make a documentary about the guy who was supposed to make a documentary about him, but turned out to be a faker.

Got all that? Yes? Then let me confuse you further.

Guetta — now calling himself Mr. Brainwash — happily admits in interviews that he never intended to make a documentary out of the thousands of hours of footage he shot of Banksy and other street artists creating their works. He was just obsessed with videotaping everything he saw, and became fascinated by these underground outlaws whose subversive work straddles the line between art and vandalism.

However, Mr. Brainwash did eventually make a film out his years of tapes. It’s called “Life Remote Control,” which we’re shown a few snippets of, and it’s … well, imagine experimental performance art vomited out of the belly of an MTV editing bay.

So the faker who only wanted to chronicle, but lied and told the street artists he was making a documentary about them, did in fact eventually make a film, of sorts.

Still with me? Alright, then let me flip everything on its tail.

This whole thing could well be a complex ruse engineered by Banksy, with a host of other street artists brought in as unknowing accomplices. A lot of people think so. They believe Banksy is perpetuating a grand joke about the commercialization of street art by inventing a persona who will become famous and whose works will sell for tens of thousands of dollars, even though they’re just knock-offs of other artists.

There’s some credible evidence to support this idea. For example, Mr. Brainwash is never actually depicted creating any of his paintings. They’re manufactured by employees at his direction, and then he’ll blob some paint on them or whatever to make them distinct.

The best argument against fakery is Guetta’s video footage, more than a decade’s worth, of him accompanying the artists on their midnight raids spraying and plastering city walls. The excitable Frenchman grows noticeably older and chubbier, so unless Banksy had millions to spend on CG effects, that footage is genuine.

My guess is this film is an amalgamation of truth and untruth. It could well be that Guetta was simply a fan who followed the artists around like a puppy, recording their creative process. Banksy then used Guetta’s tapes to stage a colossal practical joke by turning this nonentity into a star of the art world, and making a movie about it.

What you can be sure of is that somebody’s got egg on their face. Whoever the joke’s on, it’s one worth laughing — and then thinking — about.

Though I must wonder: What would happen if somebody went into an exhibit of street art and started spray-painting all over it? Should we arrest, or compensate him?

4.5 Yaps

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