Reviewer: Steve Dollar
Rating (out of 5): ***½
Whether you take it at face value or gradually get the feeing that you're watching an art-world answer to This Is Spinal Tap, the much yakked-about Exit Through the Gift Shop is a knowingly subversive commentary on subversive art - and one of the year's best screen comedies, intentional (which I fully believe it is) or otherwise (a little too good to be true).
Pulling a meta-Warhol move, the pseudonymynous UK street artist Banksy, now an international art celebrity, introduces a putative documentary about his work by turning the tables. Banksy, a silhouette in a hoodie whose voice is altered by distortion, tells us about a Los Angeles-based, French filmmaker who proposed making a movie about him, but instead it's Banksy who has made a film about the other guy: Thierry Guetta, a thrift shop owner turned obsessive video shooter of guerrilla street artists. Guetta, who is - or portrays - a classic sort of wacky Frenchman, becomes a funhouse double of what Banksy, and his LA pal Shepard Fairey, represent.
Rather than turn the camera on himself, Banksy uses the film as a trickster's analysis of the contemporary pop cultural process. He illustrates how unknown figures with stencils and spray cans clamber over roof tops and flee the cops, running straight into the arms of gallery owners and gossip mavens.
On its basic level, the film operates as a brisk primer on the global rise of street art, as experienced by Guetta, a kind of super-fan and compulsive videotaper whose initiation into the club arrives via a visiting French cousin who calls himself Space Invader (his signature works are based on the popular 1980s video game). Guetta then befriends Fairey, whose fame is second only to Banksy's, thanks to his ubiquitous Obama/"Hope" poster (although viewers are steered to the 2008 doc Beautiful Losers for a more straightforward introduction to the artist and his peers).
Soon enough, Guetta connects with Banksy and is accompanying the artist on all-night maneuvers across the roofs of Paris. In one of the film's moments whose reality is above debate, Guetta films Banksy as he plants a dummy costumed as a Guantanamo Bay inmate in view of an outdoor ride at Disneyland. Guetta is detained by the “Mickey Mouse cops” for four hours, but is released in time to make (and videotape) Banksy's smash LA exhibit.
At some point - I'll leave some discoveries to you, the audience - the affable enthusiast determines to become a street artist himself. I actually have photos of the stuff, taken on a 2007 visit to LA when I was staying in a loft area near downtown, so I know it's “real,” as is a huge LA Weekly cover story (June 11, 2008) on “Mr. Brainwash,” not a new Batman villain but the art persona Guetta invented for himself. Employing the lessons of hype and sensation he gathered at Banksy's side, Mr. Brainwash stages a massive debut exhibit put together by a dozens of employees. The works are a puerile self-parody of every Pop Art cliché mashed up with the copyright-defying, detourned iconography in which Fairey specializes.
As Fairey has been often quoted, focusing on one of Mr. Brainwash's big gimmicks, swiped from Fairey, who is emulating Warhol: “I never thought about pop art as a bad word until Mr. Brainwash. My thing was putting the Marilyn hair on Andre [the Giant], who's not so handsome, and that's sort of like me spoofing pop art but still paying tribute to it at the same time. But then Thierry, Mr. Brainwash, is putting that same Marilyn Monroe hair on everybody from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Michael Jackson to Larry King. I wish it were about him making a statement that art is ridiculous and that celebrities are interchangeable, but it's not that at all. It's like, 'throw a bunch of shit against the wall and see what sticks.'”
Guetta, a perfectly likable whackjob, sails through it all in a carefree manner, reveling in the hoopla, and appears to make out like a bandit when the cash registers start ringing.
What's real, or “real,” has been the important trend of the year for a lot of serious film fans. A.O. Scott's excellent essay in last week's New York Times Sunday Magazine lays it out pretty well. Exit's ambiguous spoofery is a wonderfully coy treatise on the theme which works because it never takes too serious a tone. Even the narration, by the actor Rhys Ifans, seems to be taking the piss out of that omniscient role, and everything it susses. If it is a hoax, the film is refreshingly truthful in what it actually wants to say.
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