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Exit Through the Gift Shop (Paranoid Pictures, R)

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Perhaps Guetta is just “somebody with a mental problem who happened to have a camera.”
Exit Through the Gift Shop, billed as a documentary directed by the British street artist Banksy, offers 90 minutes of pretty good entertainment. The fact that it may well be just one more stunt by an artist known for stunts doesn’t detract in the least from the enjoyment. Of course, you’ll have to see the film for yourself to judge whether it is or is not one big put-on, and to do that you’ll have to buy a ticket, which makes you a potential target for derision by the very people profiting from your purchase.
To avoid putting everything in quotation marks, let’s start with the story Exit Through the Gift Shop purports to tell. Once upon a time in California there lived a mustachioed Frenchman named Thierry Guetta who had the habit of videotaping everything and anything. Guetta was introduced to the world of street art, a.k.a. graffiti, by a cousin using the pseudonym Space Invader because his art resembled pixelated images from the 1970s video game. Guetta became fascinated by the street art scene and won the trust of many of the artists who allowed him to document their work. Two of these artists, who will play an important role in Exit Through the Gift Shop, were Shepard Fairey (famous for his Andre the Giant and Obama images as well as for the lawsuits concerning the latter) and Banksy (whose work has appeared everywhere from Disneyland to the West Bank barrier).
But there’s a problem. Guetta isn’t really a filmmaker; he just records endless hours of footage like a tourist who won’t put down his camera long enough to experience anything firsthand. A heartstring-tugging explanation about his mother’s death is so unconvincing as to be laughable. The tapes are thrown into boxes, unviewed, although at some point Guetta does cut the material into a 90-minute film which Banksy declares unwatchable (judging from the clips included in Exit Through the Gift Shop, I’d have to agree) and speculates that perhaps Guetta is just “somebody with a mental problem who happened to have a camera.”
So the two artists switch roles. Banksy edits Guetta’s footage, along with additional material, into Exit Through the Gift Shop, while Guetta becomes a street artist under the name “Mister Brainwash.” Despite an apparent lack of either talent or training, Guetta holds a solo show in Los Angeles entitled “Life Is Beautiful” which is directly modeled after Banksy’s landmark “Barely Legal” show. “Life Is Beautiful” is a great success, with almost $1 million in sales in the first week. Banksy and Fairey, both of whom supplied quotes used to publicize Guetta’s show, now claim to regret their actions in promoting Mister Brainwash and his entirely derivative works. Should we believe them?
I think not. The prevailing tone of Exit Through the Gift Shop, including the narration by Rhys Ifans (presumably written by Banksy), is postmodern and ironic and there’s no reason to regard anything we are shown or told as true. It’s more than likely that Guetta, his family, the onscreen Banksy (seen only in shadow and with his voice distorted) and any number of other characters in the film are simply actors participating in an elaborate prank.
Fortunately it doesn’t really matter. Besides its pure entertainment value, the film can be taken as a satire on the art world. I will grant that’s a fairly soft target; the thought of anyone shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for the photoshopped works on sale at the “Life Is Beautiful” exhibition bring to mind that old proverb about a fool and his money being soon parted.
In my interpretation, Banksy is now playing the role of Jackson Pollock as described by Tom Wolfe in The Painted World 30 years ago, courting the admiration and dollars of art collectors while simultaneously mocking them. Pollock liked getting naked at rich people’s parties and pissing in the fireplace to demonstrate his independence, but he didn’t stop attending the parties—nor did the rich stop inviting him. Offensive behavior was an expected part of his role as a bohemian artist. Banksy’s method of mocking the hand that feeds him is less messy and more entertaining, but it’s still a performance that can be enjoyed without being taken seriously.
At the end of the day, what really matters is whether the art is any good. I happen to think that Banksy’s work is skillful and makes worthwhile commentaries about the world we live in; you can check out some images at http://www.artofthestate.co.uk/Banksy/banksy.htm. I also think that Guetta’s art is boring and derivative and looks suspiciously like bad Banksy (you can see some of it at http://blogs.laweekly.com/lurker/gallery/mr-brainwash-bombs-la/), so who cares if an artist named Thierry Guetta exists or doesn’t exist? | Sarah Boslaugh
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