Most art documentaries serve as dull, glowing hagiographies of their subjects. Not so “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” a raucously entertaining postmodern survey of guerrilla street art that appears to be one thing (a chronicle of the scene centered on its most enigmatic figure, Banksy), only to fold back on itself and examine would-be filmmaker Thierry Guetta instead. Such a radically nonstandard approach, in which helmer and subject switch places, perfectly suits these artists’ anarchic personae. While publicity will require some creative thinking, the out-of-the-park result should have daring distribs laughing all the way to the banksy.
Though they were brought together by a mutual love of street art, it’s hard to imagine two more different personalities than Banksy and Guetta. The latter is a compulsive videographer, one of those unique 21st-century creations who seems to insist on documenting his every waking moment, whereas Banksy has risen to where he is only by protecting his true identity.
Why then would Banksy suddenly agree to make a film about himself? “It’s not ‘Gone With the Wind,’?” he quips at the outset, appearing from his U.K. studio with voice and face distorted, but it’s a long way from “Cool as Ice” or any number of callow pop portraits.
Rather than revealing anything personal about Banksy, the doc immediately begins to explore the rich psychology of its primary cameraman. Drawn into the scene by his cousin, French mosaic artist Invader, Guetta was running with graffitidom’s biggest heroes long before names such as Shepard Fairey, Neckface and Swoon were sought after by serious collectors.
Given the illegal nature of their work, their feats were often taken down or painted over right away, and Guetta offered such underground legends videographic immortality. More than just a groupie, he was their witness. It was part of Guetta’s lunatic charm that he somehow managed to convince the scene’s most camera-shy figures to let him record them at work, spinning tales of a documentary he was making about the whole street art movement.
In truth, Guetta had no such intentions — nor did he even know where to begin editing the thousands of hours of footage he’d haphazardly stashed back home.
Finally, when Banksy called his bluff, Guetta did go back and attempt to make something — an embarrassing greatest-hits montage called “Life Remote Control” — but a minute or so of this post-MTV pastiche is all it takes to understand why Banksy decided to have a go at it himself.
So, while “Exit” hardly functions as a comprehensive history of guerrilla art, it does present some of the most astonishing insider footage ever captured of street artists at work. Would these characters actually call themselves “artists”? Their crush of dealers, auction houses and museum curators surely would, though Banksy cleverly challenges many of those assumptions with the film.
In letting Guetta into his world, Banksy couldn’t possibly have anticipated the megalomania in store for his camcorder-toting friend: Relieved of his filmmaking obligations, Guetta returned to L.A. and decided to invent his own street-art persona, “Mr. Brain Wash.” “Exit” is nothing if not a blatant condemnation of such a shortcut to celebrity, as told by someone who holds himself at least partly responsible for creating the monster.
Clearly, Banksy’s big beef with the contempo art scene is the idea of selling out. Like many modern artists, Banksy began as a renegade, whereas Guetta aims straight for the iconic status of guys like Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali. Banksy’s latest rough-around-the-edges art-bomb goes a long way to question what guerrilla art has become.