Documentary? Comedy? Satire? Hoax?
It’s tough to pigeonhole Exit Through The Gift Shop, currently playing at Landmark Theaters in Hillcrest. The film is directed by UK street art superstar Bansky and tells the story of his rise to fame — though it does so indirectly.
Exit’s purported focus is amateur filmmaker Thierry Guetta, an absent-minded Frenchman and associate of Banksy’s who speaks in comically accented English and decides to become a superstar street artist himself.
Unlike This Is Spinal Tap or Best In Show, Exit Through The Gift Shop isn’t clearly a mock-umentary. Instead, parts of the movie feel authentic, while other parts are clearly contrived.
The only similarly ambiguous movie I can think of is King of Kong, a supposedly true profile of two of the world’s best video gamers and their fight for the highest score in Donkey Kong. King of Kong has so many perfectly ridiculous characters and suspenseful situations, you walk away wondering if the whole thing is a put-on. In contrast, Exit admits that it’s largely a parody, but challenges you to figure out which portions are real. As one character puts it: “It turns out the joke is on…actually, I don’t know who the joke is on. I don’t know if there is a joke.”
The film includes riveting real-world footage of talented graffiti artists doing what they do best. Ellis G. artfully traces a park bench’s shadow on the sidewalk in chalk. Banksy, in his massive studio, tapes together several carefully whittled cardboard pieces to form a 10-foot-tall stencil, and then expertly folds the stencil upon itself for easy transit.
In an extended profile, Shepard Fairey — the American famous for his red and blue “Hope” print — preps Andre the Giant “Obey” posters at a Kinko’s and then plasters them all over town.
People who are intrigued by Banky’s artwork likely will enjoy Banksy’s movie, which is packed with intriguing images, sly humor, and social commentary. The movie’s awesome opening sequence, for example, features scene after scene of camcorder snippets of top-tier graffiti artists at work, and the montage unfolds to Richard Hawley’s dark rock song “Tonight The Streets Are Ours.” One of the song’s rhymes jumped out at me in my theater seat:
They got nothing in their souls
And they make our TVs blind us
From our vision and our goals
Wow, I thought at first. What a perfectly Banksy message. Delicious in its disdain for the ruling class, its anti-consumerism, its rabble-rousing intent.
But wait a minute. Tonight The Streets Are Ours is for sale on iTunes. And Exit Through The Gift Shop will soon be available on NetFlix, Amazon, and all the rest. Is it fair to use mainstream channels to snicker about the mainstream, and to make a few bucks along the way?
That’s just one of the many questions the movie aims at the intersection of art, celebrity, and money. Where’s the line between being influenced by someone and copying them? How far will an untalented knave get on hype alone? Can a brilliant artist who is defined by his underground status plunge into the mainstream and somehow emerge with his dignity intact?
With Exit Through The Gift Shop, Banksy shows that the answer to that last one is yes.
Here are some of Banksy’s work (click on image for large version):