Exit Through The Gift Shop

“The joke’s on... well, I’m not sure who the joke is on. I’m not sure there even is a joke.”

I knew almost nothing about this movie when I went to see it, and I knew even less about the street-art movement that it covers. But a few different people had recommended it to me: they all did so obliquely, refusing to tell me much about it, but urging me to experience it myself. So I dragged a friend to the ArcLight theatre on Sunset. I’m incredibly glad that I did. This review definitely gives away more than my friends did, but this isn’t a nail-biter plot. Anyway, as always, caveat lector.

What’s this movie about? Hard to say. And that’s sort of the point. It’s about the commodification of something that was never meant, at first, to be a commodity: street art—those guerilla graffiti stencils, paintings, drawings, and sculptures that began as an urban sub-culture in the 1990s and ballooned into an art movement with the rise of Shepard Fairey (an American currently being sued by the Associated Press for his appropriation of an Obama image) and Banksy (who decorated the wall surrounding the West Bank with the image above, among others). By the aughts, works by these stars and other street-artists were selling for insane amounts of money to real art collectors. Brangelina went to a Banksy show.

But before that explosion, this guerrilla art was ephemeral. Graffiti gets painted over. Sculptures of BT telephone booths get removed. Billboards are refaced. So when Thierry Guetta, a dopey French family-man living large in LA off the proceeds of a high-market vintage clothing store, decided to start filming street artists, they welcomed him—even the secretive Banksy. He was handy, he was charmingly confused, he was documenting art that might disappear at any moment.

Thierry filmed compulsively. The first half of the film documents his burgeoning relationships with these artists, and the risks they (and he) take to put their art in high-up and out-of-the-way places. There are a few altercations with police officers, and a hilarious narrative involving Banksy’s placement of a Guantanamo-dummy near the Thunder Mountain ride at Disneyland, which results in Thierry, who filmed the whole thing, being detained by a Mickey Mouse squad and interrogated—ineptly. (The idea that someone could be detained by Disneyland personnel…)

All that is interesting enough. Halfway through the film, everything changes. Banksy had encouraged Thierry to finally make his film. But what the street-artist didn’t realize was that he wasn’t actually making a documentary. He just stacked the thousands of un-watched and un-edited tapes in large boxes, and filmed more. When he finally did cobble something together, it was an unwatchable mess, like a mad person with a remote control (as Banksy describes it).

So Banksy decides to re-make the film, and Thierry moves onto something bigger: now, he’s no longer content being a documentarian. Instead, he wants to be an artist himself. He re-mortgages his home and stages a gigantic show in the old CBS building on Sunset, just blocks from where I watched the film. It’s huge. Enormous. Hundreds of pieces, every one of which is un-original copying of other artists, especially Warhol—many of which were made by assistants, working from imprecise Gallic instructions. As Banksy says, dryly: Andy Warhol used repetition to make images meaningless, and Thierry used even more repetition to make them even more meaningless.

Sounds like a pretentious disaster in the making, right? Somehow, Thierry (who is now calling himself Mr. Brain Wash) pulls it off. He makes the cover of LA Weekly, the event-magazine of Los Angeles. He sells over a million dollars worth of art. Sean Lennon comes to the show. He speaks, without irony, of being an artist.

Street art is about irony, which is not to say that it is only ironic. Shephard Fairey used images of Andre the Giant over the word ‘Obey’ to highlight the emotive power of advertising, art, and the repetitive placement of branded images. Banksy’s politics were expressed through images meant to highlight social and corporate injustices: sometimes, he would place his own paintings in galleries next to paintings by the masters. Space Invader (Thierry’s cousin, and his entree into this world) re-fashioned iconic images into decorative mosaics that are quite pretty. Street art is about the power of art and imagery, and how troublesome that power can be. It’s also darn fun for the artist and for the viewer (probably less fun for the building owners who must re-paint their property, of course).

Street art is also about the experience of viewing: of glancing at a billboard, expecting an advertisement without thinking of it, and instead seeing a sly social commentary. Thierry, though, seems to miss all of this: he wants to be financially successful, he wants to be popular, he wants to be an Artist. And he does it.

Is Thierry the last word in street-art? Is his all-hype no-art show a nuanced social commentary, or the lucky break of a bumbler who steals from the best? Is this movie a hoax, as was rumored before its release? Was it all devised by Banksy as a crazy commentary on the art world that already loves him? Is this a prank, or a movie about a prank, or a movie by a prankster about a guy who doesn’t even get that he’s both the creator and the object of a gigantic joke?

We’re supposed to ask those questions, and we’re not really supposed to answer them. (Well, I think the hoax theory has been discredited with certainty.) But we are supposed to think about them, and about the status of this film as a critical darling in the context of the inanity of criticism. This film’s covert star is the viewer—of both the film itself and the art it portrays.

Many scenes in this movie take place in LA, and Thierry’s show was the talk of the art world here when it happened. At the ArcLight, in Hollywood, a team of people (PR? Guerilla artists? Theatre employees?) set up a booth at the exit: a table covered in free posters of Thierry’s art. I didn’t take one, but my friend looked at them. “I need to get something for my brother,” he said. “Can you really give such an ironic gift without showing him the movie?” I asked. “What do you mean?” he responded, looking at the posters, “oh, well. They’re not very good, anyway.”

Four out of four stars.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm very pleasantly suprised you guys reviewed this. I didn't think it was your style. I really loved this movie and i've been a Banksy fan for a while. Great review Josie, thanks.

Billie Doux said...

I am firmly convinced that Josie Kafka can review anything, and review it well.

sunbunny said...

Love this movie. I really love the is-it-a-hoax mystery and the irony of Thierry's desire to become rich and famous doing something intended to satirize the society that puts value on things like riches and fame. Truth (if it is, in fact, truth) is stranger than fiction sometimes.

The street art world has gotten so tangled, I find it absolutely fascinating. Kate Moss and her hubby whose name I've forgotten paid Banksy to paint a mural in their bedroom. How weird is that? Shepard Fairey rose to glory not through his oft-copied image mocking the tendency (need?) for people to OBEY, but by working for a politician. The whole thing is like some tragic novel. Or Jesus of Montreal. Or a tragic novel that rips off Jesus of Montreal.