The summer’s cheekiest film doesn’t star Adam Sandler, Will Forte or Jonah Hill, but a British graffiti artist by the name of Banksy. Part street-art primer, part art-world commentary and, quite possibly, part clever conceptual prank, Exit Through the Gift Shop is easily the season’s most original movie to date.
Charlie Kaufman would be hard pressed to concoct the twists of this head scratcher. The film introduces a Frenchman named Thierry Guetta, owner of a vintage clothing store in L.A. In what appears to be the ’90s, he’s explaining to someone behind a camera how he has amassed a small fortune. Guetta buys stashes of used stuff for next to nothing and sells the more interesting pieces for hundreds of dollars. A $50 bulk buy, he boasts, can net him $5000 — a detail that proves significant later.
Soon Guetta becomes addicted to filming, carrying a video camera everywhere he goes. In France on a family vacation, he visits a cousin who calls himself Space Invader and happens to be a major player in the nascent street-art movement. Guetta films him as he conducts late-night missions to plaster creations illegally on public spaces.
Through Space Invader, Guetta meets such seminal graffiti artists as Zeus, Dotmatrix, Swoon and Shepard Fairey (who currently faces charges for taking liberties with an Obama photograph for a campaign poster). Guetta gets a thrill from sharing their risk and being part of the scene. They let him tag along to document for posterity creations they know will be art history in short order, thanks to the authorities.
The biggest name in the game, Banksy, proves elusive. When his and Guetta’s paths finally cross, the reclusive, internationally acclaimed innovator hits it off with the video junkie and encourages him to turn his stash of tapes into a documentary. As it turns out, though, Guetta’s filmmaking acumen is limited to hitting the “record” button. The result is a pretentious mess that seems unwatchable to an almost calculated degree. Another detail that proves significant later.
At this point, Banksy appears to play an ingenious trick. He turns the tables by taking control of the priceless footage, assuming the role of director and switching the film’s focus to Guetta. The Brit appears periodically on camera shrouded in a hoodie, his voice electronically altered. Instead of crafting a history of the movement, however, he makes the movement a backstory to the Frenchman and what happened after Banksy took over the doc and casually suggested Guetta try his own hand at art.
On camera, Banksy purports to be repulsed by the result. He tells us Guetta produced a massive body of Warhol-derivative work and staged a one-man show in Los Angeles attended by thousands. Significantly, we’re shown no footage of Guetta doing any of this. We do watch as he arbitrarily attaches prices to pieces, a scene that echoes the earlier one where he bragged about marking up old clothing.
Many reviewers have taken the picture as an indictment of art-world gullibility by an outraged purist. But I believe what we have here is something closer to an avant-garde version of “Punk’d.” Indisputably, the vintage footage of taggers was shot by Guetta. Everything else in the movie is open to question.
My bet is that Banksy recognized the value of Guetta’s videos, wanted to publicize them and figured stirring up a little controversy wouldn’t hurt. I believe he himself directed the Frenchman’s hilariously unwatchable trailer, and he and his cohorts concocted the pictures and pieces sold at Guetta’s exhibition.
You’ll decide for yourself, of course, where fact leaves off and fabrication takes over. The puzzle — along with Banksy’s piquant banter — makes for a singular movie entertainment. My bet is the Frenchman has had his 15 minutes, but Banksy’s time in the limelight has barely begun.
* Running Time: 87 minutes
* Rated: R