Exit Through The Gift Shop Review

It is probably best to state up front for any fans of Banksy that the main subject of Exit Through The Gift Shop is not really Banksy. Although he appears on screen his face and voice are both masked and he is definitely not the true star of the film. The central character is a man named Thierry Guetta (AKA Mr. Brainwash) and it is clear from the outset, although not explicitly mentioned until quite far into the film, that Thierry is a little unhinged.

Not in any dangerous way but he is clearly obsessive and compulsive by nature and takes ideas he has to extreme ends. He has made a pretty good living with a clothes shop in LA where he buys up a lot of ‘vintage’ clothes cheaply and resells them for exorbitant prices to hipsters, including the briefly glimpsed Beck. With shots of Thierry’s warehouses it is clear that he is buying a lot of clothes, perhaps too many, but he is also good at selling them.

This excess is an early glimpse at the way Thierry approaches a project and it is this approach that becomes so fascinating in the film. Another important obsession is his desire to document everything on video. Having suffered the traumatic experience of losing his mother when he was very young he feels the need to record every moment in his life out of fear of losing it forever. If Thierry is there then his video camera is there with him and this is what leads him into stumbling into becoming something of a documentary filmmaker. When visiting France, his place of birth, he meets up with his cousin (AKA Invader) who has recently started placing mosaic Space Invader characters all over France.

As Thierry helps out and videos Invader he begins to meet more and more street artists and becomes friends and assistants to many, including Shepard Fairey (now famous worldwide for his Obama Hope poster). Despite the dubious legality of the street artist’s work they appear to accept Thierry filming them. This seems to be in part due to a desire to have someone document the fleeting moments in street art but also because Thierry is handy to have around as a look-out, a driver and general assistant. Although he meets so many of the prominent figures in the movement there is one that constantly alludes him and he is desparate to add to his collection, the English artist Banksy.

When Banksy comes to LA and is looking for a guide Shepard Fairey puts him in touch with Thierry. Thierry is beside himself  upon meeting Banksy and appears to be willing to do anything to please him. The normally cagey artist begins letting Thierry into his life and lets him film him working on new pieces and in particular encourages him to film the aftermath of  each new piece, with particularly amusing results. Banksy becomes friends with Thierry and realises that the huge quantity of material Thierry has shot could be used to make a street art film, a document of the movement. He tasks Thierry with going off and editing all the footage down to make this film. The results are absolutely terrible though. His film, entitled Life Remote Control (apparently coming soon to DVD) is described as a nightmarish experience, akin to a child with an incredibly short attention span constantly flicking through thousands of television channels, for an interminable amount of time.

It is obvious to Banksy now that Thierry is not a documentary filmmaker and he therefore decides to use the footage himself to see if he can do better, suggesting that maybe Thierry should go off and do some street art himself. This suggestion is, of course, taken far too far by Thierry who embarks on a huge exhibition and thousands of pieces. Thierry’s focus does not appear to be on the quality of his art though but on the quantity of pieces and the hype that he can build around his upcoming show. The result of all this hype is extraordinary and there are many moments in the scenes of the exhibition that are reason enough to watch the film for.

It is at this point in the film that it becomes clear how well constructed and intelligent the documentary actual is. It is in this third act that it becomes clear that this is not a film about Banksy, it is not actually a film about Thierry and it is not even really a film about art. It is a film about the ‘art world’, the buyers, the critics, the fans and all those who fawn over the latest artist who is considered the ‘next big thing’. By drawing parallels between Thierry and Banksy and their journey from unknowns to renowned artists the film examines what it takes to become a respected modern artist and what that actually means. The overriding impression that I got from the film was that Banksy believes that really it means nothing, the art world is full of nonsense and pretension and he wants to highlight this absurdity.

Although Banksy is biting the hand that feeds him, I wonder if this will actually negatively impact the reputation of Banksy, an artist who has constantly been considered something of a sardonic prankster. My first introduction to Banksy was seeing his pieces on the street and photographs on the internet. I found them amusing and very occasionally they appeared to have something original or interesting to say. I was not particularly a fan, despite enjoying some of his work, and when the hype surrounding him increased to a fever pitch with his ‘Barely Legal’ exhibition I was left wondering whether he was just a shameless self publicist, his ‘anonymity’ actually aiding this. After watching Exit Through The Gift Shop though I can see that Banksy clearly finds this hype amusing and that perhaps his approach to the art world is actually more about exploiting their pretension and ridiculousness than about finding acceptance.

I expected to dislike Exit Through The Gift Shop but was very pleasantly surprised, finding an intriguing documentary about art which is also often hilarious.  Thierry is an incredibly likeable person on screen and although his exploits are very funny the film never feels mean spirited or mocking of Thierry. Exit Through The Gift Shop is surely a must see for any fan of Banksy but I would encourage anyone, even if you are a Banksy skeptic like me, to go and see it.

I was lucky enough to see the film in a special cinema (The Lambeth Palace Picture House) in a disused tunnel beneath Waterloo station on Leake Street, a designated ‘Authorised Graffiti Area’, with Banksy pieces installed in the lobby. The photos are all of this cinema and were taken from Banksy’s site, where they have since been taken down from.

This review was originally posted at HeyUGuys.