The “Emperor’s New Clothes” con job of modern art takes one right on the kisser in “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” a little guerrilla style filmmaking about guerrilla graffiti artists and their status as darlings of the art world.
“Exit” was assembled by the most famous underground graffiti/conceptual artist of them all, Banksy, a Brit who is only interviewed in silhouette (in a hoodie, of course) and who made this film about an obsessive French ex-pat in LA who videotaped Banksy and his peers, absorbed their lessons of who and what to rip off (or use as jumping off points for their own art), how to build hype and fame, and then launched his own career with what he learned.
Thierry Guetta ran a hip but far from high-end clothing store and lived, close to the bone, with his wife and family. But by night, he’d set out to befriend and video tape the great graffiti artists of LA, and the world. He’s something of a celebrity stalker and certifiably obsessive — piling up hundreds and then thousands of hours of uncatalogued video for a film about such artists, a movie he never appeared able to make. His Great White Whale, the elusive quarry he can never seem to connect with? The British Robin Hood of graffiti and street art, the anarchic artist known only as Banksy.
Banksy’s images – fanciful, beautifully executed pop culture mash ups of movie stills, political figures and occasional simple statements about life in a post-1984 world (“One Nation, Under CCTV”) — splashed on walls all over Europe, have made him a folk hero. Guetta felt he couldn’t finish his “film” without Banksy. But when he and Banksy finally cross paths, Banksy takes over his movie and proceeds to make Guetta the subject of it.
The story arc is a familiar one — outre artist, a rebel, becomes an icon, then come the gallery shows, “installations” and big money dealers, the imprimatur of “hip” passed from street art to monetizable gallery art, followed by disillusionment. But who is disillusioned? Banksy, who sees his cut-and-past style stolen? Guetta, who sells out in a heartbeat? Art fans, who don’t seem to know when they’ve been had?
The droll Rhys Ifans narration serves as nice counterpoint to the thrilling, frenetic images of the outlaw artists captured at work by Guetta. And Banksy, the secretive “Scottish Pimpernel” behind the curtain, has the laugh — telling the story of a movement he led, decrying those poseurs who latched onto it to get rich, and still keeping his identity secret, a paranoid Picasso who wants credit, wants cash and craves anonymity even more than the credit and the cash.
See for Yourself
“Exit Through the Gift Shop”
Cast: Theirry Guetta, Banksy, many others
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Industry rating: R for some language.