There's something about this film that gets me down a bit. It's not that Exit Through the Gift Shop might be a hoax, because what's a hoax, really? I guess something like I'm Still Here qualifies for the honor, but it isn't like the title was I'm Still Here: A Documentary, or like Joaquin Phoenix was being filmed without knowledge or consent by his brother-in-law. Was there a certain tinge of disappointment to find that Phoenix wasn't really a bearded monster, abusing his assistant and spiraling out of control in some near-sighted attempt to jump start a new career as a rapper? If we're disappointed because Phoenix might have pulled the wool over our eyes on Letterman, what does that say about us? Similarly, if Exit Through the Gift Shop is a hoax, so what? And what if it isn't? Does a film like this matter in the larger context of things?
The Dude Abides
Well yeah, it does, and especially if you shed your concepts about what a documentary about street art could and should be. There's a lot of raw, handheld footage of famous street artists doing what they do--slapping stickers on stop signs, pasting posters to walls, tagging abandoned buildings, displaying and planning their larger projects--but this doesn't reveal anything, doesn't answer any questions. Why climb to the roof of an abandoned building and stick a poster of Andre the Giant to the wall? Why not. The larger question this film is obsessed with has to do with the nature of art itself, and not in the sense that there's a question of street art being art, because to street artists there's no question and no need to ask. The question at the heart of the film, hell, in its very title, is if art is something that doesn't actually require a Creator, if art, simply by being manufactured and sold as Art, is a cheap medium, unable to really convey a message.
All of that raw footage is really a roundabout way of introducing Thierry Guetta, a French guy who owns an upscale second-hand clothing store in Los Angeles. He films every moment of his life because, at 12, he decided he wanted to save every waking moment of his life after his mother's death. Guys like Guetta justify the existence of the heroes of Cloverfield, who wouldn't put the camera down if the giant monster politely asked them to before swallowing them whole. Guetta has a cousin in France named Invader, who is famous for slapping mosaics of Space Invader sprites around Paris. One thing leads to another and Guetta winds up being the official documentarian of the street art movement, capturing the field's movers and shakers in the act of putting up their work. His dedication and seeming trustworthiness lands him a gig filming Banksy, the most famous and enigmatic of street artists, who is told that Guetta is going to make an honest-to-God documentary out of his thousands of hours of footage. This presents a problem, because Guetta has done nothing but horde his film, which is stacked in boxes and neglected. Worse, he's no filmmaker, and what he comes up with is a garbled mess of smash cuts, pop culture, and fleeting seconds of material relevant to his true cause.
So Banksy takes over and, as a guy who believes that art is something that belongs to the people, he encourages Guetta to get out there and do some art of his own. Later in the film, Banksy says that Guetta's rise to infamy has changed his mind and that some people probably shouldn't enter the field. He's a bit like Dr. Frankenstein, recognizing both the potential of his project and its ultimate downfall. Guetta shouldn't be an artist because its debatable that he knows what art is, but he's shown remarkable dedication to his childhood goal of documenting everything, so Banksy's challenge invigorates him. In a lot of ways, what Guetta does is heroic, even if the results of his effort are anything but.
Guetta sees artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey holding shows for their work, and making a good bit of money for it. It makes sense for them because their work is often lifted from the street and sold at auction without permission, works intended as public domain being sold to private collectors to line the pocket of some other guy. Guetta, having christened himself Mr. Brainwash, decides to skip all that and start his career as a nationally known superstar. He rents an abandoned television studio and plans to fill it with his art, which will be sold to a public that doesn't know him.
The result of all this is comical, to say the least, and is probably where overly-cautious filmgoers, who long ago vowed to never be fooled by a movie, started hearing alarm bells. Guetta doesn't have any art. He hires a crew to put together the show for him. His ideas are basically lifted from Banksy and Andy Warhol, put through a Xerox machine, and hung on the walls at the last minute. He breaks his leg. He is carted around by wheelbarrow. He takes interviews while his underpaid, unappreciated crew slaves away hours before the show. He promises the first group of people through the door a free, unique print, which he produces by being wheeled past a line of them with a dripping paintbrush in hand. And Los Angeles eats it up.
The argument being made by Banksy is that Mr. Brainwash isn't an artist, just a guy with misconceptions about art and an armful of powerful connections within the community. In short, he got lucky. But Guetta thinks that what he's doing is art, and he's got a million dollars of sales to back his belief. Those people standing in line to see his work think it's art, too, but it seems like the people who talk about Mr. Brainwash in front of the camera have to convince themselves that they're witnessing the birth of something great.
So again, the question. What's the hoax here; that street art is considered worthy of million dollar shows, or that a nobody like Guetta can come along for the ride and stake a sizable claim of that money? Do we buy art, or do we buy artifice? Are we really seeing something worthwhile, or are we being suckered by hype? Exit Through the Gift Shop makes its own brilliant argument, positing Guetta as the bumbling Don Quixote of Krylon paint. Guetta, whose artwork graces the cover of Madonna's greatest hits, will likely never understand this, content to tilt at abandoned factories and crumbing walls.
Yes, life is beautiful, and it doesn't hurt if you can drop coin on the little things in the gift shop, but does money make art worthless? Does the truth make a movie any less relevant? Banksy will probably never tell, and it's high time we graduated from spoon-feedings of other people's truths. This movie asks to be watched, to be considered, and for its audience to come to their own conclusion in due time. That kind of trust in an audience is rare, maybe fostered by Banksy's decision to embark on a career as an internationally famous minor criminal, and should be rewarded as such. See this film and never again submit to museum gift shop prattle. It's impossible to not know if something is or isn't art, just as it's impossible for any film to contain 100% truth. You've come to a conclusion. Good. That's all you have.