The matter of art as commodity and cultural artifact is explored and skewered in Exit Through the Gift Shop, the documentary (probably) made by popular graffitist Banksy, who uses stencils of bobbies, lions and tea-sipping ladies to lambast the British establishment. It's consistent that for his feature film debut Banksy is appropriating footage shot by someone else (as Welles did in F for Fake, incidentally) to express something central to his body of work thus far: "Maybe art is a joke," he says in interview, his face obscured for anonymity. But if it is a joke, his former dealer asks, "then who's the joke on?" Exit is a mind-bending mixtape of action and comedy with surprisingly high-octane theory holding it all together. This big, fun puzzle of a film deserves its audiences and all the critical adulation it can get.
Thierry Guetta, a videographer who'd been working his way up the street artist food chain for a few years, was drawn to the dangers of the process and wondered how a graffitist like Banksy had lucked into his credibility. Well, like everything in Exit, half the answer is inverted somewhere inside the question. "My work is in a legal grey area," says Banksy, who has guarded his anonymity through various stages in his career. When a gallery opening launches Banksy from intellectual gutter-doodler to establishment-sanctioned Contemporary Artist, the pressure is on Guetta to contextualize street art today. But that film he's been promising for years is just several hundred tapes stored in closet—more of a problem than a project. Banksy offers to salvage the venture and sends Guetta away like a pesky little brother, suggesting that he try his hand at spray painting the sides of buildings. When Andre Bazin famously told the Cahiers group to go make some art, he was encouraging them to make better films than the ones they criticized; Banksy, however, is just trying to get rid of Guetta. One month later, Guetta has a show of his own with a mountain of hype behind it and a dozen employees reproducing his derivative images—a veritable empire. His punishment for this crime against art, culture, sincerity (you pick) is over $1,000,000 in revenue. "Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there is still something iconic about them," Banksy says, "Thierry really makes them meaningless." In a film like Exit, bad art stands out like a drag queen at a tent revival.
Exit is in a sandbox with the traditions of mockumentary and English anti-establishment humor, subgenres famed for lampooning institutions we hold sacred. But whether Guetta is an actual "bad" painter or an invention for the purposes of the film, the basic concerns addressed by Exit through the Gift Shop remain the same. Ironic reappropriation is the name of Banksy's game, but the film's bottom line is absolutely sincere.
Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Producers: Holly Cushing, Haimie D'Cruz and James Gay-Rees
Rating: R for some language.
Running time: 87 min
Release date: April 16 NY/SF/LA