Art is a tough medium to bring to life on the big screen. One would think that the best statements about art and artists are their individual works. Watching a movie about art is like a reading a book about watching television.
But Exit Through the Gift Shop, the Oscar-nominated documentary that tracks the increasingly celebrated world of street art, proves that turning on the camera is worth the effort. Not since Ed Harris’s Pollack has a movie so grasped the difficult-to-categorize life and passion of the painted form.
This is not to say that Exit Through the Gift Shop is a rags-to-riches story of graffiti artists traipsing around the world to make millions off their spray-painted bliss. The movie is much more interesting and almost defies explanation.
But here goes.
Thierry Guetta is a wannabe filmmaker who is instantly taken in by the mystery and allurement of street art. So much so that he begins filming everything and everyone he encounters in the underground world. He’s given unbelievable access to artists and their creations, mostly because he simply becomes a fly on the wall. He documents Shepard Fairey, whose iconic painting of President Barack Obama in red and blue has become a revolutionary image, and drops in on the elusive Space Invader, who goes around leaving blocked images from the old video game.
But it’s Banksy, arguably the most famous street artist in the world, that gives Guetta his most amazing footage. Banksy is notoriously shy about giving interviews and appearing in front of cameras. This is mostly because his identity is still unknown, and his works of art are controversial and often illegal.
Guetta is able to film Banksy creating his art in his English studio. The footage is quite amazing, even if the artist himself only appears on screen with a blacked-out face and warbled voice.
But that’s not it.
Then the documentary heads down the rabbit hole. When Guetta, a lovable French man with a great sense of humor, finishes the film, he decides to show the final product to Banksy. The artist hates it, and decides to hijack the documentary and start all over.
This time, Banksy wants Guetta to try and become a street artist. He does so, creating the artistic moniker, Mr. Brain Wash. And a legend is born. Soon Guetta is selling paintings for tens of thousands of dollars, his story hits the cover of L.A. Weekly and his Los Angeles premiere is a smashing success.
So Exit Through the Gift Shop is a new film about a failed old film. The movie stands as a testament to the undeniable talent that is present in the world of street art, and the intoxicating mystery over the identities of these artists. It’s a movie about the process, as much as it is about the art. Some of the best scenes are those that capture the elaborate stagings of this very public art form (the sequence that sees Banksy and Guetta at Disneyland in California is beyond thrilling).
Now, some will watch the movie and completely disbelieve that Guetta would be able to rechristen himself Mr. Brainwash and find such immediate success. How did a man with essentially no artistic background suddenly become the “It” artist on the street art scene?
Well, the answer is two-fold. Fellow street artists in the documentary are not terribly impressed with his output. Mr. Brain Wash certainly takes from other street artists and the world of Andy Warhol as well. So perhaps he’s not as good as his hype.
The other side of the answer may be less obvious: What if Mr. Brainwash is simply a performance-art creation by Banksy himself?
It’s pretty unbelievable that the artist would go to such extremes, but then again Mr. Brainwash’s meteoric rise to the top of the art world is equally unbelievable.
No matter the answer, Exit Through the Gift Shop is riveting filmmaking. If you’re not appreciative of street art by the end of the movie, then you must be averse to true talent.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Directed by Banksy
Featuring Thierry Guetta and Banksy
Running time: 87 minutes