What is art? What is hype? Are you stupid enough to think that there's a real answer to either of those questions? Whether it's an elaborate hoax or damning treatise on the perceived value of art, one thing is for sure: Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop is a terrifically entertaining film. But let me be clear, the documentary gives no credit to a writer or director, instead it reads: "A Banksy Film." What does that mean? You are free to come to your own conclusions.
For those who have no idea who this British art-world phantom prankster and graffiti artist is, Gift Shop is a cheeky and inventive introduction to the world of "street art," narrated in self-mocking style by actor Rhys Ifans. The production values are mostly low res, but the editing is canny and the subject engrossing. Better yet, Banksy's doc ventures into surprising territory once it folds its narrative back on itself to examine the compulsive videographer who shot much of its footage. Confused? Let me lay it out for you.
Thierry Guetta is a vintage clothing store owner in L.A. who obsessively chronicles his life on handheld video. Or so we're told. Shooting his graffiti artist cousin Invader (who creates Space Invader-themed mosaics), the portly little Frenchman is introduced to a string of guerrilla artists and stencilers before befriending Shepard Fairey (of Obama poster fame) and, eventually, Banksy. He's granted full access to these nighttime subversives under the pretense that he's putting together a documentary. But this is revealed to be a lie. Guetta has no talent or vision, just an endless archive he is unable to assemble into a coherent film. Eventually Banksy decides to take control of the footage and turn it into a watchable chronicle of his artistic subculture. Guetta, on the other hand, resolves to make some street art of his own, dubbing himself Mr. Brainwash. The artist becomes a filmmaker and the filmmaker becomes an artist.
The only problem with this is that Guetta has no skill, gift or insight. His creations are dreck, sub-Warholian imitations and fifth generation rip-offs of other street artists. Worse, Guetta hires others to create his pieces for him. But the Frenchman does have a knack for shameless self-promotion, and ends up turning Mr. Brainwash into an art-celeb.
Though far from the inspired genius of Orson Welles' F For Fake, Gift Shop is an engrossing cinematic sleight of hand, ironically exploring the value of art from the perspective of painters, gallerists, collectors and the public. Banksy and Fairey have established themselves as artistic rebels, enemies of the big-money, corporatized art establishment. And yet, Guetta is their monster, turning their own tactics against them. And as art, commerce, quality and hype fall into the film's crosshairs, it becomes clear that Gift Shop's provocateur is, at best, an unreliable narrator.
True to his reclusive and anonymous persona, Banksy appears hooded, shrouded in silhouette with his voice electronically altered. But he's still the guy who's pulling all the strings, and we're never sure where reality ends and stunt begins. He's the artist who once forged British bank notes but swapped images of the queen with Princess Diana, and Gift Shop may very well be his newest forgery. And there's the rub: How seriously do you take Banksy's subversions if it amounts to expanding his brand? After all, the guerrilla tagger has paintings hanging in the Tate Gallery and auctions his work at stratospheric prices. Exit Through the Gift Shop is either a brilliant postmodernist critique of mainstream art or the cheekiest promo flick ever made. More incredibly, it's so good, I don't care.
At the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.