Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Exit Through the Gift Shop Movie Review: How Do You Define Art?

All the speculation over whether or not Exit Through the Gift Shop is some sort of elaborate hoax is not likely to be resolved. If Banksy, the elusive and anonymous street artist who directed the documentary, weren’t such an enigmatic character, even in his own film, we might still never know. The reason for this is that the subject of this bizarre and simultaneously enthralling documentary, whether he was a legitimate artist before the film or not, will almost certainly become on in his own right now that he’s receiving such recognition.

The ostensible subject of Gift Shop is Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant in Los Angeles who began videoing everything in his path as a kind of obsession, eventually documenting various street artists from L.A. to Paris and back again, until he eventually became a street artist himself with a massive gallery opening to promote his work.

What starts out looking like a documentary about street art with renegade artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy being followed and photographed by Guetta, morphs into the story of how Guetta himself took the inspiration he found in observing these artists and began creating original works of his own. Or so we are led to believe.

Either Guetta is absolutely the strangest man in Los Angeles (and that’s probably saying something) or Banksy and his collaborators are up to a devilish trick here. Everything he does has an air of falsehood about it: he obsessively keeps a video record of everything he does, but neither labels nor watches his tapes. He documents street artists like Fairey, Banksy and Space Invader, telling them he’s working on a documentary film, only to allegedly hand over a finished product to Banksy that is the absolute worst film ever made. Banksy presents a segment of it, which is little more than rapid fire edited shots of unidentifiable streets and objects. This is the impetus for Banksy deciding to make what eventually would become Exit Through the Gift Shop.

I don’t know, maybe I’m overly skeptical, but I find it hard to swallow that Guetta actually made a film that revealed such deep ineptitude. His artwork and the process that goes into the creation of his street art also reveals the same level of idiocy to the point that we have to ask ourselves if we’re watching true creation or merely the illusion of creation. To be sure, we never really see Guetta creating any of his artwork. He employs various other artists (mainly sculptors) to produce what he dictates. We occasionally see him splattering paint here and there or applying a finishing touch to a piece, but the creative process is completely absent. This only adds fuel to the fire suggesting that Guetta is a Banksy creation.

And maybe that’s the real nature of this documentary. Banksy is a curious artist. Hardly the first modern artist to do so, he likes to challenge his audience to question what is art. His secret identity may be to protect himself from criminal prosecution (some of his deeds aren’t exactly legal) or it could be to remove the identity of the artist from the art. But then his secret identity has become a character in itself.

Oh, I have no doubt that Guetta is an artist in one sense or another and I don’t doubt he sold works of art totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars as the movie suggests. But isn’t that just the kind of thing that would get a guy like Banksy all worked up? To create an artist who doesn’t create anything, but convince the art world that he’s the next hot ticket?

Taking all this into account, I’m not sure how seriously we can take Exit Through the Gift Shop as a straightforward document of Thierry Guetta. Even having the Rhys Ifans (a comedic actor known for subversive roles) as the narrator suggests something is a little off. A narrator like Anthony Hopkins lends credibility to a documentary. Ifans does not. “Is this movie a hoax?” is the wrong question. It’s more like an elaborate setup with the audience as the punchline. Yes, Thierry Guetta is a street artist now. But Exit Through the Gift Shop is all about Banksy.

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