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Exit Through the Gift Shop

dir: I’m not sure, though Banksy is credited.
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They call it a documentary, but I don’t think you can take anything that transpires in it at face value. It seems like it’s the story it claims to be, but that could all be bullshit.

After all, Banksy is involved.

The parts that are undeniably ‘real’ focus on street art, which is the contemporary term describing graffiti, or whatever you call it when people paint, spray-paint, creatively deface or otherwise do anything in public which inflicts their eyesores on the general public for a brief period of time.

The thing is, if you’ve seen any of the stencil stuff that’s sprung up in the last ten years, the stuff that looks like it was painted but is really stuck on, it’s Banksy.

Banksy didn’t necessarily do it himself, and in fact it’s very unlikely that he did it in your city, unless you live in London, whereby it’s a possibility. But his stuff, his concepts, his radical juxtapositions and provocations, spread across the world like a virus.

His stuff, and I know how pointless it is saying this, is brilliant. I’ve known of his stuff, living and working as I do in the inner city, where his stuff is pasted over everything, for much of the last decade, but I knew next to nothing about the man. Now, after watching this flick, I know even less.

You might think this documentary documents the life and times of one radical street artist called Banksy, but nothing could be further from the truth. Banksy apparently appears in the flick, in shadow and hooded, with a modulated voice, but how do I know if that’s Banksy?

Even then, the flick’s not really about Banksy anyway, not for the most part. It’s really more about the person who allegedly started making this documentary, a French transplant to Los Angeles called Thierry Guetta who became obsessed with the street art scene. But I can’t even vouch for any of that either.

Sure, there’s reams of footage of Thierry, his family and his clothes shop, where he repackages defective clothing as ‘designer’ and sells it at a premium, but the throughline to the ‘main’ story seems, to me, to be complete bullshit.

Thierry is shown filming everything he can, trailing celebrities for no paparazzi purpose beyond filming them, filming in an almost compulsive way. By some apparent coincidence, he gets drawn in to the street art scene due to his cousin, who goes by the moniker of Invader, known for making tile images reminiscent of the blocky aliens from the Space Invader games.

Through Invader he films other French artists doing their thing, and from that tenuous connection connects with Shepard Fairey in the States. Shepard’s name might be unknown to you, but his Obey image, with the ominous black and white face of Andre the Giant, must be ubiquitous in western inner cities, if I’ve seen it. As far as I know. My point is that if an image like that makes it as far as the main street of Fitzroy, Melbourne, then it’s travelled a fair distance and must be elsewhere as well: from New York to Shanghai, and everywhere in between.

More than that, his blue and red image of Obama with the word HOPE below, in the lead up to the election, achieved a ubiquity previously only dreamed of, and reached pop cultural saturation point. The reality is that his art is about working with the power of logos and branding as a subversion or embrace, I’m not sure. He’s well known, and, unlike many of the other people involved, is recognisable and, you know, not anonymous. There’s also a touching scene where his wife is explaining to the camera that, if he’s going to be out past 2am, he needs to call, because if Shepard’s out past 2, she kicks his arse and makes him sleep on the couch.

Tough love. It’s understandable, though. These street artists work at night, in low-light situations, climbing into dangerous and precarious areas, in situations that are often illegal and highly policed. The possibility of arrest, violence, or accidental harm is quite high.

If there is a distinction made between the street art that Invader, Shepard and Bansky are responsible for, and tools with textas and spraycans spraying tags randomly, then I’m the one making it. In my mind there’s a difference between the two, but the film doesn’t try to alienate any of these practitioners.

Though probably it should. Random twats spraying their ugly tags on people’s homes or places of business are selfish pricks who live only for a pointless thrill begotten from believing they’ve made a mark upon the world. Banksy putting an image of a girl clutching balloons trying to get over the wall, on the wall between Israel and the Palestinian areas, is something different.

We see scene after scene of Thierry trailing these chaps incompetently with his camera, filming tape after tape, with the understanding that the footage is for the purpose of making a documentary about street art and some of its more famous practitioners. But the reality is that Thierry is just filming them to hang out with them.

He clearly has a compulsion, or just a desire for reflected glory, that has nothing to do with the intention to actually craft a film together. The thousands of tapes go unwatched, and he just keeps trying to hang out with cool people.

Through Shepard he connects with Banksy, and that leads to a whole new level of bullshit. We do see someone with a pixelated face working his magic, putting up his stencils and such, or preparing for an LA show by painting an elephant, but regardless of what the Banksy being interviewed says, at no stage do I buy that he believed Thierry was a competent documentarian.

Banksy gives the justification for his involvement in crafting the documentary being that a) street art, by its nature ephemeral, needed some kind of record for the ages, b) Thierry was a person who he trusted who would be able to do it, and c) when the hard word was put on Thierry to deliver, he fucked it up completely.
We see footage of the alleged film that Thierry put together, and it’s deliberately unwatchable. Called Life Remote Control, it makes less sense than the trailer to a Michael Bay movie, only it’s more spastic and sped-up.

I’m pretty sure that’s bullshit. It feels… wrong, deliberately wrong.

From this point on, Banksy claims he stepped in, collated and sifted through all the available footage, and tried to make the project valid, because it was worth salvaging.

It’s hard to know what to believe. We are told that while Banksy is editing the documentary, Thierry decides to rip-off Banksy and all the artists he’s ever documented by staging a massive show in LA with terrible artworks of dubious origins and tenuous connection. It’s clear that Mr Brain Wash, as Thierry now calls himself, had practically nothing to do with most of the works, having paid other people to mock them up. And the shemozzle that is the show, the awful crassness and shamelessness on display… just has to be seen to be believed.

Whether he succeeds or fails, if you want to guess before seeing it, depends on what merit you think there is in art independent of hype, and whether the irony inherent in Andy Warhol’s Pop art means that ripping off Andy Warhol isn’t an ever-declining spiral of opportunism, but just another artistically valid enterprise.

It could all be a prank. I’ll probably never know. I very much doubt that the real story is anywhere near what they claim here. All I know is that there is an entity called Banksy, who’s probably works with a collective (I’d be guessing, rather than it having to be any one particular guy, though someone is cashing those hefty cheques after the auctions), who maintains his / their anonymity not because of legal issues, but because it maintains the mystique, and his art’s value as well.

There’s a guy called Thierry Guetta, who’s had a few shows thus far as Mr Brain Wash, who probably saw the intellectual and creative bankruptcy inherent in much of the art scene and said “Me Too!”, but I’m not sure if he’s really this talentless and clueless. But he is hungry, I’ll give him that.

Three moments strike me as being absolutely true: Shepard at some points looks genuinely pissed off with Thierry, as if he’s sick of him; there are shots of Banksy’s work from Melbourne included in the footage, from that railway bridge leading into the CBD from the casino, and there’s no way that’s Thierry’s footage; and the promoter for the Mr Brain Wash L.A. show says at some point that he thinks Thierry is retarded.

The reality of what is being portrayed here probably doesn’t matter, but the whole thing, whenever the camera is pointed away from Thierry’s mug, is fascinating. Seeing the nuts and bolts of their craft is fascinating. Seeing Banksy’s work being worked on is brilliant, nothing short of it. Those shots from Israel are incredible, and awe-inspiring. Watching the whole charade at Disney Land, where Banksy perpetrates his latest outrage (mild as I’d argue it is), is great, and the flick overall is highly entertaining, which is rare in the documentary field. The gentle and ironic strains of Rhys Ifans strong Welsh accent makes a lot of the voiceover banalities somehow more palatable as he narrates all over the goddamn film.

The whole thing is fascinating, probably not as an overall comment on the art scene as it exists now or ever, since there’s nothing new to be said about gullible and pretentious people that wasn’t said better hundreds of years ago. Art wankers and their hangers-on know how it’s all a crock: If you consider that a surprise, then think of it like the wrestlers in professional wrestling knowing that the wrestling matches are fixed. The key is to sell it anyway. The beauty in it comes from genuinely affecting work, or the power of an image, or the clever use of space and location to make some kind of statement, no matter how brief in duration, or how soon destroyed. There is a power to some of this work which is undeniable, yet you’re not obligated to see it that way to enjoy the documentary.

Banksy’s eventual contempt for Thierry could entirely be a put on, and only matches our own, to an extent, but, ultimately, can we be sure that Banksy isn't pulling the prank ultimately on us? Is it impossible that Mr Brain Wash was just Banksy’s latest collaborative installation, and that the pay-off was that people bought it, even knowing it was fake, like those ten pound notes he shows us with Princess Diana’s face on them?

It doesn’t matter. It’s pretty fascinating, though.

8 times I’m surprised more people didn’t punch Thierry in the face out of 10

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“Most artists take years to develop their style. Thierry seemed to miss out on all those bits. I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don't do that so much anymore.” – Exit Through the Gift Shop

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