"Is it real, or a hoax?" goes the refrain, in various forms, from coast to coast. The legendary street artist Banksy is credited as the director of "the world's first street art disaster movie." To dwell too much on the unknown identity of Banksy in pursuance of his work, whether on the side of a bulding or what's happily filling all too few movie screens in this country, is to miss the point. Read the surface of it how you will, Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of the smartest, funniest films of the year.
For all its plot convolutions, Exit Through the Gift Shop is in some ways a conventional documentary about an unconventional subject. It's got an actor narrator, a well modulated soundtrack (as the picture above indicates, Bansky has appropriated Richard Hawley's "Tonight The Streets Are Ours" in more ways than one; Hawley's lovely carousel of a tune opens and closes the film) and some text at the end to let us know what has become of the principals. Even so, Exit Through the Gift Shop seems a welcome blast of anarchic energy at a time when the film world is desperately in need of a jolt.
On its surface, the film is like a sustained shot that draws back from a closeup on one character to the area around him and ultimately to his entire city or world. The character, and he may be that in more ways than one, is video-camera-happy Frenchman Thierry Guetta. Thierry, we are told in the narration by actor Rhys Ifans (often stretching his already distinct Welsh accent a little too broadly, overselling some of the obvious ironies of Guetta's saga) became obsessed with documenting even the most mundane aspects of his life. A chance encounter with his cousin, who happens to be the street artist Space Invader, opens up a new, largely nocturnal world to the Thierry and his obsession finds an object. He becomes addicted to chasing and filming street artists around the world and the entree provided by his association with Space Invader buys him acceptance among the justifiably camera-shy perpetrators of the medium.
Thierry Guetta, a.ka., Mr. Brainwash
Thierry, something of a crazed innocent in a fedora and bushy sideburns behind his camera, meets and films many of the world's most prominent street artists. We see his meeting in a Kinkos with Shephard Fairey, then frequently plastering stylized images of 80's wrestling star Andre the Giant with the word "OBEY." It is Fairey who subsequently ensured his immortality with his Obama "Hope" poster from the 2008 presidential election, based on an Associated Press photograph. Through his relationship with Fairey, Guetta is finally introduced to the big fish for which he has long been casting: Banksy.
To the unitiated, Banksy is, well...most of humanity is not sure of the identity of the street artist. Supposedly, the Englishman cut his teeth in the Bristol graffiti scene before moving to London. His work is generally a combination of stencils and freehand painting and writing. The rat is a common image, but his repertoire has proven as varied as he is elusive. His work has appeared all over the world, including a series of nine images on the controversial West Bank barrier built by the Israeli Government.