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Exit Through The Gift Shop

"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.  

Among other notorious accomplishments, Banksy has also managed to hang some of his subverted art works in the Louvre, the Museuem of Modern Art, the Tate Modern in London.  His worked graced the cover of Blur's 2003 album "Think Tank."  Perhap my favorite of his stunts involved  Banksy replacing of up to 500 copies of Paris Hilton's debut CD, Paris, in 48 different UK record stores with his own cover art and remixes by Danger Mouse.  

Thierry manages to win Banky's trust and is given the unprecedented opportunity to film the shadowy personage, as long as he shoots from behind.  He is even given access to Banksy's studio.  As was the case with other artists, Guetta also becomes an accomplice, most notably when Banksy plants an inflated orange jumpsuit clad figure (think Guantanamo) adjacet to a ride in Disneyland the day before his Los Angeles show, while Guetta films both the placing of the figure and the abrupt stopping of the ride once park officials become aware of its presence. 

Desiring some sort of document of his movemet, Banksy encourages Guetta to sift through his seemingly endless boxes of tape and produce the definitive film on street art that he's been talking about for years.  
Unfortuantely, the supposed product is an unwatchabe mess entitled, Life Remote Control.  Clearly, someone needed to take the remote away, so Banksy encourages Thierry to pursue his own street art (Guetta had followed the lead of his subjects and began pasting images of himself and his camera about Los Angeles) and and leave the tapes with him.    Bansky then put together the documentary we see, while Thierry pursues his "art" in Los Angeles.  Maybe. 

Guetta assumes the name Mr. Brainwash and decides to take the express lane to fame.  Without any real body of work, he rented the vacant CBS Columbia Square studios and in 2008 put on a show entitled "Life is Beautiful."   He's like the bastard child of Andy Warhol - to paraphrase Banksy,  "Andy Warhol repeated iconic images to the point of making them meaningless, then Thierry really made them meaningless" - working mainly on creating buzz for his show while others do most of the work.   That work is little more than Pop Art pastiche:  there's the iconic Campbell's can turned into a giant spray can, Warhol's raffishly backgrounded portraits given minor current pop culture tweaks...and there's Elvis with a machine gun instead of a guitar.   Make up your own "Don't Be Cruel" joke; Mr. Brainwash certainly did. 

Whether Mister Brainwash is another Banksy invention or a monster he inadvertantly set on the world  -Banky says toward that end of the film, "I used to tell everyone to grab a spray can and go make art.  I don't do that so much anymore." - the show is an unironic success.   Some 4,000 Angelinos, looking for the next big thing, queued for privilege to see "Life Is Beautiful." the first day alone.   The irony arrives in the gushing commentary of attendees,  providing a level of comedy not likely to be surpassed by any of the jokes Hollywood films try to perpetrate this year. 

Mr. Brainwash might just be Banksy himself or a hoax perpetrated by him.   He might also be a earnest mutation from something real.    Either way, the existence of Mr. Brainwash has served to separate a lot of fools from their money and the experience is very much in keeping with Banky's attitude about the commodification of art.   After the explosion in value of his work in auction houses in 2007, Banksy updated his website with a new image of an auction house scene showing people bidding on a picture that said, "I Can't Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit."

So, who's the guy in the hood with voice altered who introduces and occasionally offers commentary throughout Exit Through the Gift Shop? Is it the legendarily elusive street artist? Is it Spike Jonze? The Prince of Wales? Does it matter? Not really.  Enjoy.


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