You know what kind of movie was popular last year? The kind of movie where it was a documentary and we weren’t sure if it was real or fake and we didn’t know what the title meant until the last ten minutes of the movie. The previous one of those I reviewed, Catfish, was a low-profile affair. People were disbelieving it because of the marketing playing it up as a thriller, when instead it’s just a movie about a guy who meets a girl on Facebook that gets kinda weird. Exit Through the Gift Shop, by contrast, was nominated for an Oscar due to its director’s famous name: Banksy. The notoriously anonymous and secretive vandal (referred to as “street artist”, but if I say comic book, I say vandal) behind some of the most wide-spread and well-liked pop art of my generation. I’ve always found his work to be void of any personality or merit, being more of a Shepard Fairey fan. But now he’s made a movie, and everybody’s gotta coo and ooh and aah over it, like good people liking things for no reason. You see, I sound like a cynic, but I only say this having seen Exit Through the Gift Shop.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is not a movie about Banksy, though saying that when recommending it to people is certain to turn them off. Banksy doesn’t need a movie about him to be successful. The amount of his imagery in college dorm rooms should be counted as success enough. The movie is instead a documentary about a man who failed to make a movie about Banksy, named Thierry Guetta. Thierry is a normal guy in a lot of ways. A French immigrant to America, he had children, loved his wife, and lived his life in a normal way in every way. Except for the fact that he carried a video camera with him at all times. And I don’t mean the dork dad thing, where they have a camera, I mean he was in the shower with his for reasons uncovered during the movie.
One day, through an accident of filming everything he saw and while on vacation with family back in France, he films his cousin making mosaics of Space Invaders sprites. His cousin then begins to affix these mosaics to every surface imaginable in France, never with permission, always on the lookout for the authorities. And Thierry taped him, every move of every piece. This was how Thierry got involved with what snobs call “street art” to justify finding it aesthetically pleasing. I love “street art”, but I also call it what it is: vandalism. It’s defacing the property of others without their permission, and that’s vandalism, and I find vandalism much cooler and more meaningful than “art that happens to be in the street”. If your art means enough to you to risk your criminal record and reputation to do it, I say more power to you. Your work means more to you than mine does to me, and you have my respect. This is even true of artists like Banksy, whose art I don’t appreciate. He goes to great lengths for his work, something this film demonstrates very well. And the lengths he goes to might not impress me with the end result, but they definitely earn my respect.
Thierry moves from Invader (his cousin) to Shepard Fairey–aka the guy who designed both OBEY GIANT and the Obama “Hope” poster. Shepard Fairey is a vandal I can get behind–his work is of such a deliberate and enforced meaninglessness that it takes on a meaning of its own. Demonstrating that we will go for anything that looks a certain way, we will follow whatever trends are there because. And he never meant that starting out, which is what’s so appealing about him. He started out implementing an inside joke across town. And eventually, after Thierry has collected every vandal from Fairey to god-knows-who, there’s only one name left in his book of vandals he hasn’t met: Banksy himself. But then, through fortunate (or is it unfortunate?) coincidence, he meets the man himself.
Thierry’s quirky behaviour charms Banksy, and Banksy gives him unprecedented access into his studio, processes and life. Thierry says that he’s using the video camera to make a movie about street art. This is somewhat true–the tapes do indeed contain footage of street artists nearly exclusively. Because, for the last few years, that’s the crowd he’s been running around with while his family are at home. On rooftops, on billboards, on streets with paper and buckets of glue. He’s become the friend to all vandals in the LA area, even with his obsessive need to record everything to video. And it’s here that I should stop summarizing the plot of this movie.
Life, you see, is unpredictable. Sometimes, people you meet impress you one way and are another. And where this movie goes is better left as a discovery. What I can say is that this movie asks as many or more hard questions about art as My Kid Could Paint That, but without the inherent examination of the media and how every news piece becomes a story. No, this movie leaves us with very, very difficult questions to answer about what the value of art is. How do we determine what art is? How do we determine what’s good and what isn’t? Can we be the ones to do so? The movie seems to tell me that the answer is yes. We decide what is called art, whether it’s on the street or in a gallery–wherever that gallery may be. It’s said that the only thing that makes art into art is the act of hanging it up in the gallery. You’ve probably read my brother’s and my opinions on this earlier, but let me re-state one of the things we agree on for the record.
Art involves an expression of a legitimate impulse or emotion. It comes from your soul, and while it may resemble an imitation in the final stages, it should start with your emotions and ideas. Banksy, at least, has never wavered from that, even while making this movie. THREE AND A HALF STARS