spoilers for Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish
I made an offhand remark in my review of Exit Through the Gift Shop a few days ago. I compared it to Catfish, saying that these two documentaries took the world by storm last year by having their veracity come under fire. It’s only after a few days of thinking about this that I’ve realized–those two movies are a lot more similar than they should be. These movies were conceived and produced entirely independent of each other, one being compiled in New York by a pair of friends, the other being compiled in Britain by a notorious vandal. One came pre-packaged with hype due to the fame of its director, the other got hyped up on release by painting it as a camcorder horror feature. These movies weren’t written, and there are no story-writers involved at all anywhere in either. (My friends will tell you I am the most gullible man alive, and they are right.) But for all that improvisation, that compilation style editing, that everything that should separate these movies–they’re actually a lot alike.
Both are stories firmly rooted in modernity. Both involve how life has grown in the 21st century and how we’re supposed to deal with our lives and the way we live them being turned upside down. In Exit Through the Gift Shop, art has ceased to be a topic of conversation among anyone but the most out-of-touch with artists, the bourgeoisie. It’s come down to the low, the poor, the confused and dissatisfied–the vandal–to take art back to its emotional and political roots. And that’s why vandalism has been elevated to the status of high art in the twenty-first century: the internet keeps it around and the artists aren’t getting paid anymore. In Catfish, romance has been digitized. We get the same feelings of intimacy from a picture of someone on our cell phone that we used to get from holding their hand. We fall recklessly in love because there’s nothing to stop the chemical rush of romance flooding our brain despite the fact that we’re only getting a rush from text on a screen. Both of these movies involve the way the internet in the 21st century has changed how we interact.
The “star” of these two movies isn’t the focus of either. The “main character” of Catfish is Yaniv Schulman, a regular guy from New York City who meets a woman online and starts to talk with her. But Yaniv isn’t the character who we’re most interested in as an audience–the woman is. What’s her deal? What’s her secret? What things about her do we not know and what things about her should we know? Yaniv, we can take or leave alone on the surface of the film. He’s our viewpoint character, our hero–his actions tell us how to feel about what’s going on. If Nev is scared, we should be scared. If Nev is comfortable, we know we should be comfortable, but we probably won’t be because Catfish is an intensely uncomfortable movie.
Comparably, Banksy is the star of Exit Through the Gift Shop. The entire movie was promoted on his director’s credit and his name was the name that got people trading the movie at film festivals and awards shows. But Banksy isn’t the character we focus on in Exit Through the Gift Shop. The movie even tells us not to within 10 minutes of opening. Instead, we focus on Thierry Guetta, a man who is normal except for the fact that he carries around a video camera at all times and lies about why. Why does he lie? Why does he not want to tell us? What’s his deal?
But just as Nev tells us how to feel about Angela and the drama associated with her, Banksy tells us quite frankly how to feel about Thierry. He’s even sitting, being interviewed, on camera, for the duration of the movie with his running commentary on where Thierry was in his life and why he should be there. And here’s where it gets most interesting in both films. In both cases, for both Nev and Banksy, there comes a moment when they realize that not only is “not everything as it should be”, nothing is as it should be. Their worlds get turned over on their heads and they realize they’re in deeper than they’d planned.
For Nev, this is the realization that Megan, the girl he met online, isn’t real and that she’s been made up by Angela, a lonely housewife from Michigan, who is also the one who made all the paintings she credited to her eight year old daughter. For Banksy, it’s the moment he sees the “movie” that Thierry has been working on since they met and it’s an incomprehensible mess of nothing. At this moment, Banksy realizes that maybe Thierry’s just a guy who’s kinda crazy with a video camera.
And here’s the interesting part: the resultant realization–that these people they’ve been talking to and trusting for months on end are fake and have been lying to them all that time–takes a major chunk out of the innocence and idealism of both men. Nev moves back to New York after handling the situation in Michigan like a pro, but he no longer has the patience or happiness he used to. Near the end is a photo of Nev, hair cut and standing in downtown Manhattan, eyes deadened from the youthful spark they had before. Thierry sets up his own gallery showing of street art that was never on the street and Banksy loses any faith he had in people who were interested in the arts. As he says toward the end of the movie, “I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.” His biographical snippet reads “Banksy will never again help anyone make a documentary about street art”.
So what? What do the similarities between these two films mean? That both are equally staged? No. Both films are equally real, and the similarities speak to something far deeper and more true than either film does alone: in the 21st century, all of our lives are fake. We lie constantly about ourselves, we pick and choose the parts we tell people. That two men could have the same experience in fields as far apart as vandalism and photography, that two men who have no surface similarities could both lose the same thing in events like these– It just says that modern life is kinda rubbish. That’s all.