Thursday, 11 March 2010

Exit through the Gift Shop (2010)



Plot Summary: The story of how an eccentric French shop keeper and amateur film maker attempted to locate and befriend Banksy, only to have the artist turn the camera back on its owner with spectacular results.

Graffiti artist Banksy is most certainly a divisive pop-culture phenomenon; some see him as a counter-culture legend, others see him as a sell-out who uses style over substance and others would just rather see him in jail. Personally I try not to get too caught up in any supposed meaning or political motives behind his works and simply enjoy them for their amusing, and sometimes beautiful, imagery. In an interesting move he has now turned his attention to film-making with his pseudo-documentary, Exit through the Gift Shop, having first premièred at the Sundance Film Festival last year. The resulting film is not merely a film about Banksy but is also a documentation of the general graffiti community, a unique character study and an interesting critique of the art world.

Exit first starts as a documentary about graffiti artists from around the world but mostly focusing on LA. It’s highly interesting to watch as it’s a subject not often tackled in film and is also an important one as graffiti art is, by nature, only temporary. Watching these artists go out at midnight, scale all manner of buildings (all the while trying to do it undetected by the authorities) and create their pieces is exciting and fascinating to watch. The work on show here ranges from the amusing to the spectacular but is never less than inspiring. Their slip-ups and encounters with the police are also very funny while simultaneously reminding us that they too are human; ensuring they are not raised to superhuman levels of admiration. These moments are filmed by Thierry Guetta a French immigrant living in LA who, in an interesting twist, becomes the focus of the story.

This is where the film gets really complex as Thierry is a weird, interesting and above all, hilarious character that's legitimacy is dubious. Is he such a large personality, such a blundering buffoon, that it’s hard to believe he’s a real person and not an actor playing a role in a mockumentary. The uncertain intent of the film-makers is undoubtedly going to divide audiences but, whether or not Thierry is a real personality or a character made up by Banksy, the artistic questions and issues his character raises are still valid. After Thierry has a chance meeting with Banksy and befriends him, Banksy tells him that he should do some of his own work and put on a show. This is where Exit gets really interesting and something more than an amusing look at the graffiti art world. Thierry (now operating under his new moniker, ‘Mr Brainwash’) does as he is instructed and begins to make extremely derivative and unoriginal artwork and plans an over-the-top, extravagant art show to garner as much publicity as humanly possible.

I say ‘make’ in the loosest sense of the word as his work process boils down to finding popular images in books and commanding a team of paid artists to do the hard work for him. He uses his famous friends within the graffiti community to promote his show and during its production he is more likely to be seen taking interviews than hanging up paintings. To the audiences’ surprise, his show is a massive hit and he makes more than a million dollars from it. This is where a lot of Exit's best laughs come from as so-called art critics walk around his exhibition stating how great his work is, when it is clear that his work is artistically worthless. This sudden rise to undeserved fame brings up many criticisms of the art world and asks; what does it take to be considered an artist? These art critics seem more interested in not looking stupid than in actually stating how they feel about Thierry’s work and are more than eager to spend amazing amounts of money on it just because it’s fashionable.

This is most probably not just about Thierry’s work, but also seems to be an examination of how Banksy’s own work has been commodified and had external interpretations thrust upon it. Banksy does, in fact, appear during the film in person (albeit with his face covered and his voice altered) and when he does he comes across as a very down to earth, humorous and level-headed individual. Likewise Rhys Ifans, who often seems like a rather annoying personality, provides a particularly restrained and low key narration for the events unfolding. The soundtrack, supervised by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, also does a good job of accompanying the images with a variety of good quality hip-hop tracks. There are, however, a couple of ill-conceived moments during the film. The scene giving some exposition on Banksy verges slightly too close to hero worshipping and a back story about Thierry’s lose of his mother is completely unnecessary. Nevertheless Exit through the Gift Shop is an exciting, unique and highly amusing tale that has some very important things to say about art and art culture.

Final Verdict: 9/10

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