By Kevin Kelly (reprinted from 1/29/10 -- Sundance Film Festival)
What is art? This is not a question the film Exit Through The Gift Shop, which is "directed" by famous street artist Banksy, attempts to answer. However, it is a question that you'll be asking yourself after watching this documentary. I say "directed" because this is a film that stumbled towards completion, and no one set out to make it. Confused yet? Good. Banksy probably wants you exactly that way. He's managed to keep his identity a secret all these years, and has narrowly escaped arrest at places like Disneyland while creating his art.
But that's not what this movie is about, and Banksy is only the subject in a peripheral fashion. He didn't attempt to make this film, and it's strange that he's calling himself the director. Or actually, it's called "A Banksy Film," which makes me think he might just be screwing with us, the same way he does with his identity and his artwork. Or is the real purpose to show you that artwork can be whatever you want it to be, including this film? I can't answer that, but I'll try and sum up what we watched.
Exit Through The Gift Shop refers to an engineering / merchandising concept that dumps guests from rides right into a gift shop, so as to fill the corporate coffers. Disney is the master of this technique, as many a parent can attest to when a ride on "Pirates of the Caribbean" turns into a t-shirt, a plastic sword, and an eyepatch on a store receipt. Something that reflected in this film. But, the real subject of Exit Through The Gift Shop is Thierry "Terry" Guetta, a store owner in Los Angeles' trendy Melrose district. But that wasn't his real reason for living. This was a man born to film, and was seldom seen for many years without a video camera in his hand.
Terry films, or used to film, every facet of his life: feeding his kids, going to the bathroom, walking down the street, conversations, meals, etc. But that all changed when he met up with his street artist cousin who goes by the name Space Invader. He constructs small 8-bit artworks featuring the creatures from Taito video game Space Invaders out of tiles, and pastes them around cities. Terry began by casually filming him at work with his creations, and before long he was documenting Space Invaders' exploits
For some reason, this really clicked with Terry, and from there he went on to meet many other infamous street artists, including Shepard Fairey of "Obey" fame. Before long, almost as though it was on the receiving end of a game of telephone, everyone assumed that Terry was making a movie about street art, which was something he never denied. Plus it also allowed him unprecedented access to this artists, who are always camera-shy and intrusion-wary. But, for some reason they allowed Terry into their worlds to document what they do and how they do it.
While doing this, Terry hears about Banksy, and how he is notoriously camera-shy and impossible to find. So he sets out to meet him by asking all of his newfound street artist friends. Incredibly, this somehow works, and before long Terry is filming Banksy at work, helping him find locations in Los Angeles and obtaining materials for him. I say incredibly because Terry is a lot to swallow. He's pushy yet cherubic, sort of like a fat, drunk, little kid. He wins Banksy over, and even proves his worth mafia-style when he doesn't give up any information when he's apprehended at Disneyland when Banksy hangs a Guantanamo Bay effigy over the railing of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride. Banksy slips off into the crowd to enjoy the Indiana Jones Adventure while Terry is hauled in for questioning.
This film, the film we're talking about, eventually starts to take shape when Banksy asks Terry to put together his footage and submit it to him. What Terry eventually sends him is two hours of bizarre cuts, gnashing music, and strange animations. In short, it's not at all the street art documentary that everyone was expecting. Instead, it's a train wreck on film. Meanwhile, Terry, back in Los Angeles, has begun creating his own "Obey"-esque stickers, featuring his own face with a film camera jutting out of it. He starts emulating the artists he'd been following, and in a strange twist he becomes the subject of the camera.
Banksy encourages Terry to make more art, and this is where the film careens fully off the track. Terry (by now calling himself MBW or Mr. Brainwash) goes insane (that's the only word for it) and mortgages his house, his business, and pumps everything into a massive art show that will take place in Los Angeles. He created hundreds of pieces of derivative pop art for the show, angering people left and right, alienating friends, and focusing on making this a huge event. When the show eventually does open, it's a huge sensation, and Banksy, Fairey, and others believe they've created a monster. But that's where I have a problem with this film. People are going to like what they like, so why do they care so much that he's become popular? Aren't they doing the exact same thing?
While the journey from Terry to Mr. Brainwash is fascinating, it's the brief peeks into Banksy's art that were the most intriguing. He has boxes of money, forged quid bearing the face of Princess Diana instead of the Queen, in his art loft. He constructs stencils that are massive, yet fold up to backpack size. He steals a London phone box, and returns it fallen on it's side, bent, leaking blood, and with a pickax buried in it's back. And he's kept his identity secret all this time. I think a lot of people in the audience were hoping there would be more of this, providing us a look behind Banksy's curtain, but that didn't happen. Those people included yours truly Jared Leto, Morgan Spurlock, and Adrian Grenier, who were all at the opening night.
However, this is a film I wouldn't have missed for the world, and it was my favorite documentary at Sundance this year, even if we didn't get a hint as to Banksy's real identity. Mr. Brainwash has a show opening in Los Angeles in February, so now I'll be checking that out. Is it art? I don't know. But it sure as hell was entertaining.
One last note: a Banksy appeared on Main Street (above) during Sundance on the side of the Java Cow coffee shop. Apparently another was painted on the side of a house in town, but the owner immediately painted it over. According to the publicist, the following was overheard in Park City, "How foolish, they could have sold the Banksy for a million dollars and given the house away for free." So he must have been here in town ... maybe even sitting in the theater with us. Awesome.