Sunday, December 5, 2010

Maggie 2010: Banksy Banksy Banksy!

#119. Exit Through the Gift Shop

The last thing one might expect in a film ostensibly about Banksy, the most acclaimed street artist of our time, is the soothing masculine narration of a traditional documentary. And yet amid the madness of a character who swiftly emerges as the film's central agent, a Frenchman who acquired a camera once and thereafter would not put it down, such a traditional gambit becomes, if not imperative*, at least understandable.

Exit Through the Gift Shop orients itself around the story of Thierry Guatta, a French immigrant whose compulsion to film everything first leads him to discover that his cousin is the famed street artist "Invader," who affixes mosaics of Space Invader wherever possible in public spaces. From this discovery Guatta launches into a Gotta Catch'em All quest to videotape street artists in process, but wherever he goes finds himself limited by the most elusive Pokemon artist of them all:


Author of some of the most provocative and daring street art of our time, including work on the West Bank and a Guantanamo Bay mannequin in Disneyland, Banksy is noted for maintaining an extremely low personal profile, so Guatta's tale of falling in with him had to have a point unto itself: specifically, Guatta had to convince his street artist friends he was working on a documentary.

This flimsy conceit, its pathetic follow-through (complete with some amusingly direct commentary from Banksy's obscured profile), and the new quest Guatta claims Banksy ultimately set him upon mark the major turning points in the film--as well as a whole whack-load of questions from reviewers about whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is genuine or another Banksy installation piece.

Regardless of its veracity, the real joy of this film is not its declarative statements: it's the thrill of watching street artists deploy their creations in the heart of the city, day and night alike--on rooftops, under bridges, over billboards, around telephone poles, and throughout the streets.

Moreover, one needn't buy into the suspicion that this story is too wacky to be real** to enjoy the gentle self-effacement that goes hand-in-hand with the semiotics of documentary--specifically, the way the very framing of this subject in serious film argues that street art is high art. Indeed, every time someone in the film talks about the legitimizing benefit of their work being filmed, we cut to a scene of someone falling from a ladder or a rooftop, spilling paint or otherwise making an unfortunate mess of themselves. This, for me, never ceases to be a point of delight.

As for the conspiracy theories about this film being a hoax, I will say this much: Guatta's depicted failures in Exit Through the Gift Shop, both as a documentarian and then as a street artist in his own right, after years spent filming others at work, do not seem at all unrealistic. Quite frankly, the street art Guatta creates is very much what one would expect from someone whose dominant trope has always been the lens--a sort of self-conscious, superficial deconstruction of paparazzi/celebrity culture.

However, if it eventually turns out that this film very much was a hoax/installation piece unto itself, I will be saddened not by that measure of falsity but by the possibility that Guatta's absurd attempt at street art documentary, which Banksy thoroughly dismisses on camera himself, doesn't actually exist somewhere--a moldering P.O.S. just begging to be reclaimed by cultural studies and psych students alike in the decades to come.

*Has Herzog taught us nothing about how to handle bizarre personalities in film?
**Personally, I've seen wackier: and after Dear Zachary, nothing will ever convince me real life isn't invariably stranger than anything a documentarian or street artist can create.

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