My absence from seeing movies in a timely manner has one nasty drawback. Hype. The hype machine is ever encompassing and can often ruin what would otherwise be a perfectly good experience. Exit Through the Gift Shop, a “documentary” created by the relative art ninja Banksy, unfortunately carried this hype to its detriment. Is it good? Yes, but the why to that question is harder to define.
Exit Through the Gift Shop follows a would be documentarian turned street artist, Thierry Guetta, an ex-pat French man living in L.A. I put documentary in quotes before for a reason, this is not a documentary. The fact that the Academy chose to put it in the running for best Documentary this year makes me laugh. It’s as if Banksy has pulled his best prank yet. As the movie plays out, the plausibility of Mr. Brainwash’s, Guetta’s street art pseudonym, path to art glory is ridiculous. The full statement of the movie sits in how he becomes a street artist. It’s fabricated, he hires help, mass produces trite copies of Bansky-ish art and then sells them to a pandering audience for thousands. And that is the biggest question Banksy asks when he’s not busy patting himself on the back. Is street art, which used to be a rebellion against art in general, still important when it can be bought, created and sold on a whim to a begging commercial audience? To be honest, I think this “documentary” answers the question by itself. I even think a point they make in the beginning of the movie ties nicely back to the article Patton Oswalt wrote regarding Etewaf – “everything that ever was – available forever”. Street art was a surprise, a gritty rebellion that spat in the faces of every city official. It forced art into everyday space, to communicate with the general audience that naturally surrounds it. It was a fleeting art form destined to be erased or replaced by the next artist. Yet with the Internet and a few enterprising minds (read: Shepard Fairey), it has become a commodity. The art form once scoffed as public destruction is now held in high regard as revolutionary, but in its appraisal, it lowers the surprise factor that gave it its power in the first place. Much like nerd culture as Oswalt put it. When I can view Banksy pieces on Reddit, review his statements on wikipedia and then watch a documentary featuring him on Netflix, does his message still hold power? Or am I so inundated with it at that point, that I can never truly appreciate the shock and awe that his art creates.
Now back to the idea of this not being a documentary. I think documentaries are not movies that set out to make a statement, they are spans of time captured. They may sway you in one direction or another, but a documentary with set upon intentions is almost a scripted movie. I think Michael Moore is a brilliant director, but would I call him a pure documentarian? Not at all. I think Morgan Spurlock is closer to that hue, but even he tends to set out to tell a side, not so much document one. If you are truly interested in street art as a form and history, I highly encourage you to watch Beautiful Losers or Bomb It. Both of which are traditional documentaries on underground and graffiti art.
So is Exit Through the Gift Shop worth a watch? Definitely. It defies what a documentary is and makes you question how much of this was real and how much of it was dreamed up by Fairey and Banksy. My guess is the majority of it. From the concept through the fake film Life Remote Control, through to the gloriously overblown ending of the Life Is Beautiful art show. Should it win the Oscar? I have no idea, I haven’t seen the others yet, but I have a feeling that while the Academy is happy to prove how hip they are by putting this up there, they won’t dare invite Banksy up on stage. I guess only time will tell.
This is the second movie off my checklist for the Oscar Challenge