Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Movie Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop *** ½
Directed by:
Featuring: Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Thierry Guetta.
Narrated By: Rhys Ifans

We see in art what we want to see. Whatever the art form – painting, sculpture, film, etc – art really isn’t complete without an audience reaction to it. At that point, it becomes bigger than the artist and their intentions, because it is out of their hands and they can no longer control it. But there is also a human tendancity to not want to admit when we do not “get” something. Everyone else is raving about something, and we don’t want to feel left out, so we rave about it as well. I, for one, do not really have a problem admitting when I don’t “get” something. I was at MOMA in New York this past summer, and while I liked some of what I saw, I had no idea what the hell I was supposed to make of some of the other exhibits. What the hell am I supposed to “get” about a giant bundle of hay, or a rope string between two boxes? In terms of film, I do the same thing. I will readily admit that I have no clue what pretty much any film made by Jean Luc Godard made in the past decade was supposed to be about, because to me, it is just a jumble of images with no context. More recently, I admitted that I don’t think I quite understood Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, but also said I didn’t really care – it was such a rich visual experience, and left me with so many things to think about, that perhaps “getting it” was beside the point. I was thrilled enough just to experience it.

I mention all of this on top of this review, because ultimately what I think the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop is about is the way in which we experience art. The film is directed by street artist Banksy, who delights in putting his art up in cities around the world. The art ranges from stenciling of rats, shots at coporations, to installations like his telephone booth in London, or his paint on the West Wall in Israel. The film isn’t really about Banksy however, but about Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in LA obsessed with capturing everything on his camera. On a trip to Paris, he follows his cousin, known as Space Invader, around as he makes his art, and plasters it around the city. What Space Invader does is take old rudics cube, and create characters from the old Space Invader videogame out of them. Why does he do this? I haven’t got a clue, but perhaps he just really, really likes Space Invaders. It is through him that Guetta falls in love with street art, and he starts filming all the street artists he can. He tells them he is making a documentary on this movement, but in reality, he is just storing the tapes along with all his other one of his family, which he never watches. Guetta becomes obsessed with tracking down Banksy – who is the most predominant street artist in the world, but is also extremely secretative about his identity. When he finally does track him down, and gets him to agree to be filmed, he finds him a nice guy – and Banksy likes him to. Then the street art scene explodes into the mainstream, with pieces of work being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bansky calls Guetta’s bluff, and tells him it is time to release his documentary so that people will know that they do not do this for money. Guetta, not wanting to admit he has no idea how to make a film, agrees and when he is finished editing his 90 minute movie, he flies out to show it to Bansky who says after a few minutes he realized that Guetta was not a filmmaker but “a guy with a camera and mental problems”. But Banksy wants all the raw footage Guetta shot – some of it excellent – and convinces Guetta to leave it with him so he can edit together a movie. To get Guetta off his back, he suggests that he do some street art of his own. He didn’t know the monster he would create.

The story behind Exit Through the Gift Shop is so compelling that it seems not quite real. This has prompted some to wonder if the film is really a documentary, or just another example of Banksy screwing with the public. Is Guetta really as far out and clueless as he appears to be? Is he in on the joke, being masterminded by Banksy? These questions don’t really concern me all that much, because whether Guetta really is in on the joke, or like Banksy says just a guy with a camera and mental problems, doesn’t really matter. What matters is the reaction that Guetta gets when he decides that street art isn’t enough for him – like his idol, he also wants a gallery show. He dubs himself Mr. Brainwash, and creates hundreds of pieces of art (or more accurately, comes up with some ideas, and has others do the actual building of the installations), rent out a huge industrial space in LA and gets ready for his willing public. He convinces Banksy, and others to give him some quotes to promote the show – which they do – and soon, Mr. Brainwash has become an art phenom. People line up around the block to see his show, and proclaim him a genius. The street artists, who gave him his start, regret it, because they see him as a complete hack – not an artist at all.

But what is the real difference between Guetta and other, legit street artists like Banksy or Shepard Fairey, who also appears in the film? I have no real idea why Fairey uses an image of Andre the Giant with the words obey printed underneath, and I’m not quite what all of Banksy’s works mean either, other than they are staunchly anti-capitialist. Yet, I can see a difference between their work and Guetta’s, which does seem extremely shallow. But is that because it really is that much shallower than the others work, or because the movie paints such a harsh picture of Guetta? Probably, a little of both, What struck me about Guetta, is that when he talks about his, he seemingly has no idea why he did it, or what it means. Listen to him describe a stenciling he did of Elvis, where he replaced his guitar with a machine gun bearing the words Fisher Price. What does this mean? Guetta will only say what he did, not what his inspiration or his point was. Or watch how he cynically turns 200 identical prints into “Mr. Brainwash originals” to use as a market tool. The difference between Guetta and Fairey and Banksy may be just that when the later two talk about their work, they really do seem to know what they’re talking about, and why they did it, even if I don’t get it. Guetta seems clueless. And perhaps that’s all an artist really is – someone who feels the need to express themselves in a way that while it may be confounding to others, means a lot to them. And that’s what Guetta is missing. But Guetta is also extremely entertaining – a con man who you could say has conned himself more than anyone, since he know believes he is a serious artist. You could say that, but then again there are all those people who bought his works for all that money, who after watching this film, will probably feel like sucker. And I’m sure, somewhere, Banksy is laughing at them.

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