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See: Exit Through the Gift Shop

2010/05/22

I learnt a few things from watching Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop. The film documents the eccentric Thierry Guetta (AKA Mr. Brainwash) in his rise from vintage clothing store owner to street art videographer to economically successful street artist. Along the way, the audience gets exposed to many street artists and their history, and are offered a rare inside glimpse at the politics of their world. 

Within the first few minutes of the film I learned that I really like street art. I actually wouldn’t mind it if all of Montreal’s metro system was covered in *quality* street art. (DISCLAIMER: this post, like the film, is engaged in the tricky rhetoric of “art” “high aht” and “quality” all of which mean different things to different people). A lot of our alleyways are filled with some really nice stuff actually, and I wouldn’t mind more of it, instead of those graffiti tags that no one can read all over the place. I particularly like the tiny T-Rex wearing gladiator high heels on the Redpath Library. Street art must be contagious, as my companion and I both left the cinema wanting to do nothing else but develop artistic skills so that we could climb up tall buildings and leave our mark.

I also learnt that you can apparently get everything you need for street art at Kinko’s. It seems you can go get  your enormous Andre the Giant faces printed off there no questions asked. And this is a good thing. I think I’d have some major qualms if Kinko’s could arbitrarily decide that your printing needs did not meet the standards of decent society. Still, before seeing Exit I kind of figured there were secret underground places to get street art supplies or something.

Thirdly, I got to see first hand how difficult it is talking about yourself as an artist without sounding like a pompous jerk. Banksy, the sometimes narrator and creator of the film, claims the film is about Thierry, because he’s “more interesting”, but the actual mystique of “legitimate art” is reserved for Banksy. Banksy is the holy grail of street artists that Guetta wants to film, the one who makes real statements, the king of the streets. And in a way, he is: his street art is fantastic, he is politically minded, and is really the most recognized name in street art to date. The problem is, in a movie made by Banksy, it comes across as self-aggrandizing to talk about how marvelous Banksy is. At one point, just before Guetta finally gets to meet with Banksy, the music becomes reminiscent of a choir of angels. I get it, it’s playing off the idea of Banksy as Guetta’s holy grail, but having a beatific soundtrack to your own introduction is a bit… well, high and mighty.

Bansky is a little critical, too, of people who don’t “get” his art. Specifically, one section of the film follows the development of Banksy’s first L.A. exhibition. It features a real elephant in the warehouse space painted with litres and litres of children’s face paint to match the space’s wallpaper. The piece was titled “the Elephant in the Room”, and was supposedly meant to make literal our metaphorical elephants in rooms.  News casters and activists, however, were critical of using a live animal in a not-enormous space and of painting it (I presume children’s face paints are regulated to be non-toxic). Banksy lambasts them for being unable to see past the easy critique and really think about what he meant to say. Well, yes, there is a message behind the piece, but that also doesn’t negate the fact that an elephant was transported in a tiny truck and subjected to presumably hours of people taking pictures of it, shoving video cameras in its face, and — worst of all — talking incessantly about how wonderful art is and how they by extension are good people for seeing it. But at least Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were there, that must have made the elephant happy! 

I left torn, having enjoyed the film but also recognizing it as a character assassination piece. Or, at least, cinematic bullying. Exit does not offer a sympathetic or unbiased portrayal of Guetta; instead he is made out to be a joke, a wannabe, a fraud, and a plaigarist. Exit, at least, never claimed to be a documentary. The film, which begins by making Guetta seem a harmless, quirky Frenchman, depicts him by the end as a pathetic, desperate poseur. The thing is, the film’s argumentation is well made enough that one can hardly help but agree with Banksy that Guetta/Mr. Brainwash really isn’t making art, nor should he be dubbed an “artist” (whatever the heck that means).  Exit shows you the worst things about the man, and then asks you “he’s terrible, isn’t he?”. It’s difficult to argue with that reasoning. My companion argued that you are technically given a choice as to whether Guetta makes legitimate street art (no one holds a gun to your head and makes you agree with them); basically, it is never outrightly stated that Guetta is a fraud, it’s just implied over and over again. To come to any conclusion but Banksy’s means you have to willfully ignore the context and subtext of the entire film.

Personally, I think the film could have taken a more sympathetic approach to its subject without detracting from its central themes or even argument. Guetta, who compulsively videotapes everything he sees for hours on end, clearly has some sort of hoarding complex.  The film hints at this, stating that Guetta’s mother died when he was young and now he tries to capture his life on film so nothing will suddenly disappear on him, but more could have been made of it. Guetta had thousands of hours of footage of street artists at work, and though he was unable to compile them into a coherent documentary, Banksy could have easily created a comprehensive piece about street art instead of undermining one slightly unwell but well-intentioned man.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is definitely worth the time to see it, if you live in one of the select Canadian cities it’s playing in. When viewed with a critical eye, the film offers up a new appreciation of the art we walk past everyday and the hidden politics behind it.

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