Regardless of whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary or mockumentary, it’s an uncommonly insightful film that I recommend to anyone interested in art. Exit features the (likely manufactured) life of “Terry” (Thierry) Guetta, a Frenchman who can’t recall when a video camera first entered his hand, but hasn’t put it down since. Thierry films everything he encounters and the only highlights for awhile are birthday parties.
Before the film dwells too long on his original paparazzo intentions or lack thereof, Thierry discovers his cousin’s talent with street art, which curiously goes no further than recreating aliens from the videogame Space Invaders with kitchen tile and then gluing them onto walls. Using this as a launching pad, Thierry resolves to document the underground art phenomenon until its figurehead, Banksy, turns the camera around on our bordering-on-maniacal camera operator and captures the transformation of Thierry into art world phenomenon.
Thierry has a past that drives him to record what’s happening in his world and people will be thrilled that he did. Street art (or vandalism depending on your outlook) has the lifespan of a fruit fly with authorities taking an eraser to it. Even if this film is partly staged, it contains old footage that documents what can no longer be seen. He also understands the power of the work. A fine example not featured in Exit would be when Lite Brites featuring an Aqua Teen Hunger Force character provoked a major bomb scare in Boston.
Inspired by the work of Space Invader, the Aqua Teen incident took a nasty turn when Boston police, politicians and media were unified in the idea that it was a terror hoax. A widening age gap in the city was exposed when people called out their sensationalism and were then characterized as youth failing to understand the gravity of a “dangerous prank.” Meanwhile, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, and New York received no complaints about the LEDs because, as the LAPD put it: “No one perceived them as a threat.”
In interviews with Shepard Fairey, creator of the prolific Andre the Giant Has a Posse campaign and the Obama HOPE poster, Fairey describes his work as gaining real power from perceived power. If one sees a repeated image enough in their environment they’ll consider it worth their attention and once captured, they can be delivered a message. That last part of his quote is left out of Exit Through the Gift Shop, intending to focus on the programming of consumer masses.
Thierry is tasked by the mysterious Banksy to make some art after he turns in a crap first edit of his film, and Thierry’s obsessive personality interprets this as “Become an overnight sensation.” What results is both an absolute mess and art scene success. Thierry, who suspiciously still has money from his former ownership of a fashion boutique, acquires a studio and rents a massive venue for his show. He instructs twenty people working round the clock to create his vision while supporting his wife and three kids.
I can only describe this “vision” as a gaudy reverse engineering of everything unique about street art, presenting it in its most generic form, and watching the public marvel at it because LA Weekly hyped it as the major art event of the year. This is both darkly humorous and horrifying to behold.
As fun as it is watching street art turned on its head, the film’s coup de grace also bares the zipper on the back of its Documentary costume. Thierry Guetta’s chosen moniker “Mr. Brainwash” isn’t the only detail that speaks directly to the anti-capitalist, art expose’ edge of Exit Through the Gift Shop. There’s a much earlier scene where Banksy shows the Thierry his collection of self-drawn money.
Additionally, the series of events asks us to believe that when Thierry was told to pursue art, he absent mindedly left not only the first edit of his film in Banksy’s possession, but his buckets of mostly unlabelled tapes featuring thousands of hours of footage, unaware that a new film will be created from their contents. Once I recognized the existence of a second cameraman filming Thierry before he’s meant to be the center of attention, it was clear to me that Exit had weaseled its way into the Best Documentary category for numerous awards.
Does it bother me? Not particularly. Mr. Brainwash’s work did sell in real life regardless of how much it was by design. Exit made me wonder how much else could be achieved by a bluff. With a bit of flare someone could become an authority on something, like perhaps film criticism, without any previous experience.
Exit Through the Gift Shop isn’t just cheeky fun, it also exposes a link between marketing and how people register creative quality, while helping us understand art by presenting that which is definitely not.
Overall Score: 8.05 – Great. (Movies that score between 8.00 and 8.50 are great representations of their genre that everyone should see in theaters on opening night.)