The documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop displays the tag "A Banksy film," marking it a production of the enigmatic British street artist and political provocateur. Banksy's prankish creativity works on a much larger scale than the typical graffiti artist armed with spray paint. Exit Through the Gift Shop shows Banksy and his accomplices steal a London phone box, slice it in half, reconstruct it at a right angle and return it to its original corner, like a sprawled corpse left in a pool of blood.
During the film, Banksy only appears on camera in stylized shadows or with his face and voice distorted. Still, he grants viewers a glimpse behind the curtain. At one point, he reveals handfuls of pound notes from a prank gone wrong. Banksy printed fake currency with the face of Princess Di instead of the Queen, but before he could use it to tweak the masses for their materialism, he realized that, when crumpled up, the ersatz money could be mistaken for the real thing. Unwittingly, he'd forged a half a million pounds.
Exit Through the Gift Shop takes a roundabout route to suggest that Banksy's artistic influence had an even more spectacular and surprising side effect: A major portion of the documentary's narrative may well be counterfeit. But no matter how you gauge its veracity, Exit Through the Gift Shop captures the exhilaration of an underground movement and the gullibility of the arts establishment.
Banksy actually serves as one of the film's supporting players. Instead, we find a protagonist in Thierry Guetta, a schlubby French family man who runs a Los Angeles boutique and obsessively films his activities. When Guetta discovers that one of his cousins is the French street artist known as Space Invader, he follows his cousin's illegal nighttime artistry. Guetta becomes enchanted with the street-art community and buddies up with the likes of Shepard Fairey, known (and somewhat notorious) for his iconic images of both Barack Obama and Andre the Giant. Exit Through the Gift Shop explores street art as a global movement and conveys the infectious thrill of minor civil disobedience in the name of self-expression.
The street artists see Guetta as both a mascot and a videographer of an ephemeral art form that invariably gets painted over or destroyed. Guetta eventually hangs out with Banksy, street art's mystery man. In a gripping scene worthy of such heist film-inspired documentaries as The Cove and Man on Wire, Disneyland security nabs Guetta for assisting Banksy on a Guantanamo-inspired stunt.
Exit Through the Gift Shop's first hour offers an energetic portrait of an outlaw artist sensibility. Narrator Rhys Ifans describes Guetta's actions with wry, storybook irony. The vibe changes when collectors being snapping up Banksy's work; that murdered phone box brings in six figures. After holding a successful Los Angeles art show, Banksy suggests that Guetta release his long-gestating documentary to capture the truth about street art. Guetta hasn't been candid about his filmmaking credentials, however, and after viewing a rough cut of the film, Banksy remarks, "I wondered if Thierry wasn't a filmmaker, but just someone with mental problems who had a camera."
Banksy offers to edit Guetta's footage and urges the French wannabe street artist to return to Los Angeles and pursue his new creative dream. Even more than those Lady Di pound notes, Banksy's blessing has a Frankenstein-like outcome. Guetta takes the handle Mr. Brainwash and mounts a massive art opening. You don't have to be an art expert to recognize Mr. Brainwash's mass-produced pieces as derivative, sub-Warhol crap, even as Guetta demonstrates more financial resources and public relations savvy than we'd guess.
Some critics have speculated that Mr. Brainwash's highly publicized shows are hoaxes perpetuated by Banksy to expose the art world's indiscriminate herd mentality. Fairey insists that Exit Through the Gift Shop reveals an accurate story, but Guetta can be suspiciously coy in interviews that challenge his identity. Certainly, the title Exit Through the Gift Shop telegraphs Banksy's critique of art world commercialism. The documentary can change your perspective on everything from graffiti to million-dollar art auctions, even if you don't succumb to the claims of Mr. Brainwash.