I found it extremely tiring to accurately deduce what the documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is attempting to communicate. Either it’s a statement of pure adulation for the street art movement, or it’s an overtly rascally commercial for the artists featured to further their need for self-promotion. It’s not a terribly enlightening film and much of it seems a touch on the staged side, interested more in idolmaking than direct questioning. Much like the art on display, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is fleeting, bratty, and mechanical, showing little interest in surveying the foundation of a so-called revolution, instead trying to brand something that’s already come and gone.
The street art movement, which narrator Rhys Ifans likens to punk rock, began as a way for gifted youth to express their ideas on public consumption and the state of the union. It legitimized graffiti and vandalism in a way, giving rise to several stars of the scene, including Invader, Shepard Fairey (the mind behind the Barack Obama “Hope” poster), and Banksy, who all appear in the documentary. Their rise to fame is an interesting arc of troublemaking turned into wondrous profit, but there’s another story the film wants to tell, about a man who was supposedly there to document the movement, only to find himself joining the gang: Thierry Guetta.
Guetta is a portly Frenchman with thick sideburns, scenester clothes, and an OCD compulsion to videotape his every waking moment, blaming the urge on the sudden loss of his mother. He’s mentally questionable, but full of life, devoting his soul to the street art currents, looking to befriend all the major players under the guise of a documentary he never intended to make. Guetta is a real character and his itch to impress drives the core of “Gift Shop,” with much of the film devoted to his Hi-8 footage, which captured his sycophantic mentality and boundless curiosity. Through the years, Guetta developed himself as a confidant and chronicler, but his true quest, his raison d'être, was to snuggle up to the enigmatic star of the show: Bansky.
The most illustrious of the street artists, Banksy’s a Brit with an endless appetite for mischievous artwork, spreading his messages and startling images all over the world. Banksy is an elusive icon who appears in “Gift Shop” shrouded in darkness, with a digitally altered voice that sounds suspiciously like Ifans. He’s also credited as director here, but that’s open for debate as well. Though very little is revealed about him, Banksy is the blood (or spray paint) that flows through Guetta’s veins, and the impetus for the eventual transformation that takes Guetta from a probing observer to a major force in the street movement, or so we think.
I assume there’s an irony at play with “Gift Shop,” detailing how Guetta basically snuck in the back door of the industry, taking lessons gathered from his time on the street to create his own brand, rechristening himself Mr. Brainwash. Both celebratory of Guetta’s pop art accomplishments and annoyed with his transparency, Banksy fashions something of a hit piece with “Gift Shop,” inspecting the flowing toxins of hype and ego as Mr. Brainwash becomes an art-world darling due to some clever marketing and a general piggybacking on Banksy’s name (complete with an alt-weekly cover story and line of wealthy art vampires ready to cash in on a carefully manufactured reputation).
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” doesn’t really show any fangs, only mild displeasure with the state of the street art union, with Banksy himself lamenting the purpose of it all. There are a hundred questions left behind worth asking about the subculture: How do the artists afford it all? How do they consider the crime of vandalism? How do Guetta’s wife and three children truly feel about his rise to fame? What does Banksy think of the commodification of his work? How do the defaced building owners approach the street art plague? The documentary is wholly unenlightening, perhaps even fearful of a discussion that might challenge the integrity of the art world since, as viewed in this picture, the participants seems very uncomfortable verbalizing anything more than their own mythmaking or distaste for others.