The only thing that may keep “Exit Through the Gift Shop” from winning the Oscar next year for best documentary is that it may be totally untrue. Aside from that, it’s a shoo-in.
The ingenious and mischievous film starts off as a reasonably straightforward and very entertaining look at the rise of street artists, those guerrilla Gauguins who use stencils, stickers and sculptures to create eye-popping works on sidewalks and brick walls, far more evolved from the traditional taggers.
And then, about halfway through, the film starts hilariously deconstructing itself, so that by the closing credits you’re not sure how much if anything you saw you should believe.
“Gift Shop” looks at street art through the eyes of Thierry Guetta, an L.A. thrift-shop owner and would-be documentary filmmaker who spent years following artists like Space Invader and Shepard Fairey (who would later become famous for the Obama “Hope” image) as they went on their nocturnal missions, putting up art in the dead of night. The film really gives you an appreciation for the relentless inventiveness of the artists; not only do they have to make the designs, but they have to figure out the logistics of getting a 20-foot-tall image of pro wrestler Andre the Giant on the side of a building, and do so without the cops catching them.
Eventually, Guetta starts hanging around with Banksy, the notorious British street artist whose work approaches the level of massive, often politically charged pranks. It was Banksy who put a blow-up doll of a shackled Guantanamo Bay prisoner in the middle of a Disneyland ride, it was Banksy who put a giant trompe d’oeil image on the Israel-Palestinian wall that made it look like a giant hole had been blown through it, with sunlight peeking through.
Banksy’s work has become so famous that he mounted a huge show in Los Angeles that was attended by the likes of Brad Pitt and Jude Law, but he’s reportedly never been seen in public, and in “Gift Shop,” his face is shrouded and his voice digitally altered.
As the documentary tells it, Guetta tried to turn the hundreds of hours of street art footage he had into a film, and failed spectacularly. So Banksy, thinking the footage was too good to waste, decided he’d take a stab at making the movie himself. Meanwhile, Guetta becomes so inspired by the street artists he filmed that he decides to become one himself. Just as the street artist becomes a filmmaker, the filmmaker becomes a street artist.
He dubs himself “Mister Brainwash,” but rather than spend years on the streets toiling away at his craft for free, he decides to skip ahead to the part where he has the huge art show that makes him millions of dollars. For Mister Brainwash, hype and business trump artistic expression, and he spends all his time doing interviews and making deals. The art is largely an afterthought, basically lightly remixed versions of street art iconography and Andy Warhol paintings, like the Campbell’s soup cans turned into spray paint canisters.
At some point, we realize that there’s something off about the entire film; Banksy is playing with our heads, much as one of his street installations messes with the minds of passersby. The film itself is one of his pranks, but how big is the con? Does Mister Brainwash really exist? Does Guetta even exist? Can we trust any of the footage we’ve seen as real? Who’s in on the joke, and who is an unwitting accessory?
Figuring out exactly where to draw the line will spark a lot of rousing post-screening convos, as will Banksy’s deft satire of the intersection of art and money (including, implicitly, his own success). The film’s cheeky tone and zigzagging storyline are consistently enjoyable, and “Gift Shop” marks Banksy as a clever filmmaker as well as artist.
Unless that’s just another con, and Banksy didn’t make the movie at all. But who knows?