How much of Exit Through the Gift Shop is true? Inevitably and for many, this question is the primary point of interest in discussions of the enigmatic Banksy‘s documentary about street art, in a broad sense, and more specifically his interactions with Thierry Guetta. In point of fact, popular theory supposes that Exit Through the Gift Shop may not be Banksy’s film at all but rather Spike Jonez’s, suspected cinematic co-conspirator and the movie’s unspoken director. More commonly presented are inquiries over the depth of Banksy’s and the nature of Guetta’s respective involvements in the narrative woven here– is that actually Banksy we see in the beginning, face bathed in shadow, and is Guetta either an unsuspecting rube or in on the entire project? Dissecting the movie, it’s hard to come to any conclusion in which the audience isn’t being played in one way or another, but that’s part of the joy of movies like Exit Through the Gift Shop.
At the same time, attempts to discern reality here add up to exercises in futility. Nobody knows how much of the film is real and how much of it is a hoax, and it’s going to be years before any of the parties involved with the movie pipe up and shed some light on the truth. In the interim, we’re left to ponder the depth of Exit Through the Gift Shop‘s fakery, but there’s so much more to the picture than the questions it raises about itself that limiting dialogue solely to ruminations on its authenticity feels like a fake idea in and of itself.
Exit Through the Gift Shop ostensibly follows the peculiar life of one Thierry Guertta, an eccentric French emigrate living in Los Angeles, who sells vintage clothing for a living and– no exaggeration here– carries a video camera with him everywhere he goes, capturing life in progress no matter where he is or what he’s doing. On paper the inclination to describe a man caught filming himself in public restrooms as a creep seems natural, but Thierry’s harmless and appears to be quite affable outside of his idiosyncrasies. It’s through sheer chance that his hobby becomes his calling when he discovers that his cousin is actually the French street artist dubbed “Invader“; Guetta begins filming him in his element, and expands his scope to include other street artists, all the while professing his wish to make a street art documentary out of his impressive expanse of footage.
Guetta meets and films a number of impressive artists on his journey, but it’s his patience and array of contacts that ultimately pair him with none other than Banksy, arguably the most prominent street artist and certainly the most elusive. Their introduction eventually leads to what reads as a bitter and harsh comment on the art world; Guetta, impelled to try his hand at plying Banksy’s craft, begins creating his own brand of street art synthesized from the works of his various influences, becoming an overnight sensation and raking in scads of money from his cribbed works. Joke’s on you, Banksy– isn’t it? Maybe not.
Banksy’s status as something of a conman and a prankster prevent the exclusion of the possibility that Exit Through the Gift Shop is just another one of his artist’s stunts. But there’s convenience to the movie’s plot, too; inexplicably, Guetta’s always being filmed even though he’s the one who’s always filming, and on top of that the movie gets to that central critique of the art world seamlessly, as though somebody wanted the film to arrive at that point. At the same time, Guetta’s meteoric rise to prominence as a street artist is that rare yarn that’s just too bizarre to be fake, and it’s easy to believe a story about someone earning undeserved recognition for work that can hardly be called their own. Maybe this makes for an interesting debate in a dedicated article, but like I said– there’s more to the film than going back and forth on what’s real here and what isn’t.
If nothing else, Exit Through the Gift Shop provides a robust depiction of the secretive world of street art. Whatever your opinion of this updated variant on graffiti, and transgressive, subversive art in general, Exit Through the Gift Shop could easily serve as a beginner’s guide to the subculture and a rare glimpse of street artists at work for those more well-versed in the art form to whom the names dropped here– Neckface, Borf, Ron English, Shepard Fairey– are familiar. It’s also a portrait of Thierry Guetta, an odd but innocuous man and his need to film the entire world around him. And of course, real or fake, the comment on good art versus bad art and the art community still stands; not only that but Exit Through the Gift Shop questions what makes a person an artist. Could a person like Thierry Guetta be considered more of an artist than a hard-working and well established entity like Banksy?
Exit Through the Gift Shop is also immensely and satisfyingly entertaining, enough so that the above questions– stodgy sounding to some, no doubt– almost don’t matter as it concerns the experience of watching the film. The film has a lot of energy and a kinetic, playful sense of editing that only helps convey the liveliness of its various subjects, and it boasts a great sense of humor to boot. To a number of people, all of this is secondary to the mystery at the core of the story, and of course they’d be within their rights to do so as the matter of Exit Through the Gift Shop‘s general veracity is a curious one. But even the most complex puzzle of a movie is empty without a creative heartbeat driving it and giving it meaning, and this movie certainly possesses that essential quality in spades. Is it a righteous shaming of the art world? Is it all just a big joke being played on the audience? Is it somewhere in between? Whatever it is, there’s no doubt that Exit Through the Gift Shop through and through is a fantastic piece of art.