Exit Through the Gift Shop

>> Monday, June 27, 2011

Over the weekend, I watched the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop and I really enjoyed it. I knew nothing about street art, but it looks like a lot of fun, and the artists (Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Space Invader) seem like genuine, passionate, fascinating people.

This isn't a normal documentary. The film centers on a protagonist named Thierry Guetta, who transforms from a slavish camera operator into a famous, arrogant artist. Some reviewers claim the film is true to life, but others call the movie a complete hoax, saying that Banksy is thumbing his nose at the world of art.

I agree that parts of the documentary are fiction, but I disagree regarding Banksy's motives. Before I can present my interpretation, I need to explain what happens in the film:

  1. Thierry Guetta, a childlike man obsessed with his videocamera, becomes fascinated with street art. He stalks Space Invader, Shepard Fairey, Banksy, and others, following them as they work and recording their thoughts.
  2. Banksy, seeing Thierry's footage, asks him to create a documentary. The result, called Life Remote Control, is atrocious, and Banksy decides to make the documentary on his own.
  3. While Banksy becomes a filmmaker, Thierry becomes a street artist. He adopts the name Mr. Brainwash and acquires enough standing to hold his own art auction in Los Angeles.
  4. In preparation for his show, Thierry becomes a tyrant and a copycat. He does nothing on his own, and orders his subordinates to produce obviously-derivative works based on existing pop art (Marilyn Monroe with blue hair, Elvis with a machine gun, and so on).
  5. Despite mocking reviews from Banksy and others, Thierry's show is a success.

Since watching the movie, I've done some research on my own (mainly Wikipedia). I'm not certain about anything, but here's what I've gathered:
  1. Life Remote Control was a real documentary, but the director was a Swiss filmmaker named Joachim Levy, not Thierry.
  2. Banksy used the name "Mister Brainwash" in his street art long before Thierry took the name for himself.
  3. Thierry's artshow really took place, and he really succeeded.

Here's my interpretation. Banksy made this documentary on his own because he hated Life Remote Control, but rather than insult Mr. Levy, he shifted the blame to the cameraman, Thierry. He also gave Thierry a persona: arrogant, obsessive, and phony. In doing this, Banksy's goal is to contrast Thierry with the street art movement. This, Banksy is saying, is what we are not.

The reception of Thierry's art is the only aspect of the documentary that Banksy couldn't control, and I think Banksy wanted the Mr. Brainwash show to flop. I think he wanted to contrast Thierry's failure with his own success, and show people that hype alone can't sell art. Thierry's failure would lend validation to his fame and that of street art in general. But that's not what happened. As I see it, the despondency shown by Banksy and Shepard Fairey toward the end of the documentary is the most sincere part of the film.

I admire Banksy for including his failed experiment in the film, and I'm glad he didn't focus on any particular buyer of Thierry's art (except Madonna). At the same time, the documentary made me thankful that I work in technology. My line of work is 100% hype-free and that's the way I like it.

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