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Banksy's Film Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Street Art Morality Play Without Morals

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[Warning: spoiler]

How do you capture a zeitgeist? If that zeitgeist is of a viral nature--as is the case with the worldwide street art movement--the answer might be in the term "viral." In Exit Through the Gift Shop, (opening April 16th in LA, New York and San Francisco) a little-known French schmuck of mediocre talent, named Thierry Guetta, becomes an integral part of this viral creative scene as its videographer, only to end up corrupting it... like a human virus.

Gift Shop is the new much-hyped (much of the hype warranted) documentary film by the anonymous British crown prince of street art Banksy. He is known for his unauthorized stenciled works on the Gaza Strip Wall, and paintings in the Brooklyn Museum (placing his own framed pieces betwixt museum sanctioned works of art).

And of course he is famous for having put a live painted elephant in the middle of a room near LA's Skid Row, drawing the likes of H'Wood royalty like 'Brangelina' and Jude Law. Ultimately the latter show contributed to the global art scene and auction houses taking notice of street art--with the elusive Banksy at the helm. The result: some of his pieces starting at circa $100,000 on the auction block, and being sought after by Picasso-owners.

Infamous as a darling of the tragically hip and artistically tuned-in, Banksy lives like the lead in V for Vendetta. Few have his phone number, know his real name or physical identity. Because this mysterious figure is not only the film's director but also the central, seminal character of the movement as a whole, much of its buzz in hipster pockets of LA, New York and London, revolves around him. On a broader level, it's the first movie to deeply chronicle the street art of such global spray-can and stencil toting Robin Hoods (to loosely quote Guetta) as Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Space Invader.

In the first few moments of the movie, the hoodie-cloaked (and voice and face scrambled) Banksy explains that he was originally Guetta's subject. But, the latter's fascinating life as an offbeat, mentally ill (according to the deadpan sarcastic Banksy) character flipped the film's focus. It became, he says, a movie about Guetta, a quirky fellow who Banksy describes as looking like he's 'out of the 1860s.'

This self-conscious Post Modern sort of cinematic device--which, of course, reached new heights in the fiction-non-fiction films of Charlie Kaufman--works really well in this film and within the street art context. Street art itself turns reality into fantasy as its creators transform public places into unlikely and often illegal canvases and impromptu galleries. So, while narrators and voiceover are usually loathed devices in film, they seems to give Gift Shop an appropriately fable-esque magical sensibility.

Speaking of fables, this movie's central archetypal one seems to be The Emperor's New Clothes. Its plot focuses on Guetta's odd trajectory from obscurity in Los Angeles to selling millions of dollars worth of art and becoming an art star--Mr. Brainwash-- overnight in that very same city.

Really, what better town for the flock to make a fuss over 'clothes' that don't exist (or in this case, a copycat rockstar-worthy hype artist) than flavor-of-the-moment, group-think Los Angeles? This is the same town that inaugurated the reign of Paris Hilton, and worse, the knock-off celebrity-chronicling 'celebrity' Perez Hilton.

The central Guetta/Mr. Brainwash story gives a forward-moving drive to a film that could have otherwise been too broad, messy and unfocused--by virtue of its subject. Instead, Exit Through the Gift Shop is funny, riveting, entertaining and a little tragic, too. Guetta's bizarre life is the perfect poignant PoMo backstory/front story. Is it a movie about Mr. Brainwash, street art or Banksy? It is all of the above and then some: a cool urban morality play without morals.

Guetta--an obsessive (almost sick) video chronicler whose cousin is street artist Space Invader--gets in deep with the street art scene, becoming part of the illegal creative activity as he tags along for these mostly nocturnal live art happenings. As the unlikely lynchpin of a film largely billed as "the Banksy movie," he comes across as a sort of street art Forrest Gump--at least as much of a dopey interloper but perhaps a bit less likable.

One day, Banksy calls him on his bluff, asking when the odd and clumsy self-described filmmaker is finally going to cobble together a documentary film (out of the footage he's hoarded in crates like a pack-rat). When he finally does, Banksy is horrified by the resulting "piece of crap" mashup. So the famed street artist decides to take a crack at making a silk purse out of sow's ears--diving into the documentary himself. He requests that Guetta go back to LA and encourages him to create his own art and perhaps have a little show.

It is clear from this film that Banksy, Fairey and the whole gang are not (and never were) in it for the money--but for the spirit of this contextual, culturally relevant, nose-thumbing populist art movement. So they're in for a pre-fab surprise with Guetta's "little show."

In an unexpected twist that could only be described as "the f'd up poetry of life," Guetta mortgages up his home and spends all his money creating a chaotic factory/atelier complete with set constructors under his employ. He rents a behemoth space in the middle of Hollywood and hypes the heck out of this exhibition using quotes reluctantly given from his mentors Fairey and Banksy.

The result is an obscenely populated body of work that can only be described as pop eating itself and then barfing up the remains. In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction turn of events, Guetta/Mr. Brainwash becomes the little darling of LA's art scene selling $1 million worth of art the show's first two weeks.

I would highly recommend Exit Through the Gift Shop to open-minded, creative people like my parents and neighbors as much as to coolsters familiar with the ins and outs of the scene and art movement. That's because at the end of the day, this isn't even just a story about Banksy, Guetta, and street art. It's a visual narrative that addresses old-as-art conundrums like what true art is and how and if a prerequisite for that status is that it be untangled from the messy, dirty world of commodity. Banksy perfectly sums Guetta up in the film: "He's kind of the rightful heir to Andy Warhol."