Anyone who has heard anything of the buzz surrounding Banksy's "documentary" Exit Through The Gift Shop, or its star MBW (AKA Mr Brainwash AKA Thierry Guetta), will know that this review is going to be overshadowed by one big question alone: is this all a hoax?
Well, all in good time: there are certainly some fascinating theories out there concerning Banksy and his apparent protege, and I don't want to get over-excited and offer mine up too quickly. So, let's just consider the film, for now, as a straight up movie without passing any kind of judgement on the authenticity of its genesis or what exactly it might be trying to say about the art world that isn't obvious solely from the film's material.
If the film enters public consciousness for one thing alone, it will probably be the name scribed under "Director" on the Cast & Crew line-up, because Exit Through The Gift Shop is Banksy's first forray into the world of film-making. In case you missed it, Banksy is a street artist who has seemingly taken over the world recently, transcending the traditionally stoically reinforced barriers between pop-art (as in populist, not as in Warhol) and high-culture. Along with Damien Hirst, Banksy has probably done more to change the way the general British public classify art than any other artists, while sticking two fingers firmly up at the high-faluting art establishment and their impenetrable and often unfathomable definitions of what is allowed to be art.
Add the fact that Banksy is a masked crusader, never facing cameras and creating his art in acts of playful creative terrorism, and it's easy to see why the man is taken on near legendary status already. If you need proof, just look at the myriad theories that abound about him- is he real?- and the furious reaction his work often encourages in his contemporaries- he is occasionally called a sell-out, often inconsequential, but always intriguing and engaging.
Exit Through The Gift Shop is ostensibly an extended making of documentary centred on Thierry Guetta's attempt to make a documentary devoted to Street Art's greatest players, including Banksy, despite not having the technical skill nor the actual motivation to compile what he films into an edited final project. Hence the sort of tagline that comes with the film about the man who set out to film the unfilmable. And failing. But it's about more than that: the film charts what happens after Guetta fails in his film-making, Banksy's decision to turn the camera on him as a subject, and Guetta's supposed subsequent rebirth as overnight sensation MBW. It's all ridiculously enthralling.
And however you judge its authenticity, or its genesis, the film is wonderfully entertaining and hilarious throughout, though how much of that has to do with the blurred lines that define it you'll have to find out further into the review. That's subversive reviewing for you right there, I think.
Does it really matter if Exit Through The Gift Shop is phoney? It certainly doesn't dillute the purity of the entertainment, that's for damn sure.
On a purely filmic level, the documentary works well- providing an often clumsily unintentional look at the history and cultural relevance of Street Art, by featuring Guetta's original footage, taken as he documented the movement as it happened, on the streets in the thick of it, often as a look-out. The sequences dedicated to following some of the recognisable faces and names of Street Art are the most authentic of the whole film, and also the most spell-binding: if this is a hoax, some of the players either weren't informed, or they are as good at acting as they are at graffiti (and try telling the cops who routinely pop up that it wasn't real).
The set-up too is very engaging: combining Thierry's amateur footage of his clandestine Street Art rendez-vous' with footage shot under Banksy's direction of the birth and meteroic rise of MBW and talking-head interviews with a cast of accomplices: all ticking along under the dulcet and embracing tones of Rhys Ifans' voice-over. It of course helps that the subject matter is top-notch: not only the whole Street Art movement itself (which is incredibly arresting), but also the specific story of MBW's relationship with Banksy. In fact, that story is being held up as the chief evidence for the defence in the case against the film's documentary in certain quarters, and it is extremely difficult to resist the temptation to believe that the complexity and the charisma of the story could ever be anything but genuine. But then, Banksy's art always tells a far more complex story than the usual narcissistic tagging-style grafitti, so it's not that far a stretch to believe that it isn't merely another facet of an incredibly intricately planned deception.
The first half of the film is extremely reminiscent of the genuinely authentic, and genuinely tragic Stalking Pete Doherty- the rockumentary-tale of Max Carlish's quest to document The Libertines' front-man, which quickly disintegrated into a filmic account of the film-maker's dangerous obsession with the singer, and the destruction of that relationship when Carlish sold pictures of Doherty taking heroine to the British tabloids. Both films encourage that morbid fascination that comes with watching car-crash film-making, and both feature a so-called "documentalist", who is eminently watchable, but largely only because of the mental imbalance that propels their need to create their art. And both film's are filled with near-tragic scorn for those film-makers: but while Carlish was the victim of his own undoing, and probably deserved a lot of the mockery and abuse handed out to him by Doherty and his harem of followers, Guetta is held in far higher esteem by the talking heads of Exit Through The Gift Shop. They might mock him, and even curse the day they encouraged him (in the case of both Banksy and Shepard Fairey), but there is definitely still a warm spirit towards him and what he managed to supposedly achieve by sheer determination alone.
Those questions just keeps cropping up: how authentic is Exit Through The Gift Shop? How authentic is MBW? Who is the joke on? Is there even a joke? Well, the evidence is firmly stacked- there are the references throughout the film to it being a joke, there's the irreverent tone and the fact that the artist in question is called Mr Brainwash, and then there's the fact that he sprouted out of pretty much nowhere overnight. There's also the uncanny likeness of MBW's work to Banksy's own and co-conspirator Shepard Fairey's, and the fact that we are never afforded the luxury of actually seeing MBW create any of the work himself: he employs a team of technicians to bring his ideas to life, and then adds a signature flourish, claiming the work as his own in that final moment.
I loved the mystery, myself: there is a great deal of pleasure in not knowing whether we are accomplice to or victim of a Banksy installation or whether this wonderfully colourful story actually happened as it is depicted, without manipulation. The real subversion is the not knowing, even if there is enough to pretty strongly suggest that Exit Through The Gift Shop is another of Banksy's works that actively and creatively seek to devalue symbols of authority and the visual vernacular of populist culture, this time turned on the medium of documentary making itself. There are definitely the occasional "fuck-yous" to the establishment- Banksy apparently couldn't care about money, despite the accusations of selling-out, and seems mildly amused (with also a liberal touch of that dry scourn) at the whole process of commodification of what started as an essentially impermanent art movement, which has seen people vandalising walls in order to remove the art for a keepsake or a profit. And whatever the high-brow art critics may think (there is one hilariously defiant man who refuses to accept the artist and movement as anything more than a fad fuelled by the idiocy of the art-buying community), Banksy is giving us all joy with his art, including this film, so their shouldn't really be any need to overly dissect what he makes to find the trick. The point is probably not whether it is fake, but that Banksy has created a film that messes with the audience's concepts of authenticity, as well as entertaining them- it's gentle subversion, but it's powerful all the same.
Really, the viewer is never forced to take the film seriously to appreciate its insight, faint and brief, and probably not all that true into Banksy's working life, which has never really been offered before. There is one particularly enriching scene in which we see the set up of his vandalised London telephone box installation and the filmed response from members of the public. And crucially, for our understanding of Exit Through The Gift Shop, not one of them ponders if it is indeed art or if its creator is real, or whether he has sold his soul for the glitz and glamour of conventional fame, despite his aspirations to remain . They simply enjoy it: which is definitely what should be taken from this little gem of a film as well.
I'm not going to pass final judgement on the authenticity issue- that's an issue for you to decide when you've seen it. And I encourage you heartily to see it.
I only got the DVD to review, which was made a little more bearable by the inclusion, inside, of some pretty cool stickers- presumably designed to encourage viewers to take up tools and create street art themselves (given that Banksy said he hoped the film would do for street art what The Karate Kid did for karate)- postcards and the same starry-eyed sunglasses that feature on the Main Menu page of the DVD, which are billed quite humorously as "Unique 2D Viewing Glasses". How very bloody Banksy of them!
The disc itself includes the actually pretty insightful B Movie, which works simply as a biography of Banksy spoken by the man himself (though how fictional it is is left to be interpreted), and A Star Is Born, which shows MBW's first installation (in which he does precisely no work on his own piece). There's also the head-fuckery that is MBW's original documentary on Banksy and Street Art (called Life Remote Control), which supposedly precipitated Banksy's urge to make the film about MBW and not allow the clearly mentally unhinged Frenchman the artist of Banksy's probable demise. Well, it's a fourteen minute version of the original, which the lawyers supposedly had cut to make it a little less in the grey area of the law, as Banksy calls it: if you can last more than thirty seconds of the mindless assault of images, there's probably something very wrong with you.
Extras in full:Exclusive DIY Sticker Set Art Postcards Unique 2D Viewing Glasses Featurette: Life Remote Control Featurette: A Star Is Born Featurette: B Movie Additional Scenes Exit Through The Gift Shop is available on Blu Ray and DVD now.