Despite my fascination with art, it is rare that I actually go in depth with it. That is until I heard an NPR story a few months back about Banksy, a British street artist whose ambitious works of art provide fascinating social commentary. This inspired me to look into the unusual displays of art he had and he’s now one of my favorite artists (next to my girlfriend of course ;). So when I discovered Exit through the Gift Shop on Netflix, I had to check it. Strangely enough, this isn’t a documentary about Banksy, but rather the man who “tried” to make a documentary about him and in the end proved to be just as fascinating on his own.
Thierry Guetta is a man with a fascinating psychological urge to record everything and every moment. In the early 2000s he starts tagging along with his graffiti artist cousin “Space Invader” further and further into the world of street art. As he falls down this rabbit hole he decides to make a street art documentary and that the crown jewel of this film will be an interview with the world famous Banksy. Eventually he gets his chance, and his ensuing friendship with the Graffitist allows him to get the ultimate street art thrill ride. With attention on Street Art rising, Banksy urges him to finish the film, but when he does the result… isn’t exactly pleasing. While Banksy is busy remaking the movie, Guetta is allowed to start creating his own art and from there launches a massive campaign under the name “Mr. Brainwash.” Through his connections Guetta takes the LA art scene by storm, despite his insane business decisions and his derivative work.
Thanks to its unique framing, the documentary works extremely well. It’s told with the thousands of hours of footage Guetta has recorded over the years and is accompanied by interviews with Guetta, his family, Banksy and several colleagues. As we follow this mans life we’re mystified by the fact that no one saw his true nature… not as a seeming documentarian, but as a mentally scarred man. He asks the dumbest questions, he does the most intrusive things, and all around acts insane, but somehow he manages to capture the hearts and minds of the street artists who just want a log of their work. Guetta is a thoroughly unlikeable character in my opinion. He goes from being this naïve, but interfering nitwit to this self-centered exploiter who ignores his family and abuses his friends’ work because he wants to be just like they are. It’s clear once he becomes a “street artist” that he has no artistic vision. What gives the simplistic pop art or the unusually designed street art its artistic merit is not just the image itself, but the thought behind it, the intent. Guetta has no concept of this, simply making changes to pre-existing images (like a studio executive does to a script) and then handing it off to someone else to actually create, loosing any artistic merit for even creating the image itself since it’s not his. Yet somehow… you don’t really hate him. He’s just a goofy man riding on a trend. He’s extremely lucky, but if it wasn’t him it no doubt would have been someone else.
What Banksy wanted from Guetta was an accurate portrayal of what street art was supposed to mean during a time where it was being sold for thousands of dollars. What he got in return was a 90 minute nightmare trailer. Hence him sending Guetta off to do something else. While Guetta’s film failed, I think that this movie does, through contrast, establish what Street Art is supposed to be. We see that the people around Guetta have clear passion and that carries through to the moments in Banksy’s studio where we see the real processes behind the creation of these pieces. However, it’s not until we see Guetta in his studio and at his gallery that this message really clicks. Guetta is almost the opposite of what a Street Artist is supposed to be and by using the inverse of him, as well our impressions from the previous artists, we can gain a clear image of what those weird pieces of Graffiti are supposed to stand for and who the people behind them really are.
Exit through the Gift Shop is well made, but with all documentaries it’s the content that counts and Guetta provides no shortage of fascinating content. The art on screen is beautiful to look at, the artists are fun to watch, and Guetta’s commentary both behind and in front of camera is addicting to listen to, like watching a train crash. The moral of the film is clear and in my opinion an important one that pertains not only to the world of Street Art, but Art in general. If you are vaguely interested in Graffiti, have heard of Banksy, or are just looking for a good character piece then Exit through the Gift Shop is definitely worth checking out.