At the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, I made sure I was in the audience for the secret screening that turned out to be "The Girlfriend Experience." When the 2010 festival's secret screening rolled around, I wasn't interested. I heard the description of "Exit Through The Gift Shop" from someone and I opted for something else instead.
It's taken me eleven months to make up for this mistake.
The film begins as the story of Thierry Guetta, a boutique owner who loved to record everything with video cameras as a hobby. He did that aimlessly for a while until he encountered a street artist named Invader and became interested in his work. I get it. I love Invader's work. And honestly, I think my attitude to street art comes down to execution. You get points for doing anything well, and there's a lot of street art that I think is dazzling, amazing, a transformation of a mundane space into something exceptional. I've been involved in my share of late-night adrenaline-fueled adventures, and "Exit Through The Gift Shop" does a lovely job up front of capturing that feeling, the seductive nature of being involved in something like this.
As the main character, Thierry, starts to get more involved in what Invader is doing, he meets Shepard Fairey. And here's the thing… I don't know how much of this is real and how much of this is a put-on, but the material about Fairey is all captured before his Obama image made him infamous. They deal with his Andre the Giant picture, the ubiquitous "Obey" that was everywhere in Los Angeles, and it's really interesting to see this thing that I just continued part of the texture of my city explained and humanized.
So then it's Fairey who becomes Thierry's main fascination. He begins to follow him around the world, doing everything Fairey does, shooting some amazing stunts. It's great stuff, and it's exhilarating to watch. There are more street artists he meets like Neckface, Sweet Toof, Ron English, Dotmasters, Swoon, and he manages to get most of them to talk about what they do. They explain their tagger names like Borf or Buffmonster, and he breaks law after law with them. And through it all, Banksy is treated like Bigfoot… fabled but never seen.
But even that really doesn't sum it all up, and that's what makes "Exit Through The Gift Shop" a compelling experience. In a year where we have seen many films that have been debated due to their relationship with reality, like "Catfish" or "I'm Still Here," the only one that left me genuinely puzzled and enjoying that feeling at the end was "Exit Through The Gift Shop." It's a mystery, a game, a joke, and dead serious, and it might all be a put-on or it might all be exactly what it professes to be.
Banksy is a great artist, in my opinion, because of the way his art provokes and transforms and confronts. He's like Bugs Bunny with a spray-paint can, dancing away from every Elmer Fudd that dares to join the pursuit. And once Thierry meets Banksy and starts to bond with him, the film contains some wild footage, including a trip to Disneyland that almost ended in disaster. Thierry ends up making a film out of the footage he's been shooting for eight years by that point, and "Life Remote Control" turns out to be an experimental static nightmare, leading Banksy to wade in and ask if he can try to cut something else out of the rough footage. Thierry starts doing his own street art under the name Mr. Brainwash, and in a twist worthy of Nicolas Roeg, Banksy starts shooting a film about Thierry and his work.
It's a hall of mirrors, and there's not a single moment it's not interesting. My biggest problem with "I'm Still Here" has nothing to do with whether it's "real" or not; the film's sort of dull, all things considered, a litany of bad behavior and self-pity that is just boring to sit through. There are many things I think "Exit Through The Gift Shop" says about art in our modern media age, things that are much broader than the world of street art, and it's really well-crafted. Energetic, exciting, entertaining, and at times illegal, "Exit Through The Gift Shop" is a wicked treat.
"Exit Through The Gift Shop" is available now on iTunes and VOD, and will be released on DVD by Oscilloscope Laboratories on Dec. 14th, where Thierry Guetta's full 90-minute cut of "Life Remote Control" will be included.