A genuinely hip, thought-provoking work of art disguised as a doomed documentary resurrected, Exit Through the Gift Shop is not just the definitive portrait of street-art counterculture, but also a hilarious exposé on the gullibility of the masses who embrace manufactured creative personas. Though it’s credited as a Banksy picture—as in the ever-elusive U.K. graffiti ninja whose puckish, anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian stencils have appeared everywhere from metropolitan billboards worldwide to the West Bank barrier wall—the film ostensibly began with him tapped as its on-camera subject.
Banksy’s talking head appears faceless under a dark hood, with his pithy wit digitally masked, to help narrator Rhys Ifans explain how the role reversal occurred. The real “director” of most of the truly fascinating, dangerously obtained footage herein is Thierry Guetta, an eccentric French expat and family man living in Los Angeles. Guetta’s fanatical devotion to recording every banal moment of his life yielded massive amounts of tape from the early days of the ’90s street art scene—tape that would ultimately become Exit. Flush from his overpriced designer clothing store, Guetta had the time and resources to begin following his cousin—the mosaic artist Space Invader—on his night bombing missions, serving as the lookout man through his viewfinder. From there, the self-proclaimed filmmaker earned the trust of other street-scene notables. In addition to his holy grail Banksy, Guetta filmed Swoon and Shepard Fairey, who Guetta meets for the first time on camera as Fairey’s printing out enlarged copies of his notorious “André the Giant Has a Posse” designs at a Kinko’s. The irony of creating art with tools from a commercial franchise is not lost on Fairey, who admits that his logos “gain real power from perceived power.”
Without ruining some subversively funny, late-breaking surprises, the impact of Fairey’s quote sharply resonates after we see Guetta rechristen himself as the artist “Mr. Brainwash,” exploiting his connections to get pull quotes for his first bought-and-paid-for solo exhibition, an inexplicably successful event aided by an LA Weekly cover story that inspired frothing among gallery patrons and bemused shrugs from Banksy and Fairey. Guetta’s bullshit pop technique was to rip off those guys, and Warhol, wholesale, which in turn has made some question the validity of this film itself. Is Mr. Brainwash a flesh-and-blood installation, manipulated into being by Banksy, and is the hoax on us for being entertained by what we believe is true? I don’t think so. Too cleverly constructed to dismiss as another recycled joke on the inanity of modern art, Exit Through the Gift Shop is—against its players’ better judgment—strangely inspirational. Go on, pick up an aerosol can, paint yourself an empire, and see if we call your bluff.