(A quick aside before my actual review. Steam, the digital distribution service run by computer software company Valve for the purchasing of video games, has been running a lot of really good sales this week. I’m also on Spring Break. Combine the fact that I’m buying some AAA video games at absurdly low prices (i.e. Just Cause 2 for $3 and Hitman: Absolution for $5) with the fact that I actually have time to play them cause I don’t have any classes this week, and it’s easy to guess that I’ve been playing a lot of video games this week. I watched this film Tuesday, and I’ve only just now realized that, hey, maybe I should actually review it now)
What is art? Along with “What is the meaning of life?”, it’s arguably one of the oldest and most consistent questions that we’ve asked ourselves as a people. I aspire to both create art (my two as yet unpublished screenplays as well as my third screenplay which is 50 pages in the works) as well as to analyze it (this blog’s reason for existence). And though I think I’m fairly open-minded in my appreciation of artistic endeavors and can appreciate both the high and low-brow, there are still moments where I wonder if what I’m watching is art or if it’s mass-produced industry that happens to exist for entertainment purpose. Out of nowhere seemingly, that question, “What is art and, perhaps, can art be popular?” becomes the glue that holds together the riotously funny and insightful Oscar-nominated documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop.
In the early 2000s, Thierry Guetta was a French immigrant to Los Angeles living the American dream selling vintage clothes in a bohemian L.A. art district. With his wife and kids, Thierry had achieved success. But Thierry had an odd quirk. No matter where he went or what he was doing, he always carried around a portable video camera. Thierry was obsessed with capturing every minute aspect of his life and had amassed thousands and thousands of tapes of his recordings of his daily life. But, Thierry’s life was changed forever when he took a family holiday to France to visit his relatives and he discovered that his cousin was Space Invader, a rising star in the exploding world of underground, illegal street art. After finding a rush in filming his cousin’s exploits of putting his Space Invaders tag all over Paris, Thierry decides to make a documentary about the street art movement.
However, despite the fact that Thierry’s camera is never far from his hands, Thierry only knows how to record moments in life, not how to make a film. After months and months of following around many of the world’s most famous street artists, Thierry just has footage and nothing else. But Thierry keeps hearing rumors about the existence of an elusive street artist called Banksy, who was pulling some of the most daring and high-profile street art stunts in England. Thierry makes it his mission to meet this shadowy figure, and when they finally do, it’s a match made in heaven. However, Banksy soon realizes that Thierry is more interesting than him, and Banksy makes an actual documentary about Thierry as Thierry tries to become a street artist phenomenon himself, going under his new name, Mr. Brainwash.
The movie is practically overflowing with fascinating tidbits about this burgeoning movement that Thierry finds himself lost in. Whether it’s the rush of being almost caught by the police or realizing that one of the main supporting people in the film (Shephard Fairey) is responsible for arguably the most iconic political image in decades (the Barack Obama hope poster) or just appreciating the nuances of these people’s art (because this film shows again and again that what these men do is beyond simple graffiti and vandalism), there are almost never any moments in the movie where you aren’t lost in this world you’re being shown. Documentaries are often a type of voyeurism into worlds we don’t see very often, but Exit Through the Gift Shop takes that about a hundred steps further, when you realize that most of the footage of the film is of a man who was a self-professed voyeur.
I wouldn’t be doing my job here if I didn’t mention the serious speculation surrounding the authenticity of this film. There is a popular theory (which I don’t believe because mostly, the evidence suggests its real) that this film is actually a “mockumentary” and a massive prank by Banksy himself, and that Mr. Brainwash is simply an offshoot of the Banksy brand. I don’t really think it’s true but I should bring it up. By the film’s end, when Thierry is on the verge of becoming a street art superstar himself, Exit Through the Gift Shop poses some complicated and thought-provoking questions about the nature of art itself. Though I actually enjoyed Thierry’s art quite a bit (I’m a movie expert though, not an “art in the classic sense” expert), the movie is fairly blunt about how Banksy and Shephard Fairey don’t think highly of his work and that Thierry’s success is somehow illegitimate because it arrived so quickly. I disagree with the film’s conclusions, but the movie still makes a compelling case for it’s opinions.
I’m going to keep this review brief. I watched the film 48 hours ago (which is usually the point at which my ability to say interesting things about a film diminishes), and I have Argo home from Netflix. I really want to watch it (which should go without saying since it won Best Picture, and Best Picture winners/nominees from the current year take top priority in my blogging). If you enjoy documentaries, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a must-watch. I would argue that it doesn’t have the cross-over appeal that Undefeated had, but even for simple art lovers, Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of the most consistently bizarre and fascinating films I’ve watched in a while.
Final Score: A-