“When Banksy sits in silhouette during his onscreen interviews, we have no proof that it’s really him, nor even that Banksy is a real individual.”
Most of the press written about Exit Through the Gift Shop, the first film by the English street artist known only as Banksy released this past summer, has largely focused on two main issues, the first being whether or not the film should be classified as a documentary. It presents itself as the factual account of a French-born Los Angeleno named Thierry Guetta, whose obsession with documenting his entire life on videotape leads to a career filming street artists and their work, which in turn leads to him becoming an artist himself. Taken at face value, the film is largely composed of Thierry’s own documentary footage, with occasional interviews with Thierry, Banksy, and other street artists. A quick search on the internet, though, reveals that even the most basic facts of Thierry’s life are not verifiable, including his name, residence, birthplace, or family members, much less the numerous bizarre situations he constantly gets himself into (such as his four-hour detention by security guards at Disneyland). Jeannette Catsoulis called the film a “prankumentary” in her New York Times review, and, for what it’s worth, I think the film’s comic moments are too well timed to not be at least mostly staged. However, to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard and Abbas Kiarostami — who both said something to the same effect about thirty years apart — the distinction between fiction and documentary is often less important and less interesting than the distinction between a good movie and a bad one.
The second issue, related to the first but more significant, is the connection between Exit Through the Gift Shop and F for Fake, Orson Welles’s 1974 masterpiece about the art forger Elmyr de Hory that likewise blurred the boundary between fiction and documentary (attempts to label it a “film essay” muddy the waters more than they clear them). Both films deal seriously yet playfully with the commodification of artwork and artists alike, specifically with the dehumanizing process of branding and selling that largely determines what passes for art and what gets ignored as trash, and both do so through the ironic relationships between enigmatic geniuses and eccentric frauds, i.e., the filmmakers and their respective subjects. If I had to pigeonhole them, I’d also say that both films are “postmodern,” insomuch that their web-like self-reflexivity and intertextuality make linear, analytical description nearly impossible, though I doubt either filmmaker would be comfortable with such a label (which is often used merely as a marketing term for selling weird and difficult works). In any case, it’s obvious that Banksy has seen F for Fake and was influenced by it, but to simply say that Exit Through the Gift Shop is inferior and derivative, as even some of the film’s supporters seem content to do, is to not take seriously what it has to say about how the street art movement relates to other works, other artists, and other time periods.
Even though he was fully aware that he was one of the most original and inventive artists of the 20th century, Welles still absurdly identified himself with Elmyr, an art forger who never developed a painting style of his own. Welles even maintains his illusion when Elmyr pathetically insists that he never signed the names to the fake paintings he sold, which Welles shrugs off as the lighthearted charm of a fellow charlatan, no different from his own exuberant magic tricks and infamous War of the Worlds broadcast. This cartoonish false modesty and arrogant theatricality (which Welles says is a necessity for every magician, which he uses as a synonym for “charlatan”) lays the foundation for one of cinema’s great self-caricatures, drawing long, dark shadows between Elmyr’s apparently genuine self-delusion and Welles’s ethereal public persona as a megalomaniacal failure, which he plays up with insatiable gluttony and shameless lust.
Banksy, on the other hand, positioning himself as Welles and Thierry as his Elmyr, ups the arrogance by distancing himself from his subject as much as possible, spending most of his onscreen time insulting Thierry’s activities and mental stability. What’s worse is when we realize that the artwork Thierry has been creating looks exactly like Banksy’s, which casts over the entire film an unpleasant haze of subjective jealousy and anger as Banksy rails against a man he believes is ripping him off. In the populist, anything-goes world of street art — which is generally produced as illegal graffiti, about as non-commercial as art gets — such a capitalistic, accusatory tone is even more out of sync with general expectations than Welles’s empathizing with a con man. That it comes from Banksy, the poster boy for the entire movement, makes it perhaps an even more ambitious self-caricature than F for Fake. At least when Welles stood in silhouette with his trademark hat and cigar, we knew he really existed, even if we didn’t know much more than that. When Banksy sits in silhouette during his onscreen interviews, we have no proof that it’s really him, nor even that Banksy is a real individual. It’s an illusion worthy of the World’s Greatest Magician — who is, according to Welles, every magician.
No less vital are the parallels with Elmyr, and not just with Thierry. When Elmyr paints a perfect Modigliani in a single afternoon, Welles wonders whether it matters or not that Elmyr painted it and that Modigliani didn’t. When Thierry — under the pseudonym Mr. Brainwash — makes his own “street art” (in quotes because it is produced directly for a gallery show) that’s stylistically identical to Banksy’s, Banksy is quietly outraged at the intellectual theft, even though nearly all his pieces are simply stencilled and silk screened pre-existing images sprayed onto walls (not to mention that it probably takes more skill to fake a Modigliani than to create a Banksy, much less fake a Banksy). Banksy even derides Thierry for putting art in his gallery that was made by people he hired to Photoshop famous photographs for him, only to turn around and exclusively credit himself for the film, which is composed almost entirely of footage shot by Thierry. If Elmyr paints an Elmyr and passes it off as a Modigliani, and Thierry makes a Banksy and passes it off as a Mr. Brainwash, then Banksy steals a Thierry, sprays a Welles over top of it, and passes it off as a Banksy. It’s also no coincidence that Shepard Fairey, another street artist featured in the film, is currently being sued for copyright infringement: his now iconic “HOPE” poster for Barack Obama is an altered silk screening of a photograph owned by the Associated Press.
Indeed, the film’s handling of this endless cycle of rebranding may be its greatest strength, not least because it trusts the audience to pick up on its subtext through all the hipster posturing. There’s no more fitting visual for the contradiction behind ostensibly non-commercial street art than the plastering of an image over a public space, unpaid-for billboards advertising the creative mind that put it there. At one point, Thierry even puts an image of his own face over one of Shepard Fairey’s pieces, the two competing for the public’s eye like rival soda manufacturers. The film makes it clear that Thierry is obviously a hypocrite and a hack, interested only in selling Mr. Brainwash as a bankable image and commodity, but his multimedia public relations blitz is only the logical extension of the graffiti tags that street art emerged from. Certainly Fairey is no less of a vacuous self-promoter, spending nearly fifteen years traveling the world spraying his trademark Andre the Giant image with the caption “OBEY” on walls, openly admitting that the image means nothing but gains meaning through repetition as people think that anyone who puts up so many identical images must be important.
It’s worth noting that the only piece of impassioned artistry on display in Exit Through the Gift Shop is Thierry’s attempt to edit his thousands of hours of documentary video into a film, which he titles Life Remote Control: The Movie (one of many too-on-the-nose jokes that make me skeptical of its veracity). It’s an avant-garde street documentary structured around the chaotic nature of the street art movement that also reflects the subjective experiences of Thierry as a participant in the movement — in other words, original, personal art, as distinct from Banksy as he is from Modigliani. Of course, Banksy immediately dismisses the film as unwatchable, and, thanks to the power of selective editing, so do we. He then commandeers the project to turn it into Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Thierry, discouraged with filmmaking but even more determined to hit it big and win Banksy’s approval, decides to become Mr. Brainwash, subordinating his unique and fascinating (if annoying) personality beneath the generic image of a post-Warholian hipster artist.
Compared to Thierry’s bizarre film, Banksy’s own artwork, which the film treats as undeniable masterpieces (an objective narrator distracts us from Banksy’s hand in the film’s writing and editing), is terribly banal: still images from Pulp Fiction with the characters holding bananas instead of guns, rats with umbrellas, phone booths destroyed to look like they’d been killed by an axe murderer. The political edge to his paintings on the Gaza wall and the integrity of his anonymity are undercut by his selling his work at Sotheby’s and the feature-length advertisement for his own genius that the film functions as. The paintings of Elvis with a machine gun and the tower of televisions in Thierry’s exhibit could easily pass for Banksy’s own if they just had Banksy’s graffiti tag — that is, his trademark symbol, his logo, his brand. That’s even how the film is credited: Exit Through the Gift Shop is not “directed by” or “written by” Banksy, but is simply “A Banksy film,” as though Banksy were the name of a multinational media conglomerate.
Perhaps in 2010 we’ve developed a high tolerance for postmodernist ironic conceits, but The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane quite missed the point when he wrote that “Exit Through the Gift Shop feels dangerously close to the promotion of a cult — almost, dare one say it, of a brand.” These hyperbolically self-aware comic loop de loops all point to the subversive heart of a brilliant transgressive comedy that beats underneath the film’s uneasy — and false — documentary exterior. Whether it’s a prank or not, it’s definitely the work of a master jester, an anarchic trickster extraordinaire who speaks in opposites and sets fire to his own creations just for a laugh. Its hilarious deflation of the art world’s preposterous delusion that it’s somehow above capitalism makes it extremely tempting to call it something like a “satirical masterpiece,” but since the film treats “masterpiece” as the art world’s equivalent of “9 out of ten dentists recommend our toothpaste,” doing so would be the critical equivalent of sitting on a whoopee cushion.