“Exit Through the Gift Shop” is unquestionably entertaining, even though I don’t know what it is.
I assume it’s a pseudo-documentary prank executed by the secretive London-based graffiti artist known as Banksy. Or at least it’s partly pseudo — assuming Banksy himself actually exists, which nobody can really swear to.
After providing a bit of background information on the boom in graffiti art since the ’90s, we come to know the gentleman whose underground footage we are supposedly watching: an L.A.-based Frenchman named Thierry Guetta.
His compulsive video-making led him to observe a variety of famous graffiti-makers, including Shepard Fairey (creator of an underground image of Barack Obama that became famous and now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery) and Banksy, who appears in the movie with his face and voice obscured.
Speaking as someone who loathes graffiti in any shape or form, I am surprised to say that since I first heard about Banksy, I have been intrigued by his work. Some of his painted/stenciled scenes are really clever, and occasionally (as with a bright, happy “hole,” complete with view of tropical paradise, he installed on the barrier wall running along the West Bank) amazing.
With such a track record, it seems unlikely that Banksy would offer a straightforward documentary portrait of the eccentric Guetta — who, in a late turn in the film, decides to be a great street artist himself and organizes a giant exhibition in Los Angeles in 2008 under the pseudonym Mr. Brainwash.
That show got a lot of hype, attracted a lot of scenesters and sold a million bucks’ worth of incredibly derivative art, according to the movie. And clearly part of the point of “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is to satirize the contemporary art world and its hipster patrons.
Mr. Brainwash’s exhibition was called “Life is Beautiful,” which you might recall as the title of Roberto Benigni’s film about a man who constructs an elaborate fantasy to cover the realities of a concentration camp. Maybe Banksy’s trying to say something.
Or not — that’s the frustrating thing about a prank. The audience for “Exit” is enjoying a spectacle that reassures us about how pretentious art mavens can be hoodwinked. But maybe we’re getting punked ourselves, which makes the point of the movie less clear.
One firm lesson: If you get the chance to videotape somebody spray-painting a fresco on the side of a building at night, do it. There might be some sucker willing to pay you for it someday.