It was a sepia-toned 1996 when, unsupervised, a neighbor’s son and I spray-painted our names on the face of the barn behind his family’s house. Upon discovery hours later, we were severely reprimanded, yet our sloppy signatures remained up for years afterward.
My conception of the street art movement, and certainly my participation in it, never blossomed beyond that hasty experiment. Over the subsequent decade and a half, I’ve often admired the work of anonymous graffiti artists from afar, but I hadn’t given the culture or cultivation of the form a second thought. And it turns out that’s pretty much the perfect place to come into “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” which begins as a rose-tinted overview of the medium, including interviews with some of its key players, including “Space Invader,” who pastes mosaics of Atari video game sprites in Paris and throughout the world, and Shepard Fairey, who made a huge name for himself during the 2008 US presidential campaign for his now iconic portrait of Barack Obama.
But behind the somewhat plodding framework of the first thirty minutes, Banksy, who cloaks himself in a black, underlit hoodie and speaks with voice mask on camera, lays the foundation for the real protagonist, and consequently, the real film that “Exit Through the Gift Shop” becomes. “The film is the story of what happened when this guy tried to make a documentary about me, but he was actually a lot more interesting than I am,” he explains.
That guy is Thierry Guetta, cousin to the aforementioned “Space Invader.” Thierry is a compulsive videographer, and through his cousin, develops a romance with the world of street art that becomes a natural engine for the documentary, with some fascinating and unexpected developments later on. I absolutely don’t want to spoil where it goes, suffice it to say that the story becomes at once more intimate and simultaneously more involving, while the intellectual scope funnels out into a broader examination of art itself.
The latter forty-five minutes are so good that I’m inclined to forgive the former its lack of innovation, but especially by comparison, the beginning feels a little overly-plump. Banksy is spot-on in his assertion that Thierry is an interesting subject, and perhaps the greatest flaw of the film is that he’s behind the camera for too much of it. His footage is hemmed together with interview segments and archival snippets, compiled with a decidedly DYI attitude that lends the film an unobtrusive authenticity.
There are a hundred self-serving documentaries released each year that may be internally enjoyed by a specific demographic, and only a couple that manage to extrapolate an esoteric topic into something universal, and “Gift Shop” is the rare exception as a terrific and often very funny look at the human perception of art—That is, once the formality of defining and contextualizing the movement is out of the way.
So you don’t need any inherent interest in graffiti or street art to appreciate Banksy's film, but you do need to be willing to consider the possibility that beyond the legal ramifications of defacing public property, there is a potential for beauty. The film is as much a love-letter to the lifestyle as it is a discourse on creativity and commerce, and your personal definition of art will weigh heavily on your interpretation of the lingering questions the director leaves you with.
But above all, the upbeat pace and vivid protagonist are the reasons "Exit Through the Gift Shop" is such a satisfying experience. Forget art, it's fun.