At the Oscars this weekend, we’ll find out if Exit Through the Gift Shop wins the Academy Award for best documentary. For the past month several friends have urged me to watch the movie because it is about art and it is apparently by the celebrated London street-artist Banksy. OK. I watched. The end result left me questioning the validity of the movie, the role of documentary, and what the thesis of the movie was.
The first 60 minutes introduce the audience to Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant who has a second-hand clothing store in L.A. and films everything in his daily life, swirling toilets and all. He goes back to France at some point and learns his cousin is Invader, the street artist who glues tiles onto city sidewalks—they all look vaguely like something out of the classic video game Space Invaders. Caught up in this realm, Guetta begins filming the actions of street artists. In a montage of street artists we see Borf (the former Corcoran art student from McLean, Va.) and Swoon (who has shown locally at Irvine Contemporary). Eventually Guetta bumps into Shepard Fairey (who has also shown at Irvine) in a Kinkos in L.A. and Guetta convinces Fairey that he is making a documentary about street art; Guetta becomes Fairey’s unofficial documentarian for the next several years. It’s all very riveting: a glimpse of behind-the-scenes prep work, of tagging in action, of running from the cops, of arrests.
Then, Guetta meets Banksy, and is permitted access to Banksy’s world as he prepares for his L.A. show “Barely Legal,” which drew thousands of visitors in the few days it exhibited, and upset countless animal rights activists for the live elephant the artist painted and exhibited.
Every second of the first 60 minutes is believable, if not incredible. But after Banksy asks to see a cut of the film Guetta has been working on, the movie exits the realm of plausibility. It isn’t because Guetta isn’t really working on a movie, or that he has never looked at the countless hours of documentation he has recorded. It also isn’t because Guetta claims to have made a rough cut, which Banksy later claims to hate. And it isn’t because Banksy encourages Guetta to become his own artist, and that Guetta heeds the advice and begins making and documenting his own street art. It’s what Guetta accomplishes in less than a year.
Guetta reinvents himself as Mr. Brain Wash. He sells off investments, hires hordes of assistants, gets publicists, and essentially makes a production line of work that looks vaguely like something Shepard Fairey or Banksy might make: highly designed, sometimes political, sometimes apolitical, and everything appropriated. What’s appropriated has all the creativity of a college-level Intro to Appropriation: too much Warhol, and Britney Spears, and Kate Moss; too many knock-offs, one-liners, and weak attempts at irony. All of the work is in preparation for a giant exhibition at the abandoned CBS Columbia Square studios in L.A., which Guetta rents for several months to put together a one-week show. It’s overwhelming! Then three weeks before the big opening, Guetta falls, breaks his foot. Everything comes together last-minute. The show is a big success! A five-day show becomes a two-month engagement. Over a million dollars in art is sold. I can’t help but laugh. This is unreal!
And, in truth, it very well may be. After its debut at Sundance last year, it seemed that every movie critic speculated whether the film was a hoax. We can argue if Guetta really made all the work; hoax is entirely the wrong word. Guetta is real. The thousands of hours of tapes are (likely) real. The documentation of street artists is real. The assistants who made the work for the art show were real. The art—if you can call it art—was real. Even the art show in L.A. was real. Still, I can’t help wonder if Guetta is the Tony Clifton to Banksy’s and Fairey’s Andy Kaufman. And, if there is manufacturing at play, does the movie really merit an Oscar nom for best documentary?
Documentary filmmaking isn’t what it used to be. Actually, it never was to begin with. For as much crap as labeled docugandists Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock get, the objective of many documentary films is to present a thesis and to selectively support that thesis. The practice goes back to Nanook from the North in 1922, when the director requested the subject of the film (whom the director named Nanook) abandon his gun and hunt with a traditional spear. The director also constructed a three-quarters igloo for interior shots. Wildlife filmmakers sometimes manufacture kill shots, placing debilitated prey in the path of the predator to get the desired shot. Even Ken Burns, perhaps the most notable documentarian of our time, has been called out for omitting the contribution of Latinos during World War II. Still, the hunt scenes in Nanook are real—animals did die. Those lions sleeping on the savanna are real. And, despite the omissions, intended or accidental, the narrative Burns reconstructed was real. Banksy’s film can legitimately be considered a documentary film—because much of it was real.
To get at the root of why this may have been a prank requires an examination of some past projects of Banksy. All street-art is a prank. The good stuff requires wit so that the passers-by won’t discredit it as mere vandalism. Sometimes the wit is in the quality of the image. Scale and location also help, as Borf demonstrated locally when he painted a sign on an overpass. Banksy took street-art many steps beyond painting or wheat-pasting an image to a building.
In 2004, Banksy altered the 10-pound note and replaced the head of the queen with the head of Princess Dianna. The notes fell into circulation and were spent in pubs throughout London. In 2006, Banksy removed several hundred copies of Paris Hilton’s debut album from music stores and replaced them with an altered version of the art and disc. Both acts have real legal consequences, and he still did them. If this movie is “a hoax,” there are no legal repercussions. Why not make a fake movie? To piddle our time asking if the movie was a ruse misses the major points of the movie.
Banksy, Fairey, and the other street artists briefly highlighted never made street art to become rich. They may not have even done it for the notoriety of namesake and recognition. They did it for a myriad of reasons: boredom, anger, rebellion, anarchy, the rush. I doubt Fairey, as an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design, considered that his little “Andre the Giant has a Posse” stickers might some day lead to a career in which he earned thousands of dollars for a screenprint, let alone a lawsuit for copyright infringement. But it did. Banksy likely never thought that the first image of a painted rat would lead to his work being collected by Hollywood stars. But it has.
Though a tag on the street might not be intended to defy the nature of commerce—and therefore the commercial gallery system—it does. So, there is inherent irony that these guys who plaster and paint stuff on walls along the street for free, eventually get exhibited by dealers and have their works snagged up by collectors for a fee. For every store owner who wants to pay thousands to remove the work there are 30 collectors willing to pay thousands to consume the work. Eventually the work is not celebrated for the heft of craft or message, it is celebrated for the hype of branding. And Banksy is the biggest brand. He knows it. And chances are he probably thinks it’s kinda stupid, and he wants you to know that, too.
This movie is a critique of the gallery culture that willingly whips up a frenzy around street art. It is a critique of the media culture that is capable of converting Guetta, a no-name second-hand clothier and two-bit sham, into a visionary artist. Now that the movie is up for an Academy Award, it becomes a critique of that system, too. If it wins, it will inadvertently become a symbol of how we prefer the distraction of Banksy and his delicious “prankumentary” over heavier concerns, like how military units stay together when fighting in a war zone, or how fracking for natural gas can turn tap water into a flammable substance, or how a population of poor people scavenge the dumps around Rio de Janeiro in search of sustenance and a sustainable living. There are more important issues out there. Yet, considering how easily distracted we are, the movie reminds us that Guetta is not the only source of Brain Wash.