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REVIEW: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Is art imitating a movie...or vice-versa?

Exit Through the Gift Shop:
Rates a B-.

Courtesy photo

This movie is perhaps the most frustrating film I’ve seen in years.

My girlfriend is a huge fan of graffiti artist Banksy. She has a tattoo of one of the pieces he painted on the West Bank. I got her a coffee table book of his stuff (and he does do amazing pieces). Nobody knows anything about him, other than the fact that he’s hugely successful. And he’s now made millions of dollars on what started as illegal pranks and graffiti.

There’s a weird French character that Shepard Fairey described as “someone from 1860, with that mustache…who sweats a lot.” I heard one person say he looked like a thinner John Belushi. I thought he looked like a fatter Rob Schneider.

Theirry Guetta is that guy, and he videos everything -- his children playing, Shaquille O’Neal getting into his limo, ceiling fans spinning. Everything. He said this stems from his mom dying while he was in school and him being immediately removed from the home, and having hazy memories of things from his childhood. He felt his kids needed to have video documentation of everything.

His cousin is a street artist named “Invader” who paints characters from the video game Space Invaders, on various bridges and walls. This leads to Guetta wanting to film other street artists, the most famous being Fairey (who rose to fame with his Andre the Giant “Obey” pieces).

My friend complained this movie didn’t answer enough questions about street art, and that it didn’t tackle the question of – is graffiti, when done this way by people with artistic ability – really a bad thing? Or, if they ever feel they’ve gone too far. Some pieces might show John Lennon with a bullet hole in the head, or a bent up red phone booth that Banksy puts in an alley, that immediately has fans snapping photos. It eventually sells at an auction for half a million dollars.

This film wasn’t about answering the questions about why they do it or what goes through their mind. It was about a few very interesting characters who are involved in street art.

It’s a very timely film, considering Fairey recently lost his lawsuit by using an AP photo of Obama for his famous red and blue poster.

When Banksy realizes he can trust Guetta and that video should be made of what they do, he agrees; his face blurred out and shots of him only from behind. We get to watch the masters at work, including a 9/11 trip to Disneyland, where Banksy jumps a fence and puts a blow up hostage chained up to a fence near the Big Thunder rollercoaster. Watching the coaster stop and security swarm the area (and the description of the interrogation of Guetta) is fascinating.

When Banksy isn’t happy with the film that Guetta completes (it looks more like a video game), he decides to do the movie himself, and he focuses on the nutty Guetta. He suggests Guetta go create street art himself (mostly so he stays out of his hair and he can get at all his video tapes). Guetta, as is his obsessive nature, decides he likes it. He creates his own image to plaster on walls – a man with a video camera. He calls himself “Mr. Brainwash,” and has many disasters along the way. He spills paint all over his SUV. He falls off a ladder and breaks his foot. He gets hassled by cops. And, he decides to go into overdrive with his PR. He gets on the cover of the LA Weekly, rents a huge building, and decides to have an art show similar to the successful one Banksy had (which made lots of money, got lots of press, and folks like Brad Pitt showed up to drop $200,000).

Mr. Brainwash somehow makes a million dollars, selling pieces that look mostly like, well…like everyone else. There’s a lot of Andy Warhol type pieces, Banksy, and any other artist you can think of, just slightly tweeked by MBW.

Banksy ends the movie talking about how baffled he is by it all. Fairey seems fascinated by it all, and by the fans that latched onto Brainwash.

I left the theater thinking I had just witnessed the most interesting documentary you’ll ever see on the art world. All those debates I’ve had with my art loving friends that try to explain abstract art really takes talent, have been proven wrong.

Until I find out…it’s all a big hoax. Yep, that’s right. The filmgoers were Borat-ed.

Banksy apparently pranked us all by creating this fictional character Mr. Brainwash, to show the absurdity of how people just buy art from anyone that they think is up-and-coming and blah blah blah.

It becomes a great statement on the art world, although what I thought was a good documentary on the critique of street and pop-art, now just becomes one big trick on the audience. And I have to wonder what was fake and what was real.

Did Mr. Brainwash really make a million dollars after only a few months of being an “artist?” Did Madonna really commission a CD cover by him? Does his cousin Invader really not speak to him? Or is he even related to Invader at all?

The movie did let us see Banksy in action and I did have a fun time watching it. But for a film that is the best reviewed thus far (it was at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes), I think it disappoints.

I’d give it an A- if it was all real. Since I believe it’s a hoax (some critics, including Roger Ebert, don’t think it is), I have to give it a B-.