Exit Through the Gift Shop isn't a documentary about the illusive street artist Banksy. It's a documentary about street art and what happens when a subculture is co-opted and then consumed by the mainstream. It's about what happens next in that process, when art is commodified and reduced to entertainment. But it's mostly about the one flimsy thing that separates art from pop culture: intention.
This documentary centers on the intertwining stories of Thierry Guttera, and street artists Shepard Fairey and Banksy. Guttera is a loner Frenchman in L.A running a vintage clothing shop by day and filming illicit graffti artists by night. His cousin Invader leads him to Shepard Fairey (of Obama Hope poster fame) who opens the door to an entire counterculture of bandito artists roaming the streets after dark armed with cans of spray paint. He records them scrawling subversive messages on alley walls, train cars, bus stops and stop signs. Over time, he becomes one of them, his omnipresent camera recording their every move. As he becomes more deeply immersed in this illicit world, he becomes obsessed with adding to his collection the most elusive and secretive trophy of them all, Banksy.
In an interesting twist, though Guttera had captured tens of thousands of hours of footage, he never watched or cataloged the film he collected, dumping it without order or reason into 20 gallon tubs and piling it in a store room like a racoon. For him, the interesting part of film making was the pretense of the camera which allowed him to be there in the first place.
Eventually, and against the odds, he does meet and befriend Banksy and is brought into his trusted inner circle. At that very moment, Banksy is skyrocketing to fame in the art world and his work is commanding record breaking prices. Banksy realizes that the movement he helped to create is about to become swallowed up by the mainstream and urges his friend Thierry Guterra to finally make his documentary with all the incredible footage he has collected.
So Guterra does. From his massive stash of film, he randomly pulls clips together to form an hour and a half long meth fueled nightmare of cut together snippets. Banksy is unimpressed, but feels that someone ought to do something with Guterra's film hoard. Banksy suggests that Guterra try his hand at an art show while Banksy and his team goes through the footage independently.
Guterra throws himself into the art world fray without hesitation. Since he has toured around the world filming different artists, he has seen plenty of high end gallery shows, but doesn't know much about what it takes to run one himself. He rents a warehouse space and hires a massive team of creative people to help execute his vision Andy Warhol Factory Style. He spares no expense and re-mortgages his house and business to pay the costs. His graffito bandito friends agree to help him and through the endorsements of now world famous street artists he is welcomed into the art world without much critical deliberation.
The documentary walks us through the hype factory of his big debut show and asks the question, What, if anything, separates the work of an imposter (or, more kindly, newcomer) like Thierry Guterra (now going by the alias of Mr. Brainwash), and the work of long standing members of the subculture like Banksy and Shephard Fairy?
The artists themselves seem puzzled. Who is the joke really on? What is the intention behind what they are doing? Graffiti is all teasing and provoking authority and promoting rebellion, so what happens when it is accepted into mainstream pop culture? Is it then stripped of all meaning? And if so, how can any of these artists claim to be more legitimate than Mr. Brainwash?
There has been speculation that the whole thing is an elaborate hoax masterminded by Banksy, but I tend to agree with Boston Globe reviewer Ty Burr who said, "I'm not buying it; for one thing, this story's too good, too weirdly rich, to be made up. For another, the movie's gently amused scorn lands on everyone." They say that truth is stranger than fiction and it certainly seems to hold true in this little movie.