The art of underground prankster Banksy is hard to pin down. The secretive Brit has just made his first movie (I think — there’s no director credit), a documentary (again, I’m going on faith here) that’s either a record of guerrilla graffiti pioneers like Shepard Fairey or a thought-provoking look at the bankruptcy of modern art. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Allow me to double back, a technique that’s this film’s stock in trade.
Exit Through the Gift Shop began (maybe) as a film project by obsessive-compulsive videographer Thierry Guetta, a French-born, LA-based entrepreneur, husband, and father who runs a vintage-clothing store. (Where does he find the time?) During the ’90s, Guetta — then a casual fan of street art — discovered that his cousin was the notorious mosaic artist Space Invader. Camera always in hand, he began recording Invader’s nighttime missions, also acting as lookout (this art form isn’t quite legal, after all). In time, he would document and assist Fairey and others, but Banksy was his Holy Grail.
Fate intervened, and Guetta met his hero. Banksy had never been photographed before, but as the street-art scene grew in stature, this offputting, mutton-chopped Frenchman won him over. The time was right, Banksy thought, for a documentary about the art form he headlines. If only Guetta were a capable filmmaker rather than “someone with mental problems and a camera” — as Banksy concludes after viewing an unwatchable rough cut. Hoping to salvage the project, Banksy distracts Guetta, suggesting he try his hand at street art. The result — thank you, Dr. Frankenstein — is an “overnight artist” who takes the collecting world by storm. Is there a moral here?
Appearing hooded and shrouded in silhouette, his voice electronically altered, Banksy allows that his protégé’s art might be “a bit of a joke.” Could the tale of Guetta — now known as Mr. Brainwash — be an elaborate hoax? I’m happy not to be sure.