Exit Through the Gift Shop is a difficult movie to review. It's a documentary, but isn't distinguished by style, insight or even scrupulous attention to detail. On top of that, the movie changes its focus about half way through. As a result, you may leave the theater unsure whether you should believe all of what you've seen and even half of what you've heard in this amusing look at the anarchic world of street art.
Such misgivings aside, it's difficult to dismiss this happily ambiguous piece of work. In being so elusive, Exit Through the Gift Shop may have captured something essential about its subject: I came away thinking that street artists are seriously unserious, and that work can be taken as a kind of running assault on the sometimes impregnable world of galleries, museums and other “official” venues. It's even possible that street art movement – if it's not to grand to call it a "movement" – reflects a culture that already has shifted its priorities from high art to popular production. The in-your-face audacity of the best street art gives Gift Shop much of its kick.
I suppose the movie is a bit of a cinematic Rorschach. Because of its ambiguity, it's possible to see Gift Shop as a goof on art-world pretensions, as a goof on itself, and even as a goof on the purported veracity of documentaries. At its best, Gift Shop offers an intriguing display of street art from a variety of its best practitioners.
If you've been yearning to know what an artist called Space Invader has been up to, here's your chance. You'll also learn about the work of Shepard Fairey, who became famous for a series of Andre the Giant posters and for creating a trademark Barack Obama campaign poster that eventually resulted in a lawsuit. The Associated Press sued Fairey for appropriating one of its images and turning it into an icon and collector's item.
All well and good – and even fun – but Gift Shop remains alarmingly mum on nagging questions involving its subject. Does street art enhance or deface the public environment? Shouldn't those who are exposed to it have a choice about whether they want to look at it? You'll have to decide for yourself because the rebelliousness and physical daring of the street artists is presented without much examination, even when that same rebelliousness becomes marketable. Some of these art guerrillas have pretty fat bankbooks.
So who actually made Gift Shop? Internet Movie Data Base lists Banksy as its director. Banksy – for the uninitiated – is a British street artist with an outsized reputation and a penchant for anonymity. He's interviewed in the film, but his face is obscured by shadows and his head is covered with a hoodie. The movie begins with Banksy telling us about the somewhat dubious exploits of a compulsive, amateur videographer named Thierry Guetta. The French-born Guetta, who lives in Los Angeles, photographed a variety of street artists at work, but desperately wanted to meet Banksy, whose high-priced work seems to have plenty of appeal for collectors. Eventually, Guetta got his wish.
When Banksy suggests that Guetta actually put a film together, the photographer stumbles. He has tons of footage, but no idea about how to assemble a film. The resultant production – called Life: Remote Control -- proves unwatchable.
With a bit of prodding from Banksy, Guetta decides to become a street artist himself, shifting his attentions to a Los Angeles-based show that he hopes will rival an exhibition Banksy staged in the same city. Outdoing Banksy was no easy task; Banksy procured (and painted) a live elephant for his show.
Exit Through the Gift Shop, which caused quite a stir at January's Sundance Film Festival, has no startling news for us. Street artists talk about the kick derived from the danger of expressing oneself illegally, and the relationship between Guetta to his subjects – from documentarian to accomplice – contains few shocks. Some of the artists are happy to have Guetta around because, like them, he's willing to scale walls and climb billboards. Besides, he often serves as a lookout for the cops.
Actor Rhys Ifans narrates the movie in stentorian tones that make you wonder if the whole thing might be intended as a put-on. At times, it's difficult to believe that you're not watching a mutation of the mockumentary, only with real people playing some version of themselves.
The movie eventually holds Guetta up as an ambitious poseur. Fake or not, Mr. Brainwash -- Guetta's nom de artiste -- must be laughing all the way to the bank; he sold a lot of work at his show. Whatever else Exit Through the Gift Shop might be, it manages to provide chuckles, and, in its way, it reveals plenty about those who make street art, often stenciling it on the side of buildings or billboards.
If we lived in a totalitarian society, much street art would be viewed as protest against the prevailing power structure. In an open society, the art seems apolitical and prankish, and -- much like this movie -- riven with contradiction: It's both subversive in spirit and eager to please.