Judge Erich Asperschlager has never been challenged to a break dance battle but he always carries around cardboard, just in case.
"I don't think Thierry played by the rules. But there aren't supposed to be any rules."
Graffiti has come a long way from the days of stylized names and break dance battle backdrops. The modern Street Art movement is made up of a collection of artists who use other people's property as canvases for their icons, illustrations, and political messages. Although no less annoying to uptight law-abiding folks who consider it vandalism, the best of the best take full advantage of the cover of night to make some of the most interesting contemporary art. One of the most famous street artists is a British bloke who goes by the name "Banksy," a man of mystery whose identity remains a secret, even as some of the art world's most serious collectors snap up his work.
Narrated by Rhys Ifans, the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop is "a Banksy film," though most of it is focused on Thierry Guetta, an obsessive filmmaker who shot hundreds of hours of footage of the most important and influential street artists plying their trade, before setting down the camera and becoming a minor art celebrity himself under the moniker "Mr. Brainwash." Since the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, Exit's truthfulness has been called into question. Is "Mr. Brainwash" ("MBW" for short) just a character created by Banksy to poke fun at the art world, or is he the real deal? Is the story of his rise to fame, including the massive exhibitions that made him rich, all an elaborate ruse? Who knows—but the story sure is fascinating to watch.
Even if Guetta isn't fictional, he's still a character. A balding and slightly overweight Frenchman with an old-timey wraparound mustache, Thierry does everything with gusto. Whether scaling rooftops in the dark to get the perfect shot, pretending to be assembling footage for a movie, or abandoning his wife and kids for the umpteenth time to go halfway around the world, he's fully invested. That the art Guetta ends up making isn't all that original is overshadowed by the enthusiasm with which he hires other people to make it.
Besides the story of Thierry and the movie he tells everyone he's making (but really isn't), Exit Through the Gift Shop is a whirlwind history of street art—from its simple graffiti beginnings to the ambitious drawings, posters, and sculptures that led to a host of gallery exhibitions and big bucks. It profiles such oddly named luminaries as Space Invader (Thierry's cousin, whose mosaics based on old video games got MBW into the street art world), Neckface, Sweet Toof & Cyclops, Swoon, Borf, Buffmonster, and Shepard Fairey—who gets a good chunk of the non-Thierry screentime. Fairey is best known these days for his Obama "HOPE" poster and the copyright lawsuit that followed when an AP photographer claimed he based the print on one of his pictures (which, given the highly illegal nature of street art, is kind of like getting mad at a burglar for tracking mud in your house).
This is "a Banksy film," though, and even when it's supposedly about Thierry, or the other street artists, it's really about him. True to his secretive nature, Banksy spends the whole movie with a hood covering his face and his voice altered so all you can really tell for sure is that he's British. That's fine, because his work speaks for itself. Full of biting humor and political satire, Banksy's stenciled graffiti and sculptural projects are in a class by themselves. Then again, maybe that's just what Banksy wants us to think. Given the ambiguity surrounding the creation of this film, it's hard to tell. The only thing that's for certain is that Exit Through the Gift Shop does a good job of selling the audience on all things Banksy.
Exit Through the Gift Shop comes in 80 percent recycled folded cardboard packaging, with collectible paper sunglasses modeled after Banksy's iconic rat image, two window decals, and two picture postcards featuring one piece by Banksy and one by MBW. The on-disc extras kick off with a 13-minute documentary about Banksy and his work, called "B Movie." It's a fun overview of some of his most famous work, including his stencils, the skewed classical-style paintings that he snuck into the Tate museum and stuck up on the walls, and a parody of Paris Hilton's CD that he "reverse shoplifted" onto record shop shelves.
The longest extra is a 15-minute "lawyer's cut" of Life Remote Control, the ADD film that Thierry made when pressed to assemble his footage. It's just long enough to make you think it's real, and just short enough to seem like part of the potential put-on (especially when the original is supposedly a full 90 minutes).
Wrapping up the bonus features are five short deleted scenes, and "A Star is Born," a 7-minute look at MBW's participation in street art's "Cans Festival" (in which he once again gets other people to do his work for him). The movie and all of the extras are presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, assembled from a variety of source materials, much of it shot in low light. The picture quality isn't going to win any awards, but given the subject matter, a reference-quality presentation would be odd. The feature has a 5.1 surround track that's perfectly acceptable given the documentary format.
Exit Through the Gift Shop doesn't end the argument about graffiti's status as art, but it does argue that the best street artists are doing some of the most important and interesting work today. Mr. Brainwash might be real, or he might not, but he provides an intimate look into a shadowy world few people ever see, in a documentary helmed by an artist whose identity we may never know as anything other than "Banksy."
I say it's art! Not guilty!
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