11 May 2010


It’s rare for one film to fully track how an artistic movement evolves from inception to irrelevance, but that’s just what this ingenuously constructed, gleefully entertaining documentary does for graffiti-inspired guerrilla street art—as it’s all happening, no less.

We begin with secretive British artist Banksy, whose elaborate, provocative pranks (such as playfully defacing a portion of the Gaza Strip wall) elevate street art into something that attracts critical acclaim, mass media coverage and eventually, considerable moolah from collectors. Hiding his face in shadow and electronically altering his voice, he keeps his anonymity while addressing the camera. He relays the story of Thierry Guetta, a transplanted Frenchman who ostensibly runs an Los Angeles clothing boutique but seems to spend all of his time (circa the late ‘90s) filming everything and everyone he sees with a portable video camera.

Inspired by a relative who is himself an aspiring street artist, Guetta begins to track down all the L.A. street artists he can find (including a young Shepard Fairey long before his iconic Obama “Hope” print made him a household name). Under the pretense that he’s making a documentary, Guetta videotapes them as they create and (illegally) display their work on public and private property. In turn, he becomes their accomplice, soaking up valuable lessons. Before long, he befriends Banksy, who tentatively allows him to keep a record of his work. Guetta, however, never had any intentions of actually making a documentary. Feeling mounting pressure to do so from all the artists he’s followed (manipulated?), he proves to be a fabulously inept filmmaker. Banksy suggests that Guetta put the documentary aside and instead create some street art of his own—perhaps even put on a show. Meanwhile, Banksy decides to have a go at making his own documentary using Guetta's voluminous tapes of unmarked footage, and the finished product is the film you’ve been watching.

It doesn’t end there. In an astonishing final act, Guetta unexpectedly turns the whole movement on its head in what’s either a cunning display of his idiot-savant nature or just miraculously dumb luck. As for growing speculation that the film is just another Banksy hoax, well, Guetta is undeniably a character (with his stout stature and massive sideburns and ‘stache, he rather resembles one of the lesser-known Mario Bros.), but he seems so genuinely off that I don’t believe for a moment that he could be made up—even by someone as mischievously creative as Banksy, who proves himself a seriously adept filmmaker. Captivating from front to back, EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP both revels in street art’s illicit thrills and astutely, hilariously critiques the commoditized monster it becomes.

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