Exit Through the Gift Shop is a lot of different things all at once. There is so much information to process and so much of it is ripe with a stranger-than-fiction quality that its no wonder people find it to be somewhat if not entirely farcical. After all, the film’s director and infamous graffiti artist Banksy is best known for his affronting subversiveness, not at all prone to ignoring the potential of a metaphor. But the events of the film and the role he plays in it suggest quite a lot and likewise present a great deal to be discussed.
Though the movie in its larger scope is a love letter to the street art movement, the central story of Gift Shop is that of Thierry Guetta, the Frenchman who immigrated to LA and, while living a comfortable life owning a vintage clothing story, inadvertently became assimilated into the heart of modern art world. Throughout the early nineties anyone who knew Guetta said that he never went anywhere without his camera; one year while on vacation in France, Guetta discovered that his cousin was secretly the internationally recognized street artist Space Invader – and from then on, street art became Guetta’s obsession. He began following these artists around L.A. religiously, becoming close to the likes of Shepard Fairey (famous for the Andre the Giant/Obey memes and the Obama “Hope” poster art) as well as Sweet Toof, Borf, and Buffmonster. He spent his time following these people around the world to document their actions, though he never seemed to be able to capture his unicorn, the most recognizable, provocative, and famously secretive Banksy.
But since the audience is already aware that Banksy is the director of the film they know that the two eventually did meet and struck up a relationship. After be presented with a utterly terrible collection of footage that Guetta called Life Remote Control, Banksy resolved to make good of the work of this man, likely out of both thanks and guilt after a nail-biting episode over their joint trip to Disneyland; while Banksy commandeered the Guetta footage, he suggested to Guetta, likely hoping to be rid of the cartoon character that the Frenchman seems to be, that he go back to L.A. and become a street artist himself. But what follows in the latter half of the movie is a marked evolution from educational and expository filmmaking into something altogether thought provoking. Most of all it begs you to consider whether or not your treasure is actually just trash, and when the mirror is set in front of you, you might be embarrassed at what you see.
By the end one can’t help but wonder: What is it that Banksy is trying to say? Is it that modern views of art are so warped by obsessions with fame and riches that it has become something grotesque or possibly even been reduced to nothingness? Is he mocking himself, proudly wearing the badge of hypocrite after he blindly encouraged the creation of Guetta as a fame monster? What is it that constitutes art anymore? In any case, Banksy has granted the world the most accessible lesson in metatheater since Wes Craven made the Scream movies. Life imitating art imitating life imitating art imitating… the endlessness of this cycle is downright bonkers, but its also cool and interesting enough to be forgiven for how dangerously close it gets to being intellectual diarrhea – and even if it were only that the story is too ironic and way too entertaining to ever be taken as seriously as it would want to be.