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Revisiting the Banksy Documentary, ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’

Banksy documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop has a very different endgame in mind than the one its first half suggests.

“Banksy’s film has a very different endgame in mind than the one its first half suggests.”

“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds. The treasures, and the fakes.”

In Orson Welles’ sleight-of-hand manifesto F for Fake, the notoriously puckish writer-director took on the notion of “expertise” – ostensibly in the world of high-class art, but really as a general concept, as a way of subtly lashing out at his detractors, as well as repositioning the very concept of moviemaking as a kind of fakery in and of itself. The movie worked both as an evocative cinematic essay and as a lovingly biased take on artistic credibility. While renowned UK street artist Banksy’s film debut Exit Through the Gift Shop isn’t on the same level as Welles’ masterpiece, Fake works as a useful reference point for the way in which Gift Shop slyly deceives the audience through misdirection before showing its true colors as a formal art prank with an axe to grind.

For its first hour, Exit seems to serve two distinct, irritatingly unrelated functions. The first, and most obviously indicated by the film’s promotional materials, is to guide the viewer through the recent history of street art, with none other than the mysterious Banksy (whose true face and identity have never been revealed publicly) as the movement’s wily figurehead. the other is to introduce us to the world of zany Frenchman Thierry Guetta, whose habit of constantly filming his life has him stumbling onto the world of street art in LA, eventually finding himself as an indispensable point man for various provocateurs as he prepares to (supposedly) assemble the footage for a documentary about the phenomenon.

Guided by Rhys Ifans’ friendly narration, this portion of the film seems to progress almost too smoothly – if the film is really just an infomercial for Banksy’s brand, as well as an amusing travelogue with a Gondry-esque protagonist, then why the visual subterfuge? (A figure purported by the film to be Banksy himself makes periodic appearances, with his voice altered and his face cloaked under a hoodie, promising us that Guetta is “a more interesting” personage than he is.) As it turns out, Banksy’s film has a very different endgame in mind than the one its first half suggests, and it’s one that throws the rest of the film into sharp relief, with its idealistic overtones and Shepard Fairey success stories suddenly seeming suspect in retrospect.

The film does carry flaws that don’t seem to be covered by Banksy’s post-modern conceit. No attempt is made to connect Fairey’s work for the Obama campaign – certainly the most important mainstream breakthrough for street art worldwide – to the pop-art clusterfuck that crops up at the film’s climax, which threatens to suggest that there’s a “right” and “wrong” way for counterculturalists to sell out. Thankfully, that’s a duality that most of the film avoids carrying, preferring instead to roam free and scamper wildly like the primates that litter Banksy’s murals.

– Simon Howell

Written By

Simon is a sometimes writer and podcaster living in Toronto.

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