When French clothing store owner and obsessive videographer Thierry Guetta sees the work of his cousin, street artist Space Invader, his obsession finds a focus. Soon he's assisting artists of the calibre of Shepard Fairey, but when he finally meets Banksy, the artist asks him to turn his hobby into a documentary. After seeing the result, Banksy suggests that Thierry keep on with his budding street art while he reworks the videotape, but Banksy gets even more alarming results when Thierry turns himself into Mr. Brainwash, the type of artist whose customers are instructed to "Exit Through the Gift Shop."
While there are some who will take "Exit Through the Gift Shop" at face value, it is clear that this brilliant and hilarious semi-mockumentary reveals one of Banksy's best works to date in Mr. Brainwash, a character so clearly bereft of originality and so focused on commerciality that he stands for all that is wrong with the art world. Banksy's turning art into a mirror that reflects back on many of his patrons while pretending to go along with his own joke. "Exit Through the Gift Shop" begins with the documentary Banksy commissioned and ends like "The Rutles." It's not quite like anything you've ever seen before.
Thierry, who clearly has no problem being in front of as well as behind the camera, tells us his compulsion to videotape everything began when he was not present at his mother's death. He has piles of plastic storage bins filled with tapes he never watches again, although Banksy shows us some of the mundane Guetta family video. Things get more interesting once Space Invader, a street artist who makes mosaics from the video game characters and mounts them in public places, is introduced. Soon we're seeing the creative work of such artists as Sweet Toof and Cyclops, Ron English, Swoon and Fairey (one of my favorite pieces was unidentified - a plastic bag installation over a sidewalk vent that turned into a dog when air rushed through it).
Thierry is overwhelmed when Banksy arrives in L.A. and supposedly asks to meet with him. Guetta makes himself completely available to his idol and ends up documenting Banksy's installation of a Guantanamo inmate at Disneyland - and is nearly arrested for it. Banksy's spokesman, Steve Lazarides is confused by the world's most mysterious artist suddenly allowing him to be filmed while at work (Banksy only appears hooded, his face in shadow and his voice processed). We see his warehouse, Banksy creating one of his signature rat stencils and the installation of a modified London phone booth. We really understand why this artist must remain undercover when he shows the remains of 1 million pounds he created with Princess Diana rolling her eyes that actually went into circulation!
Thierry doesn't seem to mind when Banksy sees "Life Remote Control," an arbitrarily edited hodgepodge, and suggest he switch to street art. He becomes obsessed with it in fact, soon covering up one of Fairey's giant Andre the Giant stencils with one of his own. Then he decides to do a show along the lines of Banksy's - only bigger. He hires a bunch of craftsmen to turn his ideas into objects, scores an interview with L.A. Weekly and Mr. Brainwash becomes the art event of the season, his Warhol ripoffs (a Campbell Soup spray can, Marilyns with different faces, etc.) earning a cool mil in his first weekend. Banksy cannot believe what has happened. Mr. Brainwash persists to this day, having recently done of cover of Madonna's latest hits collection.
Rhys Ifans provides just the right not for narration and Banksy illuminates his niche of the art world with a prism of perspective and edgy sense of humor. Thierry Guetta is an entertainingly deluded huckster and "Exit Through the Gift Shop" is a work of genius.
Robin gives "Exit Through the Gift Shop" a B+.
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