Banksy’s cinematic sleight-of-hand

All reviews of Exit Through the Gift Shop should come with a disclaimer: There’s a good chance this whole thing is a hoax. The premise of the ostensible documentary is just too perfect — compulsive videographer Theirry Guetta tries to track down notorious British artist and provocateur Banksy, but once he succeeds, Banksy turns the camera back on the filmmaker. The result is likely the definitive word on the street-art movement — a genre that combines graffiti with high-concept pop art. It’s also hugely entertaining, so long as you don’t mind occasionally feeling like you’re being played.

Most of Exit’s audience is likely looking forward to catching glimpses of the reclusive Banksy and gaining some insight into his process, but while the film does show him in action (with face blurred and voice digitally altered, naturally), Guetta is the real focus. A French transplant living in Los Angeles, Guetta habitually films every moment of his life. Once he stumbles into the world of street art through a family connection, he becomes the movement’s unofficial documentarian, stalking the streets with the likes of Shepard “Obey” Fairey, Space Invader and Sweet Tooth, gaining their trust through his childlike appreciation of their work. The footage Guetta captures of these artists creating their pieces (scaling buildings, pasting up their stencils and spray-painting walls) seems to have been enriched by the adrenaline involved in the act, and it captures the blend of casual rebellion and genuine countercultural significance that has made the movement so impossible to ignore.

As watchable as that all is, though, it has nothing on Guetta’s eventual transformation from bewildered outsider into Mr. Brainwash, an under-thought, derivative and outrageously successful spearhead of the movement. Watching Guetta assemble an impossibly large exhibition at an abandoned television studio, it’s hard to tell if he’s a quixotic genius or if, as some of his employees wonder, he just has some mental deficiencies. Even friends like Banksy and Fairey speak remarkably harshly about the monster they unleashed; as one artist puts it, “I’m not really sure who the joke’s on.”

Prior to Exit, Mr. Brainwash (who has made millions from his art, and even designed the cover of Madonna’s most recent greatest hits collection) was often assumed to be a collaboration between Banksy and Fairey. Whether that view will change because of Exit remains to be seen — the film is delivered without so much as a wink, though the fact that Guetta’s name is a form of the French verb “to watch” might be a hint that his video-obsessed character isn’t real. But sorting out the truth from the lies is part of the fun, and perfectly in keeping with Banksy’s output. Besides, it’s brilliant fun to watch — isn’t that enough?

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