Exit Through the Gift Shop
The anonymous British “street artist” known as “Banksy” has a genius for self-promotion. Who else could generate buzz for the otherwise sleepy Oscar category of Best Documentary Feature by getting people talking about whether he’d show up – and if so, whether he’d be disguised – to accept an award he had almost no chance of winning? (The winners, as expected, were Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs for Inside Job.) Who else could release a documentary that spends most of its 86-minute running time chronicling the escapades of a nutty Frenchman named Thierry Guetta (“he was actually a lot more interesting than I am”, says Banksy), and have people emerge convinced that the film is really about Banksy – to the point where speculation persists that the whole thing is an elaborate prank, planned and executed over a span of years? And who else could make a relentless satire of the entire movement he represents and its ultimate sellout to celebrity and sales, while still managing to keep his own artistic reputation unblemished?
If only Andy Warhol had lived to see it.
Studio: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Film Length: 86 min.
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1; English DTS 2.0 (DVD: DD 5.1, 2.0)
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Disc Format: 1 25GB + 1 DVD-9
Package: Cardboard multi-fold case in cardboard box
Theatrical Release Date: Mar. 5, 2010 (U.K.); Apr. 6, 2010 (U.S.)
Blu-ray Release Date: Dec. 14, 2010 (DVD only); Mar. 8, 2011 (Blu-ray/DVD combo)
It’s not Gone with the Wind, but there’s probably a moral in there somewhere.
For purposes of this review, I am assuming that Exit Through the Gift Shop is not a hoax and that everything it recounts is genuine. If it is a hoax, it’s a terrific parable and deserves to be treated as true.
With its dryly understated narration by actor Rhys Ifans, Gift Shop tells two intertwined stories. One is that of Thierry Guetta, a French ex-patriate living in L.A. who’d achieved a modest success with a vintage clothing shop but whose real passion in life was filming everything with a portable video camera. Thierry was literally addicted to video recording. His addiction would have produced nothing more than the biggest family album in history, were it not for the fact that his cousin happened to be a street artist known as “Space Invader”.
This is where Gift Shop’s second story begins. Space Invader was part of a nascent movement that came to be known as “street art”. An outgrowth of urban graffiti, street art straddled a fine line (some would say not so fine) between art and vandalism. Its practitioners used public spaces such as billboards or building walls. At least at the outset, they had no interest in sales or galleries and no thought of permanence. They often saw themselves as adding a comment, often humorous or satirical, to the urban landscape. (Space Invader took his name from the early arcade game, whose figures he reproduced in exact detail but at much larger scale.)
Through his cousin, Thierry met numerous other street artists, and he began to accompany them on their artistic outings, always toting his video camera. Thierry explained his ever-present recording apparatus by saying he was making a documentary on street art. In fact, he had no clue how to make a documentary and never watched the footage he shot. But Thierry became fascinated with street artists and obsessed with “collecting” all the members of this unusual society. One member continued to elude him, and that member was arguably the most distinguished: Banksy.
Banksy had become notorious for both the wit and the audacity of his stunts. Some of these are covered in Gift Shop, and others are described in the short entitled “B Movie” in the extras. For Thierry, Banksy appears to have become a mixture of god, rock star and great white whale. The sequence in which Thierry recalls receiving a phone call in 2006 from an L.A. street artist saying that Banksy was in town and would like someone to show him some good painting spots, then goes tearing across L.A. like a Trekkie who’d been asked to chauffeur Captain Kirk, is hilarious, especially because it’s intercut with scenes of Banksy’s bemused account, in his restrained British tone, of Thierry’s frenzied hero worship. (Whenever Banksy appears in Gift Shop, his face is obscured by a hoodie, and his voice is electronically altered.)
From Thierry’s account of his outings with street artists, Banksy concluded that Thierry had captured a unique record of many street art works that no longer existed. Banksy was sufficiently impressed with Thierry’s enthusiasm that he let the video addict film him working, with certain limitations. After concluding his L.A. trip, Banksy brought Thierry back to London to film some of his projects there, to the consternation of many long-time associates. He even gave Thierry a tour of his studio.
It may not be obvious on first viewing, but this is where Gift Shop’s two stories begin to merge and transform one another. At this point, Banksy still believed that Thierry was a genuine documentarian instead of, as Banksy would later say, “someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera”. In fact, though, Thierry was about to overcome his video addiction after so many years, because he’d discovered a new passion – he returned from his trip to England and began making his own street art. His work was unoriginal and utterly derivative, but Thierry would eventually reinvent himself as “Mister Brainwash” and use his association with Banksy to persuade the art world that he was the genuine article. In effect, Thierry had returned to his roots: repackaging old goods (first, clothing; now, art) at a huge markup.
Meanwhile, Banksy was about to take a fateful step. In September 2006, he held his first gallery show at a warehouse in a seedy part of L.A. Entitled “Barely Legal”, the show was mobbed by press and celebrities and cemented Banksy as a bankable artist. Arguably, it also marked the end of “street art” as a renegade movement. After the success of “Barely Legal”, other street artists abandoned the streets for galleries – including, above all, the newly minted Mister Brainwash.
But first Banksy wanted to see this legendary documentary that Thierry was supposed to have been working on. Under pressure from his idol, Thierry delivered a 90-minute cut of the film he’d decided to call Life Remote Control. An excerpt is included in Gift Shop and a longer version is included in the disc’s extras. It was unwatchable. (I defy anyone to make it through the fifteen-minute version in the disc’s extras.) Not knowing what else to do, Banksy suggested that Thierry return to his work as “Mister Brainwash” and let him take a crack at editing the footage.
Be careful what you wish for.
In June 2008, Thierry/Mister Brainwash held a huge show called “Life Is Beautiful” in the former CBS Studios on Sunset Blvd. With a promotional statement cajoled from Banksy and professional help obtained through Banksy’s contacts, the show was a huge success despite down-to-the-wire chaos behind the scenes (chronicled at length in Gift Shop). The sheer volume of Thierry’s output, most of it produced by hired labor, spoke to its lack of originality. As Banksy says, “There’s no one like Thierry, even though his art looks like everyone else’s.”
Modern culture moves at lightning speed, chewing ferociously through trends and ideas. Artistic movements that once would have had decades to develop and mature now have only a few years before they’re reduced to kitsch or commercialism. With stunning efficiency, Gift Shop chronicles how street art sprouted and blossomed, then got harvested and xeroxed by a knock-off artist. In his final scene, a rueful Banksy sits in his studio and says: “I always used to encourage everyone I met to make art. . . . I don’t really do that so much anymore.” According to the closing credits, he won’t be making another art documentary either.
Gift Shop was edited and completed on a digital intermediate derived from a variety of sources of differing resolutions. Some of the footage (e.g., night shoots of street artists at work) does not have sufficient detail or color to reveal much of note on Blu-ray. Even the footage that Thierry shot under better conditions is undistinguished, because he was using consumer-grade equipment and was anything but a professional.
However, the team Banksy hired to assist him were professionals, and they’ve assembled the film in such a way that its varying sources work to create visual interest, almost like subtle shifts in a color palette. When a high-resolution source does appear (usually in the form of a series of still photographs), the clarity and detail pop from the frame with real impact, and Blu-ray’s resolution is essential for the full effect. As befits its “street art” subject matter, Gift Shop appears to be something rough around the edges and casually tossed off, but the closer you examine it, the more you realize it’s been thoughtfully composed and carefully considered. The Blu-ray’s image does it full justice.
A big advantage on disc that wasn’t available in the theater is the ability to freeze-frame on images and admire some of the art (or, in the case of Mister Brainwash, marvel at what someone can get away with).
As with most documentaries, the soundtrack is serviceable, delivering the narration and the voices of the interview subjects clearly (or, in Banksy’s case, with appropriate distortion). The most memorable selection used on the soundtrack is Richard Hawley’s “Tonight the Streets Are Ours”. Some additional bits of amusing musical pastiche were composed by Roni Size, according to IMDb. Although the track is 5.1 (in DTS lossless), the music is spread across the front soundstage, with little or no support from the rear channels. It sounds just fine, though.
The special features are identical to those on the DVD and are all in standard definition at 1.78:1, enhanced for 16:9.
More Brainwashing: Deleted Scenes (5:16). There are five scenes, and all but one relate to Thierry’s emergence as Mister Brainwash. Including them would have overweighted the back end of the film, but they are entertaining scenes, especially the one where Thierry explains how he used Craig’s List to save tens of thousands of dollars of demolition and removal costs to clear the abandoned CBS Studios so that he could hold the “Life Is Beautiful” show there.
A Star Is Born (MBW at Cans Festival) (7:09). In May 2008, a month before his “Life Is Beautiful” show in Los Angeles, Thierry attended the “Cans Festival” organized by Banksy in an abandoned tunnel beneath a London train station. Thierry was supposed to record the proceedings, but he ended up creating and showing some work – or, as this documentary short demonstrates, directing others in the creation of work that he signed with the soon-to-be-iconic “MBW”.
Life Remote Control (Lawyer’s Edit) (15:03). A short version of the 90-minute film that Thierry first delivered to Banksy, this unwatchable mess will induce, depending on your disposition, sleep, nausea or an epileptic seizure.
B Movie: A Film About Banksy (). Unlike Exit Through the Gift Shop, this documentary short really is about Banksy. It provides an overview of his career, complete with comments from the man himself, fellow artists, critics and collectors.
Swag: Several items are included: stickers, postcards and a pair of “Special 2D viewing glasses” with the following instructions: “For maximum viewing pleasure simply put on glasses, start DVD and look out the window.”
Near the end of Gift Shop, Banksy sums up its essential paradox when he says that he doesn’t think Thierry “played by the rules” – but then hastens to add that “there aren’t supposed to be any rules”. That discomfiting sense that artists are frauds, tricksters and cheats, but some are bigger frauds than others, is the unanswerable question left hanging at the end of Gift Shop. How does one know the difference?
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
SVS SB12-Plus sub