Friday, December 24, 2010

Taking It To The Streets With EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP


- Is EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP real or is it a very elaborate hoax? That's what I've been wondering since watching the movie, trying to wrap my brain around the (purportedly) stranger-than-fiction story it tells. Over the last couple of years, we've seen a number of documentary-style movies that blur the line between reality and fiction, and sometimes, that particular storytelling style can grow a bit wearisome. Sometimes, it feels like a let down that what we're watching isn't real, because if it's just a story, then, well, what was the point? (example: I'M STILL HERE). Sometimes, it's the reverse effect - we think we're watching a great story unfold, only for the limitations of "reality" to sink in, leaving us with an unsatisfying narrative (example: CATFISH). But what's great about Gift Shop is that either way, real or fake, the story works. And the mystery and ambiguity of the film only helps it to comment back on itself. This is a story, after all, about the power of pop art to manipulate the masses. The result is that Gift Shop is a fascinating movie - and some of the ideas at its core are going to stick with me for a while.

The film starts out feeling like a fairly run-of-the-mill documentary about the explosion over the last several years of the underground street art movement. At first, we meet our filmmaker, an eccentric French guy living in LA named Thierry Guetta (pronounced Terry). Thierry owns a boutique clothing shop in LA, but his real passion is filming things. He's not really a filmmaker in any normal sense of the word, he's just OCD about carrying a video camera with him everywhere he goes and recording his entire life on tape. However, a visit with his cousin - a street artist known as Invader - inspires Thierry. He begins following Invader around and filming him as he creates his art and posts it around the city for all to see. Soon, Thierry has a new obsession, in the form of these rebellious, punk-rock street artists and the pieces they create. Even though he has no film credits to his name and does nothing with the footage he shoots except store it in tupperware containers in his house, Thierry somehow ingratiates himself with some of the world's most notorious street artists, many of whom agree to let him film them as they work. The lists of artists that we meet via Thierry is impressive, and includes the likes of Shepard Fairey, who did the famous blue-and-red poster of Barack Obama.
Even though Thierry gets unprecedented footage of all these street artists in action, one big name still eludes him -- Banksy. The British man of mystery prefers to stay in the shadows, and few have ever tracked him down. And yet, he and Thierry end up meeting and becoming friends when Banksy travels to LA. Some local street artists turn Banksy on to Thierry, and somehow, Banksy lets the Frenchman into his small inner circle.

Interesting stuff, but still pretty standard. However, just when Gift Shop begins to wear a little thin, it takes a hard left turn and the whole movie completely changes. Suddenly, we're not watching Thierry's documentary about the likes of Invader, Shepard Fairey, and Banksy. Instead, we're watching Banksy's documentary about Thierry. Banksy decides to make his own film out of all of Thierry's unused footage, but even Banksy seems surprised at how Thierry responds to a little friendly encouragement. In a sudden burst of narcissistic reinvention, Thierry reinvents himself as "Mr. Brainwash," the next great avant-garde artist who has the personal endorsements of Fairey and Banksy.

I won't spoil the rest, but as soon as Thierry became "MBM" I was hooked, because I realized that this was no longer a run-of-the-mill documentary, but something much bigger and more profound. Suddenly, Gift Shop was a commentary on the line between art and trash, a satire of lame-brain "artists" who gain a degree of legitimacy by selling an even more lame-brained public on the idea that they're the real deal. There's definitely a lot of self-deprecating humor in this idea - Banksy himself admits the contradiction that yes, on one hand Thierry is breaking all the rules of how to be an artist, but on the other hand, isn't art supposed to have no rules?
Banksy makes for an amusing commentator throughout the film. He appears only in shadow, his voice electronically disguised, but his mere involvement in the movie does make you wonder how much of it is authentic and whether all of this is merely performance art. Meanwhile, actor Rhys Ifans provides narration for the film, and maintains a tone of sincerity throughout. If this is all a joke, he's not letting us know that he's in on it.

As EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP evolves into the whacked-out story of Mr. Brainwash, it becomes completely transfixing and very humorous. Is this guy for real? He really did put on an enormous show in LA, and later in New York. He really was featured on the cover of LA Weekly. And lord knows I've seen stranger people in LA than Thierry Guetta - it's not out of the question that he actually exists, that he's just an eccentric French guy who did whatever he could to make a name for himself in the art world. But, it's also not that absurd to imagine that he's some actor playing a part, that he participated in one of the greatest practical jokes in recent pop culture history. Was the public brainwashed by Mr. Brainwash?

Regardless, this is definitely one of the more thought-provoking movies of the year. Real or fiction, it functions as pop-cultural satire either way. A rather scathing satire of how in the modern world, pop culture is less the domain of the individual as it is the collective. The art of Mr. Brainwash is simply a mash-up of things we've already seen with no real soul or meaning. In fact, it's created by committee - crafted by Thierry's employees who make something tangible out of his half-baked ideas. How many of the TV shows we watch, the movies we see -- how many are made by this very same process? Exit Through the Gift Shop is a great reminder that it's important to see through the clutter.

My Grade: A-

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