The highly secretive British street artist Banksy, who leaves his stenciled handiwork on walls all over the world – from the West Bank to Park City, Utah – is listed as the director of the documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” This credit is not entirely accurate, but then again, the film has the patina of a con job anyway – and a first-rate one, too.
The project was initiated (if the film is to be trusted) when Thierry Guetta, a highly annoying, roly-poly Frenchman living in Los Angeles, took it upon himself to infiltrate and videotape – i.e., badger – some of the world’s most notorious street artists as they went about their clandestine night work. In addition to Guetta’s cousin, known as Space Invader, there’s also Neckface, Swoon, Cheez, Coma, and, perhaps the best known, Shepard Fairey (who went on to design the Obama “Hope” image).
But Banksy, for a time, eluded him. In the end, the two hook up – we only see Banksy in heavily camouflaged situations – and Banksy takes it upon himself to turn the tables on Guetta, who by now has transformed himself into a street artist called Mr. Brainwash. The coverage of Mr. Brainwash’s 2008 gallery opening in Los Angeles will quickly disabuse anyone of the idea that fatuous trendoids are exclusively the province of the New York art scene.
Since Guetta shot miles of footage of street artists without any prospect of fashioning it into a film, Banksy took it upon himself (or did he?) to select and process everything and turn it into “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” his first guerrilla artwork on film. I’m not sure what to make of what he’s given us, which is one reason I like it so much. Put-on, satire, mockumentary, goof? Whatever it is, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is an original. Only one quibble: Why not a few interviews with shop owners who had to pay the expense of erasing all that guerrilla handiwork? Grade: A- (Rated R for some language.)