Obviously the street art stars have aligned, because after a couple of recent posts about some phenomenal artists I discovered in a book on street art, my beau nabbed Exit Through the Gift Shop from Netflix for us to watch without any input from me.
The film was intriguing, provoking, enlightening…then maddening for the latter half. I’m really glad that the only thing I knew about it prior to watching was that it was about street art, because I think if you already knew the history, it wouldn’t be nearly so interesting. It’s quite a ride, and as a viewer following the twists, you soon realize any theories you have about where this film is going are probably misconceived. If you haven’t seen it and you think you might, I suggest you do so before reading any further to enjoy a similar adventure.
For a more formal synopsis and review by one of my favorite critics, check out Kenneth Turan’s reactions here. My thoughts follow.
The story seems straightforward enough at the beginning – a self-styled filmmaker named Thierry Guetta, obsessed with filming everything in his life (even flushing toilets) starts filming his cousin, an established street artist named Space Invader. You’ve probably seen his work, even if you never realized.
From that relationship, he pursues an ever-widening network of connections, each leading him to a new artist whose informal endorsement allows him to connect to a new person…and on, and on. He spends loads of time following street artists around, filming their work, helping out as an extra pair of hands…all with the explanation that he is actively working on a documentary about street art. At this point in the film, I was happily jotting down notes about artists whose work I wanted to research more. I’ll save those for another post (Street Art IV is not far behind!) since this one is likely to get pretty long even without those visual detours.
Then about halfway through the film, we learn a little secret about Thierry – he never planned a documentary, he is just an endless gatherer of footage, with boxes and boxes (and boxes) of tapes stashed away. Below you can see a mere fraction of the tapes in the room.
We learn this before the artists do, and I personally felt a bit betrayed on their behalf. This is the moment when Thierry became a much less sympathetic character to me. A bit later in the film, this seems to come back to haunt him, as he finally makes his fantasy artist connection with Banksy, who asks to see the documentary in question. Thierry spends a few months cranking out a product called Life Remote Control – by his own admission, he does this by scooping tapes at random out of a box here and there and splicing together short bits of tape – which turns out to be loud and chaotic and (from the short bit I saw and from Banksy’s editorial comments) impossible to watch.
* Side note – just saw online that Thierry is releasing a full documentary with the same title in 2011, so this may be a cinematic response to ETTGS?
After seeing Thierry’s film, Banksy decides that he might as well give creating the street art documentary a shot, even though film is a new medium for him, because there’s nothing to lose by trying – it couldn’t possibly be worse than the efforts he just witnessed. He sends Thierry home with an “assignment” to “make some art” because he wants some space and time to work with Thierry’s tapes, and what started out as a planned distraction sets in motion a series of events not unlike the Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene from Fantasia. Thierry kicks into high gear and starts to paste art on walls all over LA. He starts with an image of himself based on a photo that someone else illustrated. Then he makes a gigantic leap – he remortgages his business to finance the opening of a studio with large-scale screenprinting equipment, and employs other artists to bring his ideas to life “on a commercial scale”. He has no compunction about admitting he is basically “outsourcing” the art production, as you can see from minute 1:20 to minute 2:30 of the below video.
Then he decides to put on a show. An IMMENSE show, in a 15,000 ft building that used to house the CBS studio complex. So his production continues to grow exponentially. My biggest issue here, what made me want to shout at the screen, was that he became so full of his own importance so quickly, though he was almost never producing the art. He was conceptualizing (often derivative) pieces and getting other artists to actually make them. I know this isn’t new in the art world – Frank Lloyd Wright certainly had a whole school full of apprentices – but it’s pretty rare for someone who started making art mere months before to distance himself so much from the creative process. Even the day the show – Life is Beautiful – opens, he is shown on the phone discussing sales, outside giving interviews, focusing on hype…when most of the venue’s walls remain blank and he hasn’t yet determined where to hang what. My blood pressure skyrocketed, I tell you.
There’s been some (ok, heaps and heaps of) discussion in the ether over whether the film is genuine or an artistic experiment (or hoax) unto itself, but in the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter to me. My emotional reaction to the events remains the same. As Shepard Fairey stated towards the end of the film: “It’s anthropologically, sociologically, a fascinating thing to observe…and maybe there are some things to be learned from it.” And that’s what the film turned out to be for me – a bizarre sociological study about someone seeking fame as an artist in any and every way possible, without ever actually making much art.
As Roger Ebert closed out his review of the film:
But I stray from my thoughts, which are (1) “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is an admirable and entertaining documentary; (2) I believe it is not a hoax; (3) I would not much want a Thierry Guetta original; (4) I like Thierry Guetta, and (5) Banksy, the creator of this film, is a gifted filmmaker whose thoughts, as he regards Guetta, must resemble those of Victor Frankenstein when he regarded his monster: It works, but is it Art?
I more or less agree, though perhaps less so with #4.