Exit Through the Hall of Mirrors
Banksy's film "Exit Through the Gift Shop"--which I just saw in Portland, Oregon, and which is currently making its way across the country, according to its official site--is a thoroughly entertaining piece of work. It also seems like it's unusually difficult to approach critically. (Spoilers for it are under the cut, if anyone here cares about such things.)
The movie's premise, as the British street artist Banksy (his voice electronically altered, his face concealed) explains at the outset, is that it was originally going to be a documentary by the Los Angeles videographer Thierry Guetta about the street art movement. Guetta befriended (and obsessively videotaped) a number of artists in the scene, notably Shepard Fairey, and finally tracked down the very secretive and very successful Banksy, gaining his trust after a harrowing run-in with Disneyland security.
When Guetta finally put together his documentary, though, it was basically unwatchable; Banksy decided that Guetta was a more interesting subject anyway, and recast Guetta's footage to make a documentary about him. He also suggested that Guetta should perhaps make some of his own art, to which Guetta responded by mortgaging everything he owned, opening a gigantic art studio to churn out massive amounts of awful work under the name "Mr. Brainwash," hyping what turned out to be a hugely successful debut show in L.A., and designing the cover of Madonna's Celebration, all of which is documented in the final half-hour of the movie.
That's what it alleges to document, anyway. My initial reaction to the movie was "I can't believe that's not fiction"--mostly because Mr. Brainwash's art is just stunningly stupid and derivative, and usually derivative of specific work by specific artists Guetta has filmed. I started digging around online once I got home, and quickly found that there were a lot of people claiming that Mr. Brainwash didn't exist. Or, rather, that he sort of didn't exist: he was indeed the subject of an L.A. Weekly cover story in 2008, and the show (and the Madonna cover) did indeed happen. But there doesn't seem to be much documentation of his existence before his public debut, and the similarity of a lot of his work to fourth-rate Banksy and Fairey knockoffs--not to mention the prankishness of the street-art world--suggests that maybe Brainwash is a joke on the art scene perpetrated by Banksy and company.
(The more I thought about Gift Shop after that, the more certain elements of the movie didn't add up: who was taking pictures of Guetta filming Banksy at Disneyland? why would a Frenchman whose English has, as Roger Ebert noted, an "Inspector Clouseau accent," respond in English to somebody asking him an urgent question in French?)
As a filmgoer who has a troubled relationship with the idea of "genre" in all kinds of media, my favorite movies are often the ones that aren't easily nailed down about what kind of movie they are. (The champion of this approach, in my personal pantheon, is Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up, but Rushmore and Donnie Darko, for instance, have also hit that button for me in different ways.) So, as a filmgoer, I've been telling friends that maybe they might enjoy seeing it too.
But I'm also glad, in this case, that I'm not a professional film critic, because Banksy has put the "is it real or is it a fake?" problem directly in the path of any kind of critical discourse about Gift Shop; there's no way to get around it. If it's actually a true story, its point is that hustle supersedes art. (But it's probably not quite true.) If it's a Spinal Tap-type mockumentary, it's art about the way hustle can sometimes seem to supersede art. (But it's demonstrably not totally false.) If the fragment of Guetta's movie that we see is genuine, it's proof that he's, as Banksy puts it, "just a mentally ill person with a camera"; if it's not, it's a wicked parody of terrible video art; and so on. Here I was, thinking that years of dealing with pop music meant I no longer had to have endless, circular trains of thought about "authenticity." Thanks for proving me wrong, Banksy.