Skip to main content

Exit Through the Gift Shop, supposedly by the street artist known as Banksy, examines the line between art and commerce.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

  • Directed by Banksy (allegedly)
  • Classification: 14A

This much at least is true: For a film that explores the great grey nexus between art and commerce, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a terrific title. But everything else about this alleged documentary is up in the air. Maybe it's all a fabrication, just a tissue of artful lies designed to fool us. Maybe it's not. Either way, truth is a slippery commodity here, much like commodified art itself, and if that's the point, well, kudos - point taken.

Allegedly, the doc was made by Banksy who - this too is certain - is an actual street artist of real renown and carefully cultivated anonymity. We glimpse him, or perhaps someone purporting to be him, in the opening frames. A hooded figure shot in low light and speaking with a rough English accent, he explains the film's subject: "It's about a guy who tried to make a documentary about me, but he's a lot more interesting than me."

That's debatable, since the guy in question is a dishevelled French expat living in California, Thierry Guetta by name, a rotund little motor-mouth whose lank, thinning hair is accessorized by a fat set of mutton chops. Apparently, he once ran a clothing shop that sewed sequins onto cut-rate duds and sold them at exorbitant designer prices to rich Hollywood philistines, thereby paving the way for his next career move. Seems Thierry became a compulsive videographer, filming things much as he talks - obsessively, indiscriminately. Eventually, his subject matter grew to include celebrated street artists like his cousin Space Invader, and Shephard Fairey, the designer of that iconic Obama poster, and later Banksy himself. We see footage of them making their stencils by day, then heading out at night to scale walls and climb buildings, spraying their accomplished graffiti under the cover of darkness. These shots are fascinating.

Eventually (allegedly), Thierry tried to edit his accumulated mountain of tapes into a documentary about street art. Alas, the result, according to Banksy (or the man posing as Banksy), was an "unwatchable" mess, prompting Banksy (ditto) to take over the project and create the film now on view.

Soon, that film reaches its climax, when Thierry decides to stop videotaping artists and become one himself. He assumes a nom de spray-can: Mr. Brainwash. He rents a vast space with the intention of exhibiting grand works he's yet to make. To solve that teensy problem, Thierry, being a klutzy sort, hires artisans to crank out volumes of sub-Warholian kitsch, all priced, much like those sequined duds, exorbitantly. Finally, to promote the exhibit, he solicits testimonials from Fairey and Banksy who, somewhat reluctantly, provide them.

We witness all this unfold - the carpenters renovating the space, the craftsmen toiling over their Warhol knockoffs, Thierry incessantly yakking - and, again, the footage is compelling. Then comes the equally intriguing payoff: On opening day, lured by those testimonials and a cover story in a prominent local magazine, thousands of Los Angelinos line up for the exhibit. A week later, Thierry has sold $1-million worth of "Mr. Brainwash originals."

Says Banksy of that commercial phenomenon: "Maybe there's something to be learned from it. Maybe it means that art is sort of a joke."

So, exiting Exit Through the Gift Shop, unsure how much of the doc has been staged and tumbling once more down the rabbit-hole of our so-called information age, we are obliged to wonder whether the joke's on us. Me, I don't really care because, for some of its 90 minutes, this potential fake is actually entertaining. Truly.

Interact with The Globe