Popular criticism aside, I would like to make commentary on Banksy’s documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” I aim less to discuss my personal opinion, but to rather give insight on what I took from the piece as a story.
Simply put, the infamous, British street artist Banksy tells a story about
Thierry Guetta – a film-obsessed, French shopkeeper based in Los Angeles. It is this story, and the means by which is has been told through documentary, that I am most interested in. When we think about stories, we envision a beginning, middle, and end. We expect to be introduced to a character with a problem that leads to some climatic incident and ultimately concludes with some resolution. That is what we anticipate, therefore, that is what we must get. If you want to get really nitpicky, a good story typically consists of a theme, plot, setting, characters, an inciting incident, and a resolution. “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a story. Not told quite as smoothly as a Disney fairytale, but a story nonetheless.
The theme of the piece was apparent in the first 60 seconds, opening with poor-quality home videos of various street artists adventuring through the city’s night, sirens blaring in the background. The blatantly contradictory choice of joyful introductory music was most memorable of all, setting a tone of rebellious bliss.
Maybe it’s that I’ve long been fascinated by the works of Banksy, or that I’m simply intrigued by the very idea of this mysterious character, but I was personally drawn in when first introduced to who we all as viewers can only hope is Banksy himself. You don’t know what to expect because you’ve never seen the guy. Only his art, only his mark. All that we know from this documentary is that Banksy is a hooded man clothed in black, with only the remnants of paint stains on his knees and a device obscuring his voice. It is simply intoxicating.
We are then introduced to the main character, Thierry Guetta, and quite the quirky guy at that. The story takes on a ride through Guetta’s experience filming major street artists, including Shepard Fairey, Invader, and Banksy himself. “It was like a big adventure every night […] I’m a ghost when I’m with them,” Guetta said in describing the rush of danger and fear. Let’s not forget street art isn’t exactly acceptable. It’s risky and often seen as untruly vandalism, and this story depicts it as a provacative rush. Frankly, I find that kind of cool.
Unlike other stories, I found that “Exit Through the Gift Shop” featured a few scenarios I would deem inciting incidents. One of which was when Guetta finally got to meet Banksy and convinced him to be filmed. The shooting of this component was highly dramatic, and not in a bad way. For, as we all know, Banksy is basically the impossible man – untouchable and unstoppable – and Guetta had the privilege to be graced with his presence. The pacing of Guetta’s knees and anxiety in his voice during interviews about his quest to reach Banksy depict how important this was to him. The reenactment of receiving a phone call from Shepard Fairey saying Banksy wished to meet him, was truly telling of Guetta’s character. His excitement came through in his interview describing his voracious drive to meet Banksy, which was paired with scenes of the sky racing by accompanied by the growl of a car. It’s a simple method, no doubt, but one that had me smiling.
Then there was the twist in the plot that began with Banksy encouraging Guetta to make a documentary with his piles of unused films. Long story short, it sucked. “I’m playing chess. I don’t know how to play chess, but life is a chess game for me,” Guetta explained in response to the making of his documentary. By taking a little piece here and there, like reaching into a hat full of numbers, Guetta finished “Life Remote Control.” Quickly realizing Guetta was far from a decent filmmaker, Banksy described it as 90 minutes of unwatchable material and suggested he set down the camera and take part in street art instead for a while. Guetta was now the subject of the film, and BOY did this twist surprise me. It almost frustrated me that someone who was not previously a street artist had the power to come out on top by hiring talented individuals to basically make his ideas tangible. I am not sure if Guetta, AKA Mr. Brainwash, did any of his own work at all, but I rest my opinion.
Well actually, I don’t rest my opinion. I think the frustration and annoyance I felt from this twist in the plot is exactly what was intended. There was something “off” about the way Banksy, Shepard, and other street artists spoke about Mr. Brainwash’s “accomplishments,” if you can call them that. I expected them to irritated. I expected Banksy to be furious that he blatantly used his quote for publicity. I expected someone, anyone, to speak out and to feel as passionately annoyed as I, but I got nothing. There was definitely a sense of “what the heck is going on, who is this guy” but generally nothing more than that. It was strange and it left me wanting more.
To save you and myself an endless rant, my final comment on “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is this: All in all, Banksy did a wonderful job telling the story of a film-obsessed man transformed into a street artist practically over night. He also did a beautiful job of simultaneously depicting the secret, risky nature of street art and the level of passion it takes to pursue an artistic career such as this. I was drawn in on many levels from the abrupt nature of the plot twist, to the dramatic reenactments, to the street video footage. I think a number of individuals’ stories were told in this piece.