By Marilyn Ferdinand
There’s one genre of film that I just can’t seem to embrace—mockumentary. Unlike documentaries, the mockumentary is a fiction film that purports to be documenting real people and real events, generally to comic effect. Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, a send-up of self-important rock bands premiering in the portentous year of 1984, is generally considered to be cinema’s first mockumentary. Like any other type of film, the mockumentary has evolved from its roots in spoof to become something that blurs reality ever more seamlessly and confusingly. For example, Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here (2010) encouraged as much serious speculation about the state of Joaquin Phoenix’s mental health as it did knowing sniggers about this ultimate performance-art piece.
Now we have a true hybrid in Exit through the Gift Shop. This valuable film does indeed document the worldwide street-art movement with one-of-a-kind footage of this illegal activity actually taking place. But as its title indicates, British director/street artist Banksy has bigger fish to fry—namely the art collectors who buy and institutionalize rebellion meant to reach ordinary people on the street and have a very short shelf life. Like most mockumentaries, it doesn’t have a terribly original object of ridicule, and it’s not quite as entertaining as the first edition of Blue Man Group, which managed to be something totally unique while poking fun at the art establishment. But it has an interesting central character whom I choose to believe was sincere in his obsession to film every major street artist working from 1999 to 2007.
The anonymous, yet world-famous street artist Banksy sits in front of a camera, his face nothing more than a black hole inside a hoodie, his voice a scratch of electronic distortion. He tells us what we are about to see—a documentary that was supposed to be about him, but that he took over because the man who was making it was much more interesting that Banksy. That man is Thierry Guetta, a French expatriate to Los Angeles who supports his wife and children from the earnings of a hip, high-end, used-clothing store in a funky part of town and who never goes anywhere without a video camera.
Thierry, it seems, is as addicted to recording every step he takes as junkies are to heroin. He’ll film his friends having dinner, his kids getting food out of the refrigerator, or himself taking a walk down the street. After about 10 years of random recording, Thierry finally finds a focus when he visits his cousin in France, known only as Invader, and accompanies him as he makes street art. His cousin, who like almost all the street artists in the film has his face digitally obscured, makes images of the electronic soldiers in the video game “Space Invaders” and glues them all over town, on walls, on overpasses, on light poles and median strips. Thierry is so excited about this underground world heretofore completely unknown to him, with its whimsical and subversive images and danger from the law, that he decides to dedicate all of his energies to filming as many street artists as possible.
And film them he does. Invader hooks Thierry up with other street artists, whose reluctance to be filmed performing an illegal act is overcome when Thierry says he is making a documentary about their art. One artist we get extended coverage of is Mr. Andre, who tags his long-legged, smiling alien anywhere and everywhere with spray paint. Other artists work with photocopied images of varying sizes affixed billboard-style to walls, telephone poles, and other objects. The most famous of this group is Shepard Fairey—he of the instantly classic tricolor image of Barack Obama underscored with the word “Hope”—who likes to post an image based on a photo of pro wrestler Andre the Giant in sizes ranging from a small cardboard poster to a multipanel billboard stretching across most of the side of a building. For all of these artists, Thierry acts as witness, recorder, and lookout, taking the same physical and legal risks they do while racking up hundreds of hours on his video camera.
Thierry complains that despite his success filming many of the greatest street artists, the legendary Banksy remains frustratingly elusive. Just as Thierry is about to give up, he gets a call from Fairey telling him that Banksy is in town and needs a guide. Thierry drops everything and drives immediately to meet them and offer Banksy anything he wants, buying him a phone so that he can call Thierry on a moment’s notice, showing him the best walls, and driving him all over town. Soon, Banksy’s signature rat, spray-painted on walls using stencils, starts appearing all over Los Angeles. Banksy also places installation art in unexpected places. When he places a dummy depicting an Abu Ghraib prisoner on the course of a train ride in Disneyland, Thierry is apprehended and grilled for four hours. Thierry erases the footage in his camera, denies he was involved in the placement of the dummy, and says he saw no one. He is released, and his cleverness and bravery earn him a friend for life in Banksy.
Alas, this particular incident tips us that what we are watching isn’t quite what it seems to be. Thierry says he erased the camera, much like digital images can be erased in the camera with the press of a button. But we have just seen footage of Banksy placing the dummy in the park, and he says Thierry cleverly slipped the tape cassette into his sock. Things get even funkier when Thierry must finally come up with the documentary he has been promising for so long. Unless we are seeing a recreation of events, Banksy likely sent a camera crew to film Thierry working with a video editor to create Life Remote Control, which Banksy calls completely unwatchable; excerpts of that film inserted into Exit through the Gift Shop show more than the street artists or even Thierry’s home movie footage. It is at this point that we are led to believe that Banksy kept the street-art tapes and sent Thierry home to make art, and that taking this suggestion to his usual extreme, Thierry hired a boatload of artists and craftsmen to help him create more than 200 pieces of street art highly derivative of Andy Warhol’s work. Promoting himself under the moniker Mr. Brainwash (MBW) in a one-man show called “Life Is Beautiful” using quotes from Fairey and Banksy, now well-known artists embraced by the legitimate art world, Thierry supposedly nets sales of nearly $1 million from the two-month-long show.
There’s a sucker born every minute, and Banksy clearly wants audiences for Exit through the Gift Shop to be among them. His agenda for this film is the least interesting part of it, and the so-called bitterness he and Fairey exhibit over the success of faux-artist Thierry Guetta isn’t really very funny. But Banksy is right about one thing—Thierry is a more interesting subject than he is and one whose performance is truly artful in its artlessness.
It’s hard to know exactly how much of Thierry’s life story is real. He apparently does have some kind of film obsession, or it would not have been possible for him to capture so many street artists, including Seizer, Neck Face, Sweet Toof, Cyclops, Ron English, Dotmasters, Swoon, Borf, and Buffmonster installing so much art. The explanation for his obsession—that his mother sickened and died without him knowing it was happening, making him want to have evidence of every occurrence around him—seems like an exaggeration, if there is a shred of truth in it at all. But Banksy isn’t a good enough documentarian to allow the reality of his subject to come unfiltered to the foreground. It is Thierry’s personality—his unbridled energy and enthusiasm, his dogged determination, and his vanquishing of all obstacles to his objectives—that helps us appreciate his achievements and even wish that his fake triumph in his one-man show were real. (Or maybe Guetta really is an artist.)
I found the way the artists created their art to be a fascinating process, and the wide variety of styles, from simple cartoons to elaborate stencils and dimensional murals, to be visually intriguing and ingenious evocations of a genuine underground culture. Banksy’s attention-seeking self-mythologizing gets in the way of the real action more than I would have liked, but there’s a whole lot of lively doc triumphing over Banksy’s mock in Exit through the Gift Shop. l