Without question one of the more perplexing documentaries in recent memory, Exit Through the Gift Shop has certainly become an essential element of the larger cult following of anonymous street artist Banksy. If nothing else, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a treasure trove for the cultists who see Banksy’s secret identity as a game, a secret meant to be uncovered. This is a film that features a plethora of documentary footage of Banksy, that follows an artist who may or may not be a hoax, who is an acolyte of Banksy; and of course, the auteur crafting this film for our enjoyment is Banksy himself. So maybe it’s all hogwash.
Putting the cult of Banksy aside, this is a capably-made documentary film that probably, all things considered, shouldn’t work. It’s stitched together from decades of footage, thousands of hours, most of which amounts to very little; indeed, within the film we see the alternate attempt to stitch this footage into cinema has churned out an unwatchable attempt at an art film. The author of this unwatchable art film, entitled Life Remote Control, is the larger-than-life lead documentarian-turned-street artist Thierry Guetta, AKA Mr. Brainwash. A man of absolute commitment and obsession, he abandons one passion on a whim, moving onto his next project with barely a thought.
The film feels somewhat formless at first, and it takes a while before it really gets into the meat of its subject matter; in fact, this film probably could have been twenty minutes shorter without losing any of the moments that really make it work. The opening is a spirited exploration of the world of street art, told through the prism of a street art obsessive, but it’s not clear what the story is here.
It’s not until Banksy himself comes onto the scene partway through the movie that this film picks up energy and momentum, and from there it’s a fascinating and compelling roller coaster.
As a documentary film, this is good. As a piece of postmodern cinema, however, this film takes on new meaning as it makes your head spin with questions of its authorship, its authenticity, with how it challenges the very form of the documentary film. It’s not something I’m sure I can really process in one sitting – there are so many messages, and points of view, being communicated here, particularly with an ending in which Banksy and fellow street artist Shepard Fairey seem to condemn the monster that they’ve created in Mr. Brainwash.
This is a film absolutely worth revisiting, and reconsidering; though he’s more well known for his street art, Banksy proves here that he has a knack for the cinematic arts as well, and while he seemingly swears off a return to filmmaking in the film, I don’t think it’s something we can ever rule out.