By Jonathan Kiefer

That it’s called “a Banksy film” could mean a directing credit for the adored, elusive British street artist or just that it was made in the best spirit of his work: prankish, double-take-inducing, immediately appealing.

In any case, Exit Through the Gift Shop’s ostensible subject is one Thierry Guetta, a French-born Los Angeles clothier and would-be documentarian. Really, he’s a footage hoarder; he is a fan of what he calls “the capturation.” Guetta gets initiated into guerrilla-graffiti mysteries by the likes of Banksy, Space Invader and Obama iconographer Shepard Fairey, and then himself becomes “Mr. Brainwash,” a sort of self-made Warholian monster.

Wow, what a great idea for a movie. Of course, it only works if it’s true—or at least if it’s in that increasingly familiar but somehow not yet played-out mindfuck mode of who-knows-what’s-really-real-anyway documentary. Yes, the result is so assiduously hip and so of-its-moment that in less than 10 years we’ll all blush when we recall our enthusiasm for it. Meanwhile, it doesn’t hurt for posterity’s sake to chronicle the dubiousness and gloriousness of urban DIY street art finally having its day.

The largely self-selecting audience for this merry venture will include anyone who might enjoy assembling stencil templates at Kinko’s by day and prowling artfully around big cities by night, all the while contemplating the vicissitudes of anonymity, ubiquity, cult of personality and, of course, gullibility. With rakish narration by Rhys Ifans, Exit Through the Gift Shop makes short work of the requisite conversation about art-scene commodification, authentication and blah blah blah. The title alone speaks volumes, although the movie is ultimately warmer and less snarky than might be implied. The film is a colorful cocktail of subversiveness, self-seriousness, wonder, horror and joy, and there is genius in its way of seeming at once calculated and quickly whipped up.

There is also the reliable, rather old-fashioned pleasure of simply watching artists make their art. Here, the art itself—at first unsanctioned by the establishment but aesthetically rarefied nonetheless, later something like the opposite of that—will not be to all tastes, but the thrill of its inventive vitality should be obvious to anyone.

Anything called a Banksy film will need serious curiosity, but also a durable sense of humor. Exit Through the Gift Shop allows that these ideals aren’t easy to reconcile. To borrow a line: “I don’t know who the joke is on; I don’t even know if there is a joke.” What makes this movie great is its willingness to find that sentiment exhilarating, not exhausting. Perhaps excepting the inflatable Guantánamo prisoner at Disneyland bit, which seems uncharacteristically less affirming than cruelly harrowing, it’s all in good, smart fun.

Exit Through the Gift shop

Directed by Banksy

With Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Thierry Guetta, Rhys Ifans, Space Invader


87 min.