Saturday, March 13, 2010

Review - Exit Through the Gift Shop

I pass a piece of Banksy street art on my way into work every morning, and there's another just around the corner from my flat. In both cases, as with most of the work I've seen by this artist, I find myself being impressed by the guerrilla technique used, and by his ability to create and sustain a sense of mythology and intrigue around his persona, but I'm less impressed by the results. Banksy's first film Exit Through the Gift Shop left me feeling the same way. The film is a pseudo-documentary in which Banksy, appearing onscreen in silhouetted form and speaking in an altered voice, recalls his encounter with a French filmmaker named Thierry Guetta, who had already spent years capturing the work of various street artists, even becoming their accomplice on occasion. For Guetta, filming was an obsession, and he had already shot thousands of hours of footage – telling his subjects that he was compiling the definitive street art documentary – before he finally made contact with the reclusive Banksy.

The film that has emerged from this encounter may well be seen as the definitive street art documentary – or the first half of it might, at least. Guetta's camera has caught numerous artists in the act as they pull off their daring nighttime raids on public locations, and some of the footage is remarkable, despite being lumbered with a lethargic voiceover from Rhys Ifans. It offers an interesting glimpse into this clandestine culture and the film has been assembled in an entertaining fashion, complete with some judicious musical selections. Nobody involved in Exit Through the Gift Shop has actually been credited with the role of director, but the hand of Banksy can be felt throughout in the shaping of the film's narrative and tone. How much of what actually takes place in Exit Through the Gift Shop is real is open to speculation, but it's hard to believe that Guetta's decision to become an artist himself late in the film is anything more than a Banksy construction. It fits perfectly within his standard MO, allowing him to stay out of sight while making a satirical stab at the shallowness of the art world and the commercialisation of street art culture.

Even if Exit Through the Gift Shop is nothing more than a Banksy con job, you have to give him credit for pulling it off so effectively, but he can't quite sustain the premise for a full 90 minutes. The final section of the film focuses entirely on Guetta's attempt to reinvent himself as Mr Brainwash, but he becomes an increasingly tiresome presence as he gets more time in the spotlight, and the climactic scenes drag badly. The liveliness and inventiveness of the opening hour dissipates, and as is often the case with this artist, the joke quickly wears thin.