Exit Through The Gift Shop — The Trouble With Truth
The trouble with truth lies in how much of it you are willing to disregard. Awards shows are similar in that you must be willing to cast aside personal opinion for the opinions of others. The premise is clear, that if a group of people gave it an award or nominated it for an award you might too. Of course your award is the cost of admission, the rental fee, or two hours of your life – maybe you tell someone who tells someone and word of mouth fuels further interest. However, the criterion for who wins is not always clear. In the case of the documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop, the hype is the movie not the other way around. This in effect relegates the movie experience to an experiment – will you get the message or simply enjoy the scenery? But not all is lost if you’re attracted to shams and shenanigans, the bourgeoisie and the bombastic self-important as personified in the underground art scene that differs from the mainstream in means alone and perhaps methodology. “Exit” unfolds as if a bad reality television show divorced from production value, propped up by roaming cameras and in your face close-ups of people who have spent their entire life unready, Mr. De Mille, for a close-up or video recording of any kind.
At the center of the film is filmmaker and wannabe street art pseudo-mafioso, Thierry Guetta; a remotely charismatic French photographer in search of the elusive inner workings of the art movement typically referred to as post-graffiti street art. Street art is literally “in the streets” and is used to distinguish the more widely understood, and familiar territorial graffiti also known as vandalism that populates the alleys, buildings, train cars, and anything out of observable scrutiny through out the world. Fundamentally, Street artists use public spaces to question environmental, political and social issues rather than any real attempt to change what art is or is not; Street art is a means of communication that is often overt but just as easily obtuse. John Fekner, a seasoned environment and conceptual out doors artist defines street art as “all art on the street that’s not graffiti”. Nonetheless, it is just this indistinguishable and ambiguous definition that ultimately fails to appeal beyond its own boundaries and robs Exit Through The Gift Shop from more than self-serving. We leave this film knowing even less about the world of these allegedly real people and for that matter, no closer to either the filmmaker who becomes the subject or the subject who becomes the filmmaker. As clever as the premise is it collapses beneath the weight of its own price tag, defined as haphazardly as the prices for Thierry Guetta’s artwork that he picks out of thin air as readily as lint or dust.
You might be thinking, that’s a bold move suggesting that audiences miss a film that was nominated for an Academy Award, one that is praised far and wide, a film that has the elusive 98% fresh rating at www.rottentomatoes.com. Even Roger Ebert seemed overwhelmingly pleased with the film. Nonetheless, Above The Line is no stranger to brash reviews — If you missed my coverage of Nolan’s bloated, exposition driven flick Inception you should check it out. There is a fine line between joining the bandwagon and writing an insightful review that dares to take a hard look at movies. While I agree there are things to appreciate about this alleged documentary I am also skeptical of a film or thing of art for that matter when the concept outweighs the purposefulness of the content, the wrapper is more colorful than the thing, and at the end of the day when I feel that the work for all intent and purposes is poking me in the eye. ‘Exit’ meanders too long, feels like a dirty trick, and after two hours you can’t help but feel gypped.
If you are not familiar with the artist Banksy, the British street artist who many have heard of but few to none have ever seen his face, this is his film. He was originally the topic of “Exit”, among others, but after it became apparent to Banksy that Guetta was incapable of creating a movie he believed in or sanctioned out of the hundreds if not thousands of hours of footage he shot over what we are told is nearly a decade, Banksy took over. Maybe this is just another Banksy project, a movie less about the people or the art, more akin to a documented statement of ever-changing and evolving social commentary. Either way the result becomes a movie made by Banksy that purports to capture the meteoric rise of an artist who by all rights is not a ‘real’ artist according to Banksy, rather a construct like a life-sized graffiti with a message designed to outlive the paint, magic marker, or other media from which it is created.
Ben Franklin once said, “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.” I’d add ‘read’ to that statement, either at the beginning or the end. You can read any number of reviews or festival blurbs about this film and revel in the collective praise and fascination. The rating aggregator www.metacritic.com lists the movie with an 85 out of 100 of critics favoring the film and the average everyday viewer giving the film an 8.5 out of 10. Michael Dunaway for www.pastamagazine.com calls the film, “Fascinating, delightful and compelling” while Roger Ebert adds notes about being “spellbound” and further calls the film, “admirable and entertaining”. Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic calls the film, “Subversive, provocative and unexpected” and perhaps all these things are true or simply personal opinions about personal experiences that never quite ascend the scurrilous moniker of graffiti.
Exit Through The Gift Shop might very well be the perfect inside joke, it might tell us something about our own obsessions and manufactured deities; we might take pause from knowing someone is rubbing our noses in the mess we repeatedly make in pursuit of materialism, identity, and commoditization of art and personae. There is no denying that a message exists in this film, a statement above all statements delivered by a hooded person, face and voice obscured, though it is challenging to say the least to believe someone who is not really there telling people who spend too much time there they’re doing it wrong. Exit is nothing if not carefully edited, purposefully skirting the lens that would comment on itself – perhaps a making of featurette or behind the scenes look at the message or messages might be where the truth lies.