This post was published in the Huffington Post on April 15, 2010.
If you are interested in the creative process and/or freedom of expression and/or the role of media manipulation in consumer culture (as I would suppose 99.9% of you are) then Exit Through the Gift Shop is a must see movie. Since there is no video release or day and date VOD release in sight, the only way you can see it in the coming month is in the theaters. You will not be disappointed. It is essential viewing. As a bonus, the film is extremely entertaining — my 14-year-old son (who usually will only go see Apatow comedies in theaters) loved it. (In fact, it’s a very cool movie to take your teenage kids to and have a discussion about consumerism and public space afterwards).
Exit is also one of the best films about street art and graffiti made to date. I have seen nearly all the others while making my own film about graffiti and street art, Bomb It.
The film is essentially broken into two parts. It begins as an obsessional project of a French expat living in Los Angeles, Thierry Guetta. Guetta (who previously had an obsession with filming everything in his life), began filming street artists on their illicit rounds via his cousin, who just happens to be the artist Space Invader. This path led him to Shepard Fairey, which then led him to Banksy, with whom he struck up the unlikeliest of friendships.
Guetta describes his obsession with filming graffiti quite eloquently. Because of this obsession, he was able to amass some of the most amazing footage of street art in existence. While there have been some unfounded rumors as to the veracity of Guetta as a character, (which calls into question whether or not the film is actually a mockumentary) I can tell you from my own experience that if this is the case, Guetta is one of our finest heretofore unknown actors. The thrill that Guetta recounts of being out all night, climbing buildings, being chased by cops in order to film street art is one that I share to this day (and one that keeps me filming graffiti and street art even if it means climbing through trees infested with red fire ants in Bangkok or slogging through Sao Paulo’s sewers.)
But this feeling of Guetta’s also perfectly mirrors countless graffiti and street artists I have interviewed. Many graffiti artists and street artists have relayed this same feeling of obsession with (and addiction to) their need to be up on every corner, or in the best spots, in every city, etc. In capturing this feeling, Banksy has illustrated an essential motivating force of not only the street art movement, but nearly all prolific artistic creation. If you have any interest in knowing why street artists do what they do, Exit provides one of the critical keys by illustrating this fine line between art and obsession. Unfortunately, as the film goes on to humorously and at times painfully illustrate, this obsession to create needs to be combined with some form of talent to result in some form of “art” (on the street or otherwise).
The second half of the film begins after Banksy’s groundbreaking Los Angeles show in which his artwork sold for unheard of sums. These sales began a feeding frenzy for collectible street art. In the film Banksy insists that Guetta finally deliver the film he has been promising because the world needs to see that street art is not about crass commercialization.
However when Guetta delivers an unwatchable version of the film, Banksy tells Guetta to go out and make art so that he can cut the film himself. Guetta (now using his own street-art monicker “Mr. Brainwash”) has learned well from his guerrilla mentors. He has taken the words of Shepard Fairey to heart; that images “gain real power from perceived power.” Mr. Brainwash goes on to create one of Los Angeles’ largest solo debut art shows completely founded on the belief that if enough people believe that he is an artist, then he is an artist. If there is enough mystique and hype then people will come clamoring. Ah, the madness of crowds.
In skewering our human proclivity to blindly follow others and leave our brains at the door, Banksy illustrates another central theme of street art and its relationship to public space. Not only is street art an antidote to the constant corporate images that we are bombarded with every day, but more importantly, street art is a way to humanize the often sterile and lifeless world that we have constructed around ourselves. When I drive through a bleak urban landscape, I am always heartened by a tag, a sticker, or a stencil; it shows me that life, humor, art still exist.
Humans have needed to express themselves on walls since the birth of human consciousness — street art and graffiti are the modern representations of that need. Some are more talented in their expressions than others. Fortunately we have Banksy — who is one of the most talented of them all.
Exit Through the Gift Shop opens in select cities April 16th.
Jon Reiss made the graffiti and street art film Bomb It and recently authored Think Outside the Box Office, inspired by his experiences distributing Bomb It.