Thursday, January 27, 2011

Exit Through The Gift Shop directed by Banksy

Defining art is tricky nowadays. You can't do it by medium, since anything from a t-shirt to a defined stretch of time can be used to create art. I once had a long, wine-fueled discussion with some friends about whether a gourmet meal could be considered a work of art on par with a painting by one of the great masters, followed by an even more passionate argument regarding the "art form" of the television sit-com.

And you can't define art merely as the work of an artist, since some artists are "conceptual," using the craftsmanship of others to create their work. Is the musician who played the instrument that made the original sound somehow more of an artist than the producer or DJ who remixes the sound to create a completely different song than the musician intended?

Such discussions almost inevitably devolve into platitudes and truisms, and even the most earnest & well-informed rebuttals that "the proof is in the pudding" do nothing to exhaust the debate. They flare up whenever a new technology extends the definition of what people might consider artistic.

Yet art is a quintessentially human activity; it's found in every culture and historical era. And nearly everybody, at some point in their life, engages in it, from the preschooler who glues macaroni to construction paper to the photographer who takes a daily self-portrait in order to create an artistic account of her life.

(Is this art?)

The provocative & mesmerizing (and now Oscar-nominated) documentary, Exit Through The Gift Shop, plays with many fundamental questions about the nature of art, even as it tells a compelling story that just seems too crazy not to be true. It begins as a putative portrait of the street art scene in Los Angeles, with some nice vignettes of provocateurs like Invader & Shepard Fairey, with the internationally-recognized Banksy as (quite literally, at one point) the painted elephant in the room.

(The elusive Banksy)

But, about halfway through, the movie becomes something else entirely. It's a turn that has made more than one critic accuse Exit Through The Gift Shop of being an elaborate fiction, from beginning to end. Once the wild-eyed camera-geek Thierry Guetta becomes the "MBW" of the second half, it's only natural to suspect a set-up. And no self-respecting aesthete wants to be taken in by a con.

So what starts as the story of one man's obsession with a video camera becomes a kind of Rorschach test for the viewer on just how paranoid one is inclined to get once the movie begins to stretch the bounds of plausibility. The venerable Roger Ebert engages this movie at face-value, saying, "I believe it is not a hoax," while the reviewer for the New York Times writes that this movie "looks like a documentary but feels like a monumental con."

Here's my two-cents: I don't think this movie is a con. I think the story it tells is the straight-up truth -- that Guetta really starts the movie as the affable, manic video geek who follows street artists around, starting with his cousin and working his way up to Banksy, who commissions a documentary from Guetta, once Banksy realizes how much footage Guetta possesses. I also think that, once Banksy sees the first cut of Guetta's documentary, Banksy really does take over the directing duties, sending Guetta off on a trajectory that transforms him into the "Mister Brainwash" of the second half of the film.

(Thierry Guetta in "MBW" mode)

And, yes, the crowds that form for the "Life is Beautiful" exhibition are, I think, genuine, as are Mister Brainwash's sales. After all, it's no great insight that most of us are seduced by spectacle. Just because you have enough money to be a collector doesn't make you an informed critic.

Sure, I could be wrong. This could all be a master manipulation of medium and media by Banksy (or whoever pulls his strings, since we all know that the puppet masters are infinite in all directions). But, contrived or not, Exit Through The Gift Shop still tells an engrossing story centered around compelling characters (not to mention some really cool imagery). And, for that, it's well worth an hour-and-a-half of your time.

directed by Banksy

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