As Banksy himself says in the beginning of his directorial debut, Bansky’s Exit Through the Gift Shop is the story that resulted from one person’s attempt to make a documentary about him. Instead, Banksy ended up making a documentary about the would-be documentarian. The main character of the film, and he is a character, is Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living mostly in Los Angeles who once had a compulsion to film his every waking moment. At one point, we’re shown literally stacks of boxes filled with videotapes, none of them labeled or well organized, with footage ranging from family moments to celebrity encounters, from toilets flushing, to the world’s most respected street artists painting on public property all over the world. That last part is the catalyst for the entire stoy.
The film itself provides greater detail, but basically, Guetta’s filming habit, combined with his connection to street artists and stemming from his cousin, Invader, led him to exclusive video opportunities with artists who often otherwise work as hard at maintaining anonymity as they do on their guerilla artwork. Around 2006 or so, Guetta attempted to turn this footage into a documentary film that he titled Life Remote Control. As glimpsed at by the trailer below and the clips featured in Exit, the film is wildly incoherent. So it came to be that when Banksy saw a waste of what he considered valuable footage of sometimes very temporary art, he decided to do something else with it. At this point, Guetta’s videotapes were handed over to Banksy so that he could make something out of them. Even so, Exit only shows mere minutes of these archives. It was what Guetta did next with his career that provided the drive of the film.
After he put down his camera, Guetta decided to begin making and selling art of his own under the name Mr. Brainwash. The key here is that he began both making AND selling at practically the same point in time. It becomes pretty apparent by the end of the film that he is, quite paradoxically, both an artistic buffoon and a financial genius. Watching him talk about his art or any art at all, is like wathcing Tommy Wiseau talk about his hilariously bad film, The Room. What Guetta lacks in talent he makes up for in an ability to sell snake-oil paintings to hipsters who don’t know any better. As interviews with his creative team show, most of his work is done by them, albeit with the aid of photoshop and books of already iconic images. Before this career and even before the beginning of his street art involvement, Guetta briefly discusses his previous job as an owner of a vintage clothing store. The key to this film’s exploration of the conflict between art and commerce lies here. Guetta talks about buying jeans from France and marking up the price based on the fact that “the stitching is different.” Clips of celebrities trying on his clothing are directly echoed later on as celebrities flock to street art exhibitions. The exact same process of marking up products that are just slightly different takes place again as Mr. Brainwash’s art is often the same images repeated ad nauseum, with possibly a palette swap or an extra dribble of paint thrown in to make it “unique.”
It’s hard not to get a confessional vibe from the portions of Banksy’s interviews here. He seems to want to clear up his involvement in lending credence to Mr. Brainwash’s hype machine. As he and Shepard Fairey provided endorsements to his first show, they both come off as remorseful and quick to explain themselves. Before this, Banksy even seems eager to clear up the excitement that surrounded his own American debut show. He says that he was relying on Guetta’s film to “tell the real story” and eagerly hopes to express his beliefs that his art “was never about the money.” In the face of what Guetta’s art has now turned into, Banksy’s side of the story is even more necessary.