A caution: The best way to see this highly entertaining loop-de-loop documentary about street art and its most celebrated purveyor, Banksy, is to know as little as possible about the film beforehand. So, you can stop reading now (though you're encouraged to re-visit the review later) -- or you can take your chances with having some of the film's odd turns revealed.
In one respect, Exit Through the Gift Shop offers a straightforward history of street art, a guerrilla public-art movement, though how the viewer comes by this information is anything but.
We're initially introduced to Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles, who compulsively videotapes his banal life. (He's a family man, runs a vintage-clothing shop.) During a 1999 trip to France, he discovers that his cousin, known as "Space Invader," peppers Paris by night with quirky mosaics. Guetta is fascinated by this arty skullduggery, and Invader introduces him to other artists. He tags along, documenting their activities, shown here in grainy video.
Back in L.A., a reputed chance encounter at a copy shop makes Guetta both a documenter of and co-conspirator with Shepard Fairey (then of "Andre the Giant" fame). Guetta decides to make a definitive documentary about street art, needing only footage of the elusive British artist Banksy to complete his work. In 2004, Fairey provides the introduction and bona fides, and just like that, Guetta and his camera are at Banksy's side.
But then Banksy -- who is filmed here with his face obscured and his voice altered -- takes an interest in Guetta, and the focus of the film shifts. Guetta's filming is abandoned as Banksy takes the reins, now documenting the Frenchman's burgeoning interest in becoming an artist.
Exit is credited as "a film by Banksy," but its exact authorship is unclear. In fact, the longer the film unspools, the less certain anything seems. There is no authority -- or, more correctly, there are three, yet none can be proved reliable: Information comes from Guetta, Banksy and a narrator (actor Rhys Ifans). But, is that hooded figure even Banksy? The physique doesn't seem to match other captured-on-video shots of the artist at work. (His face always hidden.) But perhaps those weren't Banksy, either?
And then, does it matter? Not really, because Exit deliberately swirls around the intersection of art, prank, commodity and hype, endlessly commenting on and deconstructing itself. It's structured like one of those puzzles that can be infinitely folded or shifted, in which the surface may change but the object remains intact. (Think of a Rubik's Cube, coincidentally the medium Invader uses.)
So it is with this multilayered film. You pick your track: documentary on street-art and its ascension to mainstream; cynical satire on same; truth-is-stranger-than-fiction account of the Nobody and the Art Star; the anatomy of a too-big-to-see joke pulled on the art world; or the explication of a too-big-to-see joke pulled on you, the bamboozled viewer. (If you're still in doubt, I suggest that the title, with its derisive dig at how we generally process art, is a big clue.)
The genius of Exit is that no matter which thread you grasp, or even if you cling to several simultaneously, the film never stops being entertaining, provocative and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. It may all be a delicious joke -- a big F-you to the art world wrapped up in self-satire and disguised as a documentary -- but it's a damned clever one. Viewers will surely have as much fun dissecting the film afterward as they did watching it unfold. In English, and some French, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., June 18. Regent Square