Exit Through the Gift Shop, which purports to be a documentary first about and then by the renowned anonymous street artist known only as Banksy, begins by presenting a great deal of highly engaging video footage depicting various guerrilla artists (Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Space Invader) at work, all of it allegedly shot by an eccentric Los Angeles French expat by the name of Thierry Guetta. When Guetta proves unable to fashion his thousands of hours of obsessive documentation into a compelling documentary, Banksy decides to bogart the project and make his own version of the movie. But Guetta has the last laugh, reinventing himself as “Mr. Brainwash,” a street artist whose first solo exhibition—a pathetic hodgepodge of half-digested ideas blatantly pilfered from the folks he’d spent the previous decade following around with his camera—becomes a critical and commercial smash.
Some have suggested Exit Through the Gift Shop is a hoax, with Guetta as Banksy’s willing stooge. Truth is, it doesn’t really matter. Either way, the film serves as a bitterly hilarious illustration of the way radical and subversive concepts get appropriated by the talentless and watered down for mass consumption—a phenomenon that touches upon virtually every aspect of modern life, from art movies to political campaigns. Whether Banksy-as-impromptu-director stumbled into an amazing narrative or constructed it for his own satirical purposes, it’s one of the most entertaining yarns you’ll see all year. Frankly, I hope he made the whole thing up. If so, this terrific film may just be the beginning.