Review: “Exit Through the Gift Shop” a Great Art Caper

“Exit Through the Gift Shop” is either the fascinating story of notorious street artist Banksy turning the tables – and cameras – on his own would-be documentarian, or it’s Banksy’s masterpiece. It’s quite possibly both.

Thierry Guetta is a French immigrant who made his home in L.A. some 25 years ago. At some point, he became obsessed with videotaping everything, a neuroses he traces back to the premature loss of his mother to cancer. He eventually became exposed to the burgeoning street art scene, eventually falling in with Shepard Fairey, best known for his iconic images of Andre the Giant and Barack Obama.

Guetta followed Fairey across the globe, videotaping him and often helping him wheat-paste his calling cards on buildings all over the world. Soon Guetta was taping everyone in the scene, ultimately becoming obsessed with the white whale of street art, Banksy, a man determined to keep his face off camera.

Banksy eventually permitted Guetta into his inner circle, with the understanding that he only be videotaped from behind. But the film Guetta produced was a mess, and so Banksy decided to make film about Guetta, whom he encourages to start making his own art.

 "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist," said Verbal Kint in "The Usual Suspects." It's hard to shake the suspicion that Banksy has flipped the script and convinced the world he does in fact exist. Watching the film, there's nothing to dispel the notion that Banksy isn't actually a collective.

It's hard to shake the idea that Guetta is nothing more than another piece of work by Banksy, who- or whatever he may be. The only time Guetta's ever seen actually making art is when he's randomly dribbling or spraying paint across prints made by his hired hands. There's no evidence that he can draw or paint or sculpt -- all he does is conceive, which is certainly a skill, but not necessarily enough to qualify one as an artist.

Part of what makes the film work so well is the narration of Rhys Ifans, who reads his lines like a parent telling his child a fantastical fairy tale -- and really, that’s what this whole story feels like, with Banksy floating in and out of the action like some all-powerful master of puppets. Whether the film is a real documentary or a wildly elaborate put-on is really beside the point. Either way, it's a great narrative and fodder for countless hours of navel-gazing/arguing.

Opens April 16 in New York and L.A.

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