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Movie Review

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Writing’s on the wall: In ‘Exit,’ street art scene becomes a farce

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / April 23, 2010

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"Exit Through the Gift Shop’’ is a conceptual Chinese box: a documentary about a filmmaker that’s directed by the subject the filmmaker was too inept to actually make a film about. It’s also one of the best, most karmically satisfying comedies of the year, much to the chagrin of the people who are in it.

Maybe you’re confused, and maybe that’s the point. To translate: Banksy, the anonymous British street artist — or soulless graffiti punk, depending on where you sit — got so fed up with an eccentric Frenchman named Thierry Guetta following him around with a video camera for years that he (Banksy) decided to make a movie about him (Guetta) instead. Not only that, but he (Banksy) told him (Guetta) to go try his (Guetta’s) hand at street art if he loved it so damned much.

What starts as a caustic, if kindhearted gag on the part of Banksy — here, Thierry, have an exploding cigar — ends up blowing up in the faces of the global street-art scene, the galleries, the critics, and the herd-like public. Some people have wondered who the joke’s on in this movie. That would be everybody, including Banksy himself. The artist is interviewed throughout the film with his voice altered and his face in shadow beneath a hoodie. Is he protecting his identity or is he mortified at what he has unleashed? Bit of both, probably.

To properly begin the story, you have to go back to the 1990s. Guetta, a runty French transplant who resembles a seedier Chuck Mangione, ran an LA clothing boutique and obsessively videotaped everything, including the illegal activities of his cousin, a graffiti artist named Space Invader. With this entrée to the scene, Guetta started documenting the major names in the street art movement as they plied their trade (or defaced private property, as you will).

Guetta became buddies with Shepard Fairey (who’s interviewed at length in “Exit’’) well before the Obama “Hope’’ poster and Fairey’s brushes with the law. He befriended one-monickered artists like Zeus, Dotmatrix, and Swoon before landing the biggest fish of all — the mysterious Banksy — and his footage of guerrilla art in the making is truly remarkable (and, in one assault on Disneyland, hilariously provocative).

Watching these nighttime images of men in black creating their remarkable, illicit works, you appreciate the effort they’re putting in and you understand the thrill. You see, too, the difference between defacement and art — between a simple graffiti tag and a complex image that can make you reconsider and reframe the possibilities of public space. (Where you go from there — to the art gallery or the cops — is your business.)

The trouble was that Guetta just tossed his videotapes into a box with no thought of editing them into coherent shape. Capturing the artists at work was his way of being part of the event; for him, posterity held no interest. The artists themselves assumed he was going to do something with his footage, but when Banksy asked him to create a movie, Guetta came back with an unwatchable mess. (That’s a description, not a value judgment; what we see of Guetta’s rough cut reveals the amiable Frenchman to be not the most stable of men.)

Fine, said Banksy, I’ll be the filmmaker and you be the street artist. And that’s where “Exit Through the Gift Shop’’ takes off into the parodic stratosphere, as Guetta adopts the nom de spraycan Mr. Brainwash and goes about the business of selling himself to the art-elite masses of LA. To say any more would be unfair, other than to note that the difference between those with actual talent (Banksy) and those with none (Guetta) turns out to be minimal once the hype machine cranks up.

If you’re one of those who cheered when Fairey was arrested at his Boston art opening last year, you may enjoy “Exit’’ more than you think. Everyone here ends up looking like a village idiot — except, ironically, the daft, clueless Guetta — and the stricken expression on Fairey’s face as he contemplates the monster he has helped create is absolutely priceless. For his part, Banksy clearly understands the cosmic joke of it all, but he’s still appalled — and he knows that makes the joke even funnier.

Is the movie itself a put-on? Several critics have raised the possibility that “Exit Through the Gift Shop’’ is just another Banksy con game, an art-world “Punk’d’’ that lets him and his little pals laugh all the harder at us. I’m not buying it; for one thing, this story’s too good, too weirdly rich, to be made up. For another, the movie’s gently amused scorn lands on everyone. That great, weary title carries an echo of P.T. Barnum’s “This Way to the Egress’’ — a sign promising a zoological novelty, it led only to the door out — and reminds us there’s a sucker born every minute. Some of them even grow up to be street artists.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP Directed by: Banksy

Starring: Banksy, Thierry Guetta, Shepard Fairey, narrated by Rhys Ifans

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 87 minutes

Rated: R (language)

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