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A lot of people gathered last night in Park City to see the debut film from a street artist-- from my plebian seat I spotted Adrian Grenier, Jesse Eisenberg and Jared Leto, and I'm sure there were others. The thing is, none of us-- not the starry actors, not the publicists, not even the curious buyers-- knew what British artist Banksy would be bringing for his Sundance debut. The guy has made magic on the streets with stenciled art pieces like a girl floating with balloons along the West Bank or a red English telephone booth bent in half-- but does any of that translate to film?
As it turns out, the mysterious film Banksy had to offer was something fairly familiar to Sundance audiences-- a documentary about an unlikely hero and a world we might have never seen otherwise, a chronicle of underground street art and one man, Thierry Guetta, who worked his way into it and became a star in the process. Though the art featured in the film can be avant garde and confusing-- Shepard Fairey's "Andre the Giant Has A Posse" or Banksy's own painted elephant-- the film itself is the kind of documentary anyone can love, funny and insightful and even a little sarcastic about the world it explores. Against all odds, a movie by a street artist who won't reveal his identity is a crowd-pleaser. I'm just as surprised as you are.
The idea behind the film is that Banksy-- an Englishman who won't reveal his identity more for the celebrity than the fact that his work is illegal-- decided to make a movie about a guy who wanted to make a movie about him. Thierry Guetta had been following street artists with his camera ever since his cousin, working under the nom de paint "Space Invader," invited him to join his late-night guerilla installations. Over the course of the last decade Guetta got access to some of the most elusive and famous street artists in the movement, including Fairey-- whose iconic "Hope" portrait of Barack Obama made him famous-- and Banksy himself, who invited Guetta into his work as a conspirator as much as documentarian.
When Guetta finally decided to put the piece together, though, the film he made-- shown in a few hilarious clips-- was an incoherent mess, so Banksy took over the footage while Guetta decided to launch an art career of his own. The final third of the film is devoted primarily to Guetta's instant art stardom, cribbing from the artists he followed for years to create a gigantic gallery show that was embraced wholeheartedly in the Los Angeles art scene, leaving the artists who actually knew Guetta, like Banksy, scratching their heads.
Exit Through the Gift Shop works very, very well as a document of the street art scene, with footage from installations by dozens of artists and interviews with many of them, and both the presence of an enthusiastic fan behind the camera (Guetta) and a master of the art putting it all together (Banksy). When the film turns to focus on Guetta's own story, it's both hilarious-- Guetta has such a lack of self-awareness that he's a brilliant self-promoter-- but also a bit uncomfortable with its inside club politics. Banksy as a filmmaker is inviting us to laugh at Guetta's desire to be an artist, and when he launches his show it's clear that Banksy sees Guetta's art as a wholesale ripoff of both pop art and street art (to be fair, it pretty much is). There's a clear sense that Guetta simply let himself into the club without an invitation, and Banksy and Fairey are jealous; Banksy the interview subject admits it obliquely, saying that Guetta broke the rules despite the fact that there don't seem to be any, but at some points it seems like he's making the film to prove that Guetta just doesn't belong with them. At this moments-- which are rare in this largely excellent movie-- the whole thing feels a little petty.
But that pettiness, that knowledge that the politics on the screen extend beyond it, is just another element of what makes Exit Through the Gift Shop fascinating. Even if you've never heard of Banksy and think of street art as pure graffiti, it's an adventure into a world worth exploring.
For more of our Sundance 2010 coverage, click here.