‘Gift Shopping’ unsurprising

By David Orlikoff

It’s hard to know exactly what the mysterious British street artist and provocateur Banksy is hoping to accomplish with the film “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” His work is often so far removed from traditional graffiti that the only thing cementing him within that world is his own insistence on belonging. Already completely accepted by the international art community, his pieces can sell for as much as $500,000 to private collectors, while the street fairing public gets to see them for free. That’s just the kind of joke the post-modern, meta-loving Banksy revels in.

The purported plot of this film involves an idiosyncratic Frenchman living in L.A. by the name of Thierry Guetta. The cousin of the street artist Space Invader, Guetta stumbled onto the scene and for over a decade filmed and aided in the antics of famous artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy himself. When Guetta eventually produced a film from his footage, it was garbage, forcing Banksy to “turn the camera on him” and create the resulting “Gift Shop.” It is almost certain some of this is false, and if the mysterious Banksy was as involved as is claimed in the film, the joke is on us. But which joke—how and why—is impossible to tell.

As a conventional documentary, Banksy’s film is a tad humdrum. There are a few sections in which we’re allowed to witness the making of street art, but these are few and far between. Talking head interviews with those in the scene comprise a large portion of screen time, with the occasional funny quip like this one from Banksy: “I don’t know how to make a film … but that didn’t stop Thierry.”

The audience is supposed to remember the line in which, at Banksy’s behest, Guetta attempts to make some street art himself under the moniker of Mr. Brainwash. His work isn’t very good, and he doesn’t actually make any himself, but thanks to branding and endorsements from those he spent time with, Mr. Brainwash is an overnight success and supposed millionaire. But that alone can’t be the message of the film. It’s too obvious, too spoon fed. Unfortunately any deeper meaning is lost amidst the tumultuous sea of self-importance and holier-than-thou arrogance of the hidden identity prophet Banksy.

Forgoing the unknown, and relying on the actual film rather than hype, we are left with an interesting character piece narrated by Rhys Ifans about a man all too willing to share his meandering failures and failed successes. Guetta is almost as intriguing as either lead in the 2007 too-good-to-be-true documentary on classic video gaming, “The King of Kong,” and equal or better than recent fictitious characters, excluding of course Heath Ledger’s The Joker.

The film is a tight 87 minutes and, if anything, too well-constructed. Part of the reason conspiracy theories surrounding the film are so enticing is that “Gift Shop” is just like any other film, not at all subversive in form or content as one might expect given the nature of the subject. The few modest conclusions about the commoditization of art and branding are as subtle as the film’s title and delivered appropriately alongside the film’s conclusion. Usually, when some counter-culture movement embarks on filmmaking they reject old forms. And usually the result is unwatchable, but we’ve come to expect the attempt.

Interesting as a conventional feature about an unconventional character, “Gift Shop” is buttressed by hype. It stimulates interest in the counter-culture movement of street art, but ultimately disappoints as it fails to adequately fill our lust for knowledge. An interesting aside, the world is still want for the definitive street art documentary, and it might never get it.