He's painted trompe l'oeil visions on walls in Palestine, reconfigured phone boxes in the U.K., turned live elephants pink in L.A. and created robotic hot dogs for a horrifying, vegan-endorsed "pet store" exhibit in Greenwich Village. But with his new documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, British street-art superstar Banksy serves up his most irreverent work yet. The film depicts the crazy rise of film-and-art dabbler Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, whose unlikely success Banksy jump-started.
If Exit Through the Gift Shop, narrated by actor Rhys Ifans, is technically flawed, the documentary is nevertheless a savvy testament to the concept of DIY filmmaking, both a valuable recorded history of a scene and an awesome romp through perilous L.A. with the world's most admired street artists, allowing viewers to experience life underground in the wee hours of the morning. Through the eyes of Guetta, a native Frenchman who inadvertently stumbled into the world of graffiti art, we witness wheat-paste postering at death-defying heights, intricate stenciling on rooftops and the inevitable run-ins with police.
While most fans of graffiti and street art could watch these scenarios play out for the film's entire 90 minutes, Banksy takes a 180-degree turn — perhaps out of respect for a general audience — to focus on Guetta, a self-professed filmmaker obsessed with capturing absolutely everything on tape, no matter how mundane. In Exit, Guetta comes off as a bumbling, Inspector Clouseau–like self-promoter who pastes posters of his face all over L.A.
In the late '90s, at a family reunion in France, Guetta realized that he is a cousin of mosaic artist Space Invader, and began documenting the burgeoning street-art scene worldwide for his own film. Over the past decade, Guetta and his camera had unrestricted access to street art's most prolific talents, including the scene's anonymous cult figure, Banksy.
After being the subject of Guetta's lens for nearly 10 years, Banksy realized the potential of Guetta's footage. He then suggested that Guetta hand over his tapes and instead occupy himself with making his own art, perhaps even staging a show in L.A. Guetta's subsequent hiring of some 20 assistants to produce a major exhibition culminated in the now-infamous June 2008 show in Hollywood that catapulted him to celebrity status.
Meanwhile, Banksy and friends began work on Exit using Guetta's footage. And in Exit, we glimpse what Guetta's documentary might have looked like: an unwatchable, crosscut, random, self-promotional mishmash called Life Remote Control, part '80s-style music video, part schizophrenic nightmare. After first seeing Guetta's rough cut, Banksy recalls in Exit, "I didn't know if I believed he was a filmmaker or a mental patient with a camera."
Asked via e-mail how he maintained his anonymity while shooting Exit, Banksy responds, "The film was made by a very small team. It would have been even smaller if the editors didn't keep having mental breakdowns. They went through over 10,000 hours of Thierry's tapes and got literally seconds of usable footage out of it."
When not attempting to make art and/or films, Thierry Guetta is a happy-go-lucky businessman who lives in L.A. with his wife and children. Despite that fact, members of the British press, used to Banksy's pranks, believe the film is a hoax. Fans also wonder, posting on the Internet long exchanges about the possibility that Banksy and Mr. Brainwash are the same person. Will Exit Through the Gift Shop dispel these rumors?
"It's more shocking than that," Banksy tells the Weekly, "because every bit of it's true."
Guetta may have spent years stalking Banksy with his camera, but by the end of the film, it's difficult to decide who's more obsessed with whom.
"I continue to find the rise of Mr. Brainwash absolutely fascinating," Banksy quips. "His art sells for roughly double what mine does these days. Gore Vidal once wrote that 'Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a little bit of me dies.' I'd amend that to 'Every time one of my friends borrows my ideas, mounts a huge art show and becomes a millionaire celebrity,' a little bit of me wants him dead."
Whatever the case, there's something undeniably L.A. about the success of Mr. Brainwash.
"Thierry is the living embodiment of the American dream," Banksy says. "America's capacity to be infuriating is matched only by its capacity to reinvent itself into something brilliant."
Los Angeles plays a huge role in Exit, and the Weekly makes a cameo appearance or two. When asked about what director Werner Herzog has referred to as the "magic" of L.A., Banksy responds: "In Los Angeles, you can rise without a trace. There's a moment in the film where you see a dude joining the back of the line at an art show. He says he doesn't know why he's there, but he joins it anyway. The first time I saw that, I laughed — it was the emperor's new clothes, the triumph of hype and hot air.