Conned by a film


The brilliantly untrustworthy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop reminds us that a film can start out in one direction and then change course so radically, it becomes an act of provocation unto itself.

It’s billed as the first feature by the shadowy British street artist known as Banksy, who appears on-screen in literal shadows and a hoodie, with a digitally scrambled voice. (His kind of graffiti and urban commentary exists, as he says, in “a bit of a legal gray area.”) The movie — or rather a different, unfinished movie — starts out as a documentary chronicling street artists in action. The man behind the camera: Thierry Guetta, a muttonchopped Frenchman with a fashionable clothing store in Los Angeles and an insatiable voyeuristic streak.

Guetta is a compulsive videographer, filming his family life, his work life, his recreational life almost perpetually. He becomes obsessed with street artists and their below-the-radar yet highly visible endeavors, all around the world. He is both their Boswell and their stalker, filming, filming, filming, always.

Then the holy grail of reclusive street artists arrives in L.A.: the British provocateur Banksy, readying a solo show. Guetta is eager to film this superstar in action to complete his collage portrait of what narrator Rhys Ifans describes as “the biggest countercultural movement since punk.” By this time Guetta has amassed hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of unedited footage he keeps in unlabeled boxes. A firstdraft version of Guetta’s documentary, titled Life Remote Control, turns out to be a trippy mess.

According to Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy took over, casually suggesting to Guetta that he try pursuing an art career of his own, more or less to get rid of him. Banksy and his associates then began making a movie about Guetta’s pipe dream of becoming an artist.

The entire film comprises a series of painfully funny train wrecks, open to more than one interpretation of the truth. Is Guetta for real? Or is he a fabrication of Banksy’s — a key component of what might be a colossal put-on? Some critics have suggested that it doesn’t matter: Either way, goes the argument, Exit Through the Gift Shop makes drolly incisive points about art-world pros and cons and the merry gullibility of the public. I feel somewhat differently. If, in fact, Guetta is not who the film claims he is, and things didn’t happen roughly this way, my admiration for Banksy (the credited director of the final version, and a street artist of genuine wit) takes a distant second to feeling as if I’d been had by an extremely clever fellow.

Yet it’s undeniable: The film’s slippery surface makes its contents all the more tantalizing.

—MCT, Tribune Newspapers