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The Writing Is on the Walls

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

2010 Sundance Film Festival

“Exit Through the Gift Shop” arrives in theaters propelled by an avalanche of critical plaudits. British street artist/filmmaker Banksy has been hailed as a cinematic revolutionary, the creator of a self-reflexive masterpiece that gets at the essence of the precarious divide between the artist and the hack, the observer and the observed.

The picture adapts a provocative conceit, one that melds its formal construction with the ideas at its core. In subverting the footage a man named Thierry Guetta shot to document the burgeoning street art movement of the past decade and making it instead the story of Mr. Guetta succumbing to his superficial valuing of celebrity over quality work as he becomes a street artist himself, Banksy indicts a society of poseurs with aplomb. We have met the enemy and it is us, as the aphorism goes.

Yet his movie is fundamentally an intellectual exercise, a fancy meta encapsulation of the age-old artists’ dilemma of staying true to one’s values or selling out for the big bucks. Dolled up as it is with footage of covert artistic operations — Banksy is seen painting a mural on the barrier wall in the West Bank — and the clever shifting of roles, the picture still stalls beneath its essayistic framework.

Forget about finding an individual worth caring about, getting inside their heads and understanding the roots of their work. Mr. Guetta (who now goes by the ridiculous pseudonym of Mr. Brainwash) is subjected to what’s essentially a feature-length character assassination. Banksy portrays him as the ultimate insidious antagonist, a leech who forced himself upon these unsuspecting talents before morphing into a hideously warped version of them, complete with an outsized ego and art that gets the look but not the feel of the real thing.

As an extended takedown, a review of an artist that uses his own work against him, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” intrigues. As a rounded, immersive cinematic experience, it comes up short. The picture is constructed in a way that draws out but a single, manic dimension of its complex central figure without much regard for the psychology behind it. Simultaneously, it is underwritten by tired themes and hampered by the repetitiveness of Mr. Guetta’s footage, which rests entirely on an eye-level view of the different artists at work, with context thrust aside.

Although Banksy’s face remains hidden and his voice obscured, his deep-rooted mastery of the theoretical side of visual media shines through. Next time, if there is one, one hopes he’ll let us see he understands the human condition similarly well.


Opens on April 16 in the United States and on March 5 in Britain.

Directed by Banksy; narrated by Rhys Ifans; edited by Tom Fulford and Chris King; music by Geoff Barrow; produced by Jaimie D’Cruz and James Gay-Rees; released by Producers Distribution Agency (United States) and Revolver Entertainment (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.


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