Exit Through the Gift Shop starts out as a straightforward documentary. Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in L.A., pulls his first heist buying clothes from France on the cheap, and then flipping them in Los Angeles for obscene prices as "designer" items. He's also totally obsessed with his video camera; he films everything and everyone. While traveling in Paris, his begins to video document his cousin, Invader, a prolific street artist who tags public places with ceramic tiles of Space Invader characters, based on an old 8-bit video game. He eventually networks farther into the underground art scene, and meets other artists, most notably Shepard Fairey, creator of both Obama's "Hope" poster, and the "Obey" iconography. Thierry doesn't just document their late night, risky, outdoor art installations, he also frequently serves as lookout, paint can holder, and student.
It's through Shepard Fairey that Thierry meets the man on top of the worldwide underground art scene, no other than Banksy himself. Banksy (always shown shadowed, in a hoodie, and with a disguised voice) allows Thierry to document his projects, because, graffiti is one art form that doesn't remain around for long. This eventually runs its course, and Banksy, after watching a feature-length edit of Guetta's project Life Remote Control, realizes Thierry has not made any kind of coherent documentary about the street art scene. He advises Thierry to head back to L.A. and try to create some of his own street art. This is where the documentary is turned on its end. The interviewer is now the subject.
This morphs Thierry Guetta into "Mr. Brainwash," an instant graffiti factory who tries to one-up the renowned L.A. art show Banksy threw a couple of years back, Barely Legal. Mr. Brainwash calls his art exhibit Life is Beautiful, and the rush is on to throw the biggest (and Banksiest) underground art show around. At this point his next heist becomes legendary. He gets the L.A. Weekly to make his show the cover, misuses a Banksy quote, and enlists a reluctant Shepard Fairey to promote him. The only thing missing from the huge space he has rented for the show is the actual artwork. Never fear, a large assortment of Photoshop wizards work around the clock to pump out a million takes on pop and political culture. Look, it's Elvis with a gun instead of a guitar! Or Spock with Marilyn Monroe hair! Or Johnny Depp with Marilyn Monroe Hair!
The show is wildly successful, Mr. Brainwash makes over a million bucks, and very few appear to see his work for what it is: An overt and endlessly derivative clone of Banksy, Warhol, or any other street artist he met. It struck me during this movie just how much people want to believe in something, and how much they will pay to validate that. Maybe some of the attendees wanted part of something "like" Banksy, or were really taken by Guetta's show, either way, he brainwashed them. The film really makes you consider what art is, and what makes a legitimate artist.
There's some speculation that the movie and Mr. Brainwash are a hoax concocted by Banksy. I've seen the film three times, and I still go back and forth on it. It's part of the brilliance of the film. The only provable hoax is that Mr. Brainwash could sell $10 clothes for $500, or sell some of his instant "art" for over $100,000 a piece. This film stands as true art: it fascinates, it pushes the genre of documentaries, and resonates.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Exit Through the Gift Shop comes as a BD25 and loads in regions A/B (region C untested) There's also a DVD copy included. The package consists of a cardboard fold-out case, which includes postcards and stickers featuring Banksy and Mr. Brainwash's art, and even a pair of kaleidoscope star-shaped glasses. There are no pop-up menus on the disc. There are two subtitle options, English and English subtitles for the hearing impaired. I found it interesting that the first subtitle option doesn't show subtitles during any of the English-speaking events. It just covers the foreign dialogue. Only the English subtitles for the hearing impaired cover all the dialogue in the movie.
The video on this release is a 1:78 AVC encode. The rough source material (shot on what looks to be an old SD video camera) looks a good degree sharper here than on the DVD, but it's still a uneven ride with a lot of source aliasing, lack of detail, muddy blacks, and flat colors. The still shots they use in the movie are a real contrast, as they are clearly new HD-sourced still material edited into this release when compared to the DVD. Don't expect a whole lot due to the source.
There's two audio tracks, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The 5.1 track utilizes all channels when music is present. The subwoofer occasionally rumbles, but it's mostly center-driven, sounding perfectly clear. The 2.0 track exhibits a bit of a problem when the music and the dialogue compete at the same time. I prefer the 5.1 because the isolated dialogue in the center is done so effectively, and the mix with the music is well balanced.
More brainwashing (SD, 5:16) - A total of five deleted scenes. There are some interesting moments here and there, but nothing that really needed to be in the feature cut.
A star is born (SD, 7:09) - Behind the scenes at Banksy's "Cans" street art exhibition in 2008. Focuses on Mr. Brainwash participating in his first art show. The segment showing him cutting the stencil for his own showpiece, and then pawning it off on other people when he tires is illuminating.
Life Remote Control (SD, 15:03) - Imagine babysitting a child hopped up on a twelve pack of Mountain Dew and handing them the remote control for 15 minutes. Thierry gives us a glimpse of what that would look like: seemingly endless, random, mostly incoherent images and sounds abstractly edited. We can all thank his legal counsel for recommending Mr. Brainwash hack down the 90 minute version.
B Movie (SD, 13:36) - An excellent, but all too brief look at Banksy, the street art movement, and his work. Art critics, fellow artists, and others weigh in (and not all favorably, which I admired).
My favorite movie from 2010, documentary or otherwise. It educates the viewer about a underground art form, completely reverses course, and offers a subversive and thoroughly entertaining commentary of the art world. Some see this only as an elaborate hoax, but it's funnier than you would expect and showcases some great artists. A mild upgrade from the DVD, but it comes highly recommended to first time buyers. If you haven't seen it yet, you must.