Pay no attention to the man behind the voice manipulator: Although ostensibly directed by Banksy, the British street-art provocateur who has bombed everything from the Israeli West Bank barrier to the interior walls of the Tate Britain with his insouciantly political works, the artist’s role here is no more or less authorial than it is in his tags and street installations. A man reported to be Banksy appears onscreen, in jeans and a hoodie, his face obscured by shadows, his voice electronically altered; back-in-the-day footage of Banksy is shot over the shoulder or with his face digitally distorted. You’ll see a man identified as Banksy working on stencils, putting together pieces, and rifling through boxes of fake £10 notes featuring Princess Diana, but don’t come to Exit looking for any insight into Banksy, per se. If that’s your ultimate catch, you’re better off trolling for info online.
And yet: If there’s a better document about the restless energy of street artists, a more articulate expression of street art’s subversive spirit, a more succinct exploration of the chasm separating art practice from the art market — all of which intimately informs the world in which Banksy operates — it hasn’t hit screens. Even before it gets to its title card, Exit announces its elusive appeal, opening in a montage flurry of street artists at work under cover of night, one escaping over a wall and into the dark when a pair of cops appears. Banksy himself soon appears to announce that this documentary was originally going to be about him and street art until somebody more interesting showed up.
The entire movie is spiced with such moments of oblique motions and misdirection: It shifts from Banksy to Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman who settled in Los Angeles in the 1980s and ran a fashion store — and who went everywhere with his video camera. Guetta’s cousin is French street artist Space Invader — so named for his mosaic tags of creatures inspired by the old video game — who introduces Guetta to street art and eventually to Los Angeles street artist Shepard Fairey, whom Guetta follows around the world, documenting Fairey’s work and meeting other street artists before eventually coming into contact with Banksy himself. As media attention pushes street art from building sides to gallery walls, Banksy tells Guetta he should shape his nearly a decade’s worth of footage into the definitive street-art documentary. At 87 minutes, Exit pushes you through this storyline like a raft over rapids, and once Banksy finally sees Guetta’s edit, everything is going tits up.
Some of Exit’s best white-water twists are still to come, and those zigs and zags don’t even include the ongoing online chatter speculating that the entire movie is a Banksy prank; that Guetta looks a bit like a French Tony Clifton only makes such rumors all the more entertaining. But, you know, just because something doesn’t sound real doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and just because it’s totally fake doesn’t mean it can’t convey truth. And it’s in this liminal space of public perception that the movie operates, because it is intimately concerned with how stories, people, and ideas get turned into products in contemporary consumer culture. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a sharp investigation of the way subcultures get repackaged and regurgitated into the commercial marketplace, told from an insider’s perspective involving one of their ostensible own. Banksy texts often operate in the realm of improvisational aphoristic agitprop, and here he offers his own twist on yet another: Print the legend.