Film Club: ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’
Documentary? Prankamentary? Whatever? It’s Brilliant
Friday, April 30, 2010
Host Maureen Cavanaugh and film critics Beth Accomando, Scott Marks, and Anders Wright discuss "Exit Through the Gift Shop" on the April KPBS Film Club of the Air.
The funniest film of the year may end up being an art documentary. Yeah, you heard me right. "Exit Through the Gift Shop" (opening April 30 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) made me laugh harder and longer than any comedy this year. Plus it's a savvy critique of the art world. Listen to our discussion from the KPBS Film Club of the Air.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The controversy started at San Diego's Comic-Con last July and now it's gone national. I'm talking about the furor over the violent comic-book-based action film called "Kick-Ass." That's just one of the movies we'll be discussing this morning on the KPBS Film Club of the Air. Also, an art documentary with a surprise ending, a New York City story about upper-middle-class guilt and another comic book movie. Plus our critics will be giving their recommendations on what to look for in theaters and on DVD. I’d like to introduce my guests. Beth Accomando is the KPBS film critic and author of the blog Cinema Junkie. Good morning, Beth.
BETH ACCOMANDO (KPBS Film Critic): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: You look great.
ACCOMANDO: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: We’ll talk about that later. Scott Marks is the author of the film blog EmulsionCompulsion.com. Scott, good morning. You look great, too.
MARKS: Oh, thank you. I will, great.
CAVANAUGH: Anders Wright, looking great, is the film critic for San Diego Beat (sic). Good morning, Anders.
WRIGHT: Thank you so much, and thank you all for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we start with a documentary called “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” which gives us a glimpse into the world of street artists. We see them filmed at night, spray painting walls, subway cars, and other public places. But this film is more than a straightforward documentary. Just like the artists it features, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” has its own pranks and surprises. It’s supposedly the brain child of Los Angeles art world figure Thierry Guetta. Here’s a scene from the beginning of “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”
(audio of clip from “Exit Through the Gift Shop”)
CAVANAUGH: And after he finds him, wouldn’t you know it, street artist Banksy starts to take over the film. We’re talking about the film “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” And we should start actually, Beth, with a quick sketch of two of the central figures in the film. Who is this Banksky (sic)?
ACCOMANDO: Well, he’s a street artist and graffiti artist and he’s been successful in keeping his identity hidden as far as I know. And basically he’s somebody who does kind of guerilla art. He goes out, it can be as simple as simply spraying a stencil design onto a corner of a wall or it can be as elaborate as doing a kind of installation piece in the middle of a street. But it’s work that has, essentially, a short life span because as soon as it’s discovered by the authorities or whatnot, it can be removed or…
MARKS: The man…
ACCOMANDO: …painted over. Yeah, as soon as the man comes out. And, I mean, that’s an accepted part of what that art is. And the stuff is also very socially and politically charged. I mean, he’s not just – I mean, you have to understand, too, there’s a difference between just simply tagging a wall or just spray painting your name up or, you know, defacing a wall and people who go out there to actually put up art that has some sort of purpose or meaning. So, I mean, he’s gone and painted on the wall, you know, that’s gone up in Palestine, he’s painted, you know, a wall…
CAVANAUGH: And put his own paintings in the Louvre, is that right?
ACCOMANDO: Yes, snuck in there…
MARKS: Yeah. Except…
ACCOMANDO: One of the great moments…
CAVANAUGH: Don’t – don’t forget that. Anders, fill us in on who Thierry Guetta is and his relationship with the artist Banksy.
WRIGHT: Yes, Thierry. Well, Thierry is this sort of crazed Frenchman who lives in LA and sells vintage clothing, makes a killing. He’s the sort of guy who would sort of, you know, come to your garage sale, buy your old Puma shoes and then sell them for $400 to LA-based hipsters. And he’s, in the course of this film, he’s also the sort of person who carries a video camera with him everywhere he goes. And at one point he goes back to Paris and learns that his cousin is a guy called Space Invader, who is another one of the big figures in this movement. And he starts going out with him at night and shooting all this incredible footage of this art that, as Beth said, it’s really fleeting. It has a lifespan. And he clearly gets kind of addicted to it and through Space Invader he meets all these other artists including Shepard Fairey, and he’s capturing all this extraordinary footage of a world that’s never really been documented before and he’s, you know, he’s telling everybody I’m making this documentary about…
CAVANAUGH: Shepard Fairey, excuse me…
CAVANAUGH: …Shepard Fairey being the man behind the Obey Giant little posters.
WRIGHT: Andre the Giant, yeah and…
CAVANAUGH: Andre the Giant, yeah.
WRIGHT: …of course the controversial figure with the Obama Hope…
WRIGHT: …painting. But he – So he’s really capturing all this incredible artwork, trying to make this movie but he knows that he cannot make a documentary about street art without having Banksy in it. And someday, one day, just sort of randomly Shepard Fairey hooks him up with Banksy and the next thing you know, they’re thick as thieves and they’re running around trying to, you know, do these incredible works. Like Thierry actually takes the fall for Banksy in Disneyland one time in a really hysterical part of the film.
CAVANAUGH: Well, now, let me ask you, though, Scott, this movie is not a standard documentary. In fact, some people are calling it a prankumentary.
MARKS: Yeah, I would…
MARKS: I would think this is – Well, first of all, the one thing you said about Thierry is that the footage is extraordinary but the way in which it’s filmed is anything but.
MARKS: This guy is a hack.
MARKS: He has no talent whatsoever. He’s – he looks like somebody you would want to go out drinking with. You would have a lot of fun if he was your drinking buddy. And the gossip has escalated so much that people are saying that Thierry and Banksy are one in the same because nobody can see Banksy, that this is just this elaborate – This is like “Borat” for people with brains. This is “Borat” for intellectuals. This is like this grand goof on the art world because eventually Thierry winds up with his own gallery show but we never see the guy lift a brush, we never see him create anything. How do you know that he’s making all this money at his antique store with the Puma shoes and all that? We – You don’t even know where he gets his money from really. Certainly not enough to finance that show that was put on.
WRIGHT: Well, I don’t disagree with you. And part of what makes this film so great in my mind is that you can’t necessarily trust…
WRIGHT: …that anyone says at all.
WRIGHT: Because essentially what it’s about is it’s a movie about a guy trying to make a movie about Banksy, and it’s Banksy making that movie. I mean, it’s meta, meta, meta, meta.
CAVANAUGH: So in trying to nail anything down, what, Beth, what do we learn about street artists in the process of this very – sounds like a very confusing documentary.
ACCOMANDO: I wouldn’t call it confusing. I think it’s playful. It’s like this Chinese box where there’s all these things hidden inside each other and, I mean, it does focus on street art. It does give you a sense of what these guys do, that they’re running around in the middle of the night being chased by cops, climbing up buildings. I mean, when I was watching this, the first thing I thought of was I wanted my son to come and see this because he loves parkour, which is the, you know, running all over the city. And it’s like these guys are running from the cops and these poor cops are trying to chase after them and have no hope of catching them. But you see what they do and you see how amazing some of the technique they have is, some of these elaborate stencils that they put together and Xeroxing six-foot or eight-foot faces to put up on walls. So, I mean, you do get a genuine glimpse of what doing this kind of street art entails. But then layered on top of that is you’re getting this whole commentary on, you know, how people can be fooled into thinking what is art, what isn’t art, I mean, a criticism of the art world itself, of, you know, critics of the art world, of artists themselves. I mean, so you get all these layers on top of each other in a very playful – I mean, I don’t think I laughed this hard at a comedy recently. It’s hilarious.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let me go with what you said though over to Scott. With the commentary it has on the art world, the very title of this documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” is, in itself, a commentary on what the art world is now.
MARKS: This is a fanboy film with a moral and social conscience and you don’t normally see that. And this is also a great example of Banksy biting the hand that feeds him.
WRIGHT: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
MARKS: He makes fun of all these people. These schmucks who stand in line to see Thierry’s art exhibition, they don’t know who this guy is. There was an article about him in the LA Weekly, and the lemmings just start flocking, and they don’t care. They’re going to go because they’ve been told to go. And as it turns out, it’s an elaborate hoax. I mean, it’s basically Thierry just – or Thierry just ripping off…
ACCOMANDO: But I…
MARKS: …Andy Warhol.
WRIGHT: Don’t you…
ACCOMANDO: But I don’t think it’s Banksy biting the hand that feeds him. I mean, I think that – No. I think he’s always kind of had it in for that crowd. I don’t think that he caters to them and I don’t think they really pay for his way.
WRIGHT: Oh, no, but they do. They do. I mean, part of this, though, is that Banksy and the other street artists have become mainstream and had all sorts of real gallery success.
WRIGHT: But I actually think the idea, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” works on two levels. It’s not just the people who are in Thierry’s show. I think that’s about you, the audience, watching this. I mean, it’s – it works on two levels. It’s not just about the people in the movie. The whole idea, if we’re – if Banksy looks at art and the nature of art and what is art, I mean, the idea of putting his own stuff surreptitiously up in the Louvre, you know, to sort of ask, well, why is my stuff here next to all – You know, who defines what is what?
WRIGHT: It’s the same exact thing with this film. Everything about it is – This entire movie is a Banksy art project and he’s not only saying to you, hey, the suckers who fall for Thierry’s art show in LA, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” in some ways you’re exactly the same because you’re paying eleven bucks to come see my movie. Ehh, maybe buy a poster on the way out.
CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about the movie, the new art documentary, “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” There have been rumors that Banksy, who apparently is behind at least the second half of this documentary, was inspired to make this film, Scott, by Orson Welles’ “F Is for Fake” (sic). Describe the Welles’ film for us, and do you see the influence on this work?
MARKS: Eh, boy, until you just mentioned it, I haven’t even – hadn’t even thought about it. I hadn’t thought of that.
MARKS: “F for Fake” is Orson’s elaborate documentary where it’s about Clifford Irving and the book that he wrote about Howard Hughes. Oh, and, God, I’m forgetting the artist’s name, the guy who could just take a canvas and a piece of charcoal and here’s a Picasso. I mean, he did…
CAVANAUGH: Exactly. He did that for years.
MARKS: I forget the guy’s name. So he follows these two characters, you know, real life characters and then at the end he tries to pull of a bit of a hoax himself, and I think you can all see it coming but since it’s Orson Welles, you know, I’m more than happy to – to close a blind eye. So, yeah, I can kind of see how “F for Fake” would have been a prime influence on Banksy. And shouldn’t Banksy be the name that Barbara Stanwyck called Henry Fonda in an old Preston Sturges comedy? I mean, that just sounds, you know, like he should be a banker and she should call him Banksy.
WRIGHT: What – Can I just – One thing, though, that you said is that Banksy’s in charge of the second half of this movie. And I actually think that…
WRIGHT: …that’s not the case…
WRIGHT: …that it’s designed to make you think that, that actually the entire movie is Banksy.
WRIGHT: That’s what you – And he fools us by sitting down in front of the camera. He keeps his secret identity but…
MARKS: If it is, indeed, him.
WRIGHT: …it doesn’t – The point is that every…
WRIGHT: …all the narration that he’s providing, the interview that he’s doing, he’s calculatingly doing all of those things to make you think that, oh, half of this footage is produced by Thierry. Everything that’s there, whether he got it from Thierry, whether he made it himself, the entire film is put together by Banksy and…
ACCOMANDO: Except he gives – He kind of gives that away in the very, very beginning. I mean, you’re led – Right off the start, they give you the clues to everything you essentially need to know. I mean, he sets it up by saying like, okay, here’s what you think it is but it’s not. I mean…
CAVANAUGH: And isn’t it…
ACCOMANDO: …right off the bat.
CAVANAUGH: Isn’t it interesting you’re even using that terminology when you’re talking about an art documentary.
CAVANAUGH: This – It sounds as if this documentary, Beth, sets the whole thing of what people have in their minds when they’re going to sit down for an art documentary on its ear.
ACCOMANDO: Oh, yeah, because, like I said, this is one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years. And, yeah, it just layers so many things in and has so much fun. I mean, I think the thing I enjoyed about it the most was that playfulness. I mean, the sense of playful inventiveness and not taking anything seriously and yet taking everything seriously. I mean, it’s just great. And you’re so engaged with it the whole time.
CAVANAUGH: By the way, producer Angela Carone has let us know that Elmyr de Hory is the art forger…
MARKS: There you go. There you go.
CAVANAUGH: …in “F for Fake.” We started off, I’m so glad, with a movie that you all seem to love so much. Let me just ask you, Anders, is there anything you want to add about this?
WRIGHT: This is – I really – The more I spend – more time I spend thinking about this movie, the more I love it, the more I want to see it, and the more I want to send people to it. I mean, I feel like it’s so rare where something comes along that works on so many different levels and yet, you know, at the same time, there’s the added – the challenging part is to say like, no, really, it’s a documentary about art, you’ll love it. Because that just sounds…
WRIGHT: …like my, personally, my worst nightmare.
ACCOMANDO: Except, you know what, we just recently had “Art of the Steal” that came out.
ACCOMANDO: And that was pretty fascinating, too. I mean, that was played out like a tense thriller…
ACCOMANDO: ...as opposed to any kind of stuffy art documentary or anything like that. And I think the two films actually kind of pair up nicely.
CAVANAUGH: And so…
MARKS: And “Gift Shop” is not a well-made film by any stretch of the – It’s very well put together and conceptually it’s a brilliant film, but visually, I mean, Thierry’s footage is just – it’s hideous to look at.
CAVANAUGH: Does that add to it, though?
MARKS: In this instance, it does, because one my colleagues, when it was over, oh, you must’ve hated that, it was all close-ups and it was hand-held. No, I don’t because they basically take the time to sit you down and say, this is bad, this guy is not a good filmmaker. Because they tried – he tried to put together a documentary about Banksy and after they watched it…
ACCOMANDO: That type of injury.
WRIGHT: Yeah, it was amazing.
MARKS: …he realized that the footage was so weak that all he could do was edit it.
ACCOMANDO: I don’t…
MARKS: It was all flashy editing. It was like MTV editing. There was nothing…
ACCOMANDO: But I don’t think that’s because he recognized that he had weak footage. I think he was like they described him. He’s like an ADD kid with a remote. He couldn’t sit on an image…
MARKS: Oh, no. Yeah, it’s not because he didn’t recognize it.
ACCOMANDO: …longer than two or three seconds.
WRIGHT: The other thing about Thierry, though, is that he may not be an artist or a filmmaker himself but he’s spent so much time around these people who make this really extraordinary art…
ACCOMANDO: Oh, he’s passionate.
MARKS: Okay, what is that, guilt by association or…?
WRIGHT: No, no.
ACCOMANDO: No, he…
WRIGHT: He’s taking his cues from them. He’s doing what he’s seen them do.
ACCOMANDO: But he’s also passionate. I mean, the guy is likable despite the fact that he’s a hack and that he doesn’t produce good art. He’s a likable guy.
MARKS: If this wasn’t a scam, I would not think that the guy is likable. But if this is an enormous joke and he’s in on the joke and he’s playing people, he’s lovable. Forget about likable.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I gotta tell you, we – if this discussion hasn’t gotten people who want to see this movie, I don’t know what will. “Exit Through the Gift Shop”…
CAVANAUGH: …opens Friday at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas. I want to let everyone know that works by Banksy, Space Invader and Shepard Fairey will be included in a group show of street artists. That’s opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego this summer. Stay with us. We’re going to be talking about “Kick-Ass” when we return here on These Days, the KPBS Film Club of the Air, in just a few minutes here on KPBS.
Companion viewing: "Art of the Steal," "How to Steal a Million," "Filth and the Fury"