Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun


In the new documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, you immediately meet Thierry Guetta. He doesn’t come across immediately as a great artist, but a sidekick to them. His cousin goes by the handle Invader. He’s always got a video camera with him, documenting the burgeoning street art scene in LA.

That he claims to be making a documentary about the scene and his knowledge of the best walls and buildings to paint on made him trustworthy to the rock stars of that world, most notably Shepherd Fairey and Banksy. He filmed thousands and thousands of hours of artists, but he was content to leave them in boxes in his garage. Only when Banksy thought that it would be beneficial to his PR did he insist Guetta make good on the doc he was promising.

That became a 90-minute film called Life Remote Control and, according to Banksy in this documentary he directs, it was horrible and unwatchable. Instead, ironically, Banksy becomes the filmmaker (likely in name only but this is billed as “A Banksy film”), taking Guetta’s footage and turning it into a compelling and often very funny film narrated by Welsh actor Rhys Ifans and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Guetta, pushed by Banksy’s (regrettable encouragement) begins to focus on his own art.

Interviewed here, although his identity and voice are still concealed, Banksy describes what he does as “a legal grey area”, which is being ambitious: there are few ambiguities about graffiti’s legality. Still, both Banksy and Shepherd Fairey have had considerable adoration from mainstream sources (the latter’s famous “Hope” print was one of the most iconic of the last presidential campaign). In one scene, Banksy’s art is auctioned off at a big auction house and a high-profile art collector talks about how a lot of art collectors who own Picassos are now bidding on Banksys.

The footage, most of which Guetta filmed over a period of nine years, is remarkable. He’s meeting Fairey at a Kinko’s in LA, or going to Disneyland with Banksy and putting a dummy meant to represent a detainee at Guantanamo Bay visible from one ride. Banksy, a mysterious artist whose identity is unknown, allowed Guetta to film his body but not his face, so we get to see inside of his lofts. The exclusive footage is partially what makes the film so compelling. It’s a fascinating cautionary tale of what accounts for fame and celebrity in this time. Like Heavy Metal in Baghdad or The September Issue, you’re getting access to a universe that is only possible because of the filmmaker’s trust with the subject (although in this particular case, the filmmaker and subject roles are slightly more fluid).

When Banksy saw the first draft of Guetta’s film and found it dreadful and he told him Guetta should focus on his own art, he had no idea what kind of monster it would cause. Taking cue from Banksy’s LA show “Barely Legal” (if you want to google it while at work, you’re not feeling lucky), Guetta envisions his own art show trumping Banksy’s in ambition and scale. Guetta becomes “Mr. Brainwash” and rents a former CBS studio to house his show, “Life is Beautiful”. At this particular moment in the doc, Guetta becomes an ego-filled monster who is in over his head. He went to enormous lengths to pay for the show, including taking on a second mortgage. Banksy and Fairey both offer vague endorsements reluctantly and it only adds to the show’s mystique (as did an LA Weekly cover story).

There is a lot of chatter online whether or not the film is an elaborate hoax perpetuated by Banksy. I take it face value, even if the subjects have no reason to be taken as such. While it seems too elaborate and contrived to actually be anything but, some of the footage (like Guetta meeting Shepherd Fairey for the first time) seem to be authentic and more than a little difficult to forge.

Near the end, Fairey tries to make a distinction between himself and Mr. Brainwash by saying “MBW” was only in it for the money (at least as far as “Life is Beautiful is concerned), which is likely true but somewhat unfair as Guetta has a wife and children to support, as well as recouping the expenses he put into his art (the doc doesn’t explain what he did for an income prior to this). A more salient point he makes is that Guetta only spent a short amount of time developing his art and he’s often unaware of its history or what the images he co-opts mean. Guetta mass-produces his art, which is a combination of street art and Warholian pop art.

Not only can a star be born, it would seem, it can also be bought.