‘Gift Shop’ gives insight to the life of street artists

By Andy Tybout

Here’s a mind boggler for you: a documentary about a man who fails to make a… Here’s a mind boggler for you: a documentary about a man who fails to make a documentary about a famed subject.

It sounds convoluted, but “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” in which street artist and director Banksy’s examination of French eccentric Thierry Guetta, is a film as enjoyable as any you’ll find this summer.

“Gift Shop” is a bizarre tale not easily bent to synopsis, but here goes: Amateur filmmaker Getta begins to document street artists as they go about their nightly vigils.

Eventually, he falls in company with Shepard Fairey — think the iconic Obama posters — and becomes known to Fairey’s crew as a charming, albeit inexplicable, presence. When artists ask him what he’s doing with a camera, he tells them he’s making a movie, which never amounts to much.

Inevitably, Guetta becomes enamored with the shadowy king of the street art world, Banksy, and focuses his energies on capturing the reclusive British sensation on film.

He’s soon granted his wish and more.

When Banksy arrives in Los Angeles for some mischief, Guetta, on the recommendation of Fairey, becomes his escort, on the condition that he never reveal footage of Banksy’s face.

For a time, the two get along quite well. But soon, Guetta feels the artistic calling himself. Discontent simply to trail in others’ footsteps, the Frenchman eventually sells nearly everything he can to make his own debut in the art world.

The results are marvelous for Guetta and disastrous for everyone else.

It’s a delightful, often cringe-worthy, exploration of the true value of art. It questions whether talent is hard to acquire, whether creative expression is invariably driven by fierce intellect and, most importantly, whether the artistic and critical community is completely full of it — Guetta landed on the front page of LA Weekly before his work was even made public.

Guetta, who now abides by the all-too-apt name Mr. Brainwash, is an endearing character in his own right. He’s the prototypical French madman, minus the intelligence. A brazen personality with malignant facial hair, he tromps about the film with a purpose known only to him, dishing out phrases to make his more English-adept countrymen blush (“I will brainwash your face!”).

Banksy, Fairey and Guetta’s myriad helpers, whom you can only assume are no longer his friends, aren’t shy about criticizing the Frenchman. Near the end of the film, one of his aids declares him “retarded.”

In Guetta, it seems that Banksy and Fairey see a mockery of their own art: its nobility.

Or perhaps they’re part of the show.

Recently, some news organizations, most notably The New York Times, have questioned the film’s veracity, wondering whether the perennially silly Guetta is actually an actor. In spite of widespread skepticism, Fairey insists the man’s for real.

But whether Guetta is an actor is almost irrelevant. The questions the documentary — or the possibly mockumentary — poses are still pertinent, the discourse still valid.

In fact, for anyone who has ever held an interest in street art, do-it-yourself filmmaking or the real meaning of artwork, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a must-see.

Provoking laughter and thought in equal measure, it’s the rare film that will be quoted as comedic fodder and name-dropped in intellectual roundtables for years to come.

Still not convinced? Just trust me on this one. I’m an art critic.