Thursday, December 30, 2010

Musings: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010. By Bansky)

The following article assumes that the reader has seen the movie we are about to examine in detail.

Over at the Filmspotting message boards (have you been there lately?), it was noted by one of its community members how 2010 was marked by one debate in particular that stirred our passions. Art criticism: is more of a subjective activity or one for which one may actually take an objective stance? Does the director, writer, painter or historian’s opinion carry greater weight than that of the amateurs, the fans, the general movie going public? Do previous experiences, especially those professional and academic in nature, mean that one genuinely has greater insight into a piece of art, thus whose word carries a more valuable and objective standpoint? Of course, any sort of discussion about art criticism must begin at an even more primitive stage, namely, what consists of what?

The mysterious, comical, unorthodox documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop takes a strange route in tackling the issue of the nature of art, what it consists of and who exactly is fit to create it. It begins feeling very much like a normal doc, as the audience is introduced to a bit of an oddball character named Thierry, a pudgy French native living in California who owns a clothing store featuring pieces decidedly countercultural and unique in style. We learn that for a few years already he has taken upon himself to film virtually everything at anytime. Family dinners, prepping the aisles at work, probably while taking a shit too*, etc. (*this is merely speculation on the part of the article’s author). Life takes a dramatic turn when Thierry comes into contact with talented and elusive members of a bold new artistic movement: street art, or graffiti for the uninitiated. After traveling with some America’s most thought provoking street art promoters, Thierry gets the opportunity of a lifetime upon meeting the most popular and reclusive artist of them all, and Englishmen codenamed Banksy, who keeps his true identity a secret under a hood and whose voice is synthesized for the purpose of the interview he provided in the movie. Thierry’s love for what these people do, Banksy especially,  skyrockets until the day he himself chooses to engage in the same field of artistic expression.

Exit Through the Gift Shop was a smash hit with everyone who saw it this year. I watched yesterday afternoon, took it all in and then pondered. It was a bizarre experience, but much of that had to do with my little-to-nonexistent knowledge of the world these people inhabit. I re-watched some of my favourite scenes later in the day and was finally ready to start writing, although a standard review would not suffice. Exit Through the Gift Shop’s value as a piece of cinema will go hand in hand with whatever notions and themes the viewer can extract from it. A full day after viewing the film, the lasting debates are threefold. First, there is the notion of bringing an art form (or anything) that is mostly cherished during its time on the outskirts of dominant culture into the mainstream. Second is what happens when the so-called ‘non-gifted’ take on a project they have no experience in and try to succeed. Finally was the notion of what art forms are deemed ‘artful’ when an important certain of mass appeal is attained. I other words, whose to say that something isn’t art or good if most people hold the contrary opinion?

One of the most blatant debates the film explores is the always turbulent issue of indie, or counter-cultural forms of expression suddenly being thrust into the arms of mainstream society and, possibly even worse in the minds of those who wanted to preserve their product’s outsider status, seeing said product accepted and demanded by the mainstream. Thierry’s fascination with the world of street art in the early stages of the film can be explained in several ways, such as the provocative beauty of the pieces that are plastered and painted on public or privately owned buildings, but one of the most critical is the thrill of danger in involved. There is a reason why such people put their projects into motion at 2 o’clock in the morning when nobody, especially no police, is around. What they do is still not totally accepted by society at large, yet these artists, much like filmmakers, playwrights and painters, have something to say and share with the world despite how unorthodox their methods may be. This outsider status for all intents and purposes does provide their work with a sense of the mystic. The fact that these people are … untouchable (we don’t see them perform their art, we often don’t who they are, etc.) gives what they do a special quality. It therefore becomes understandable that people like Bansky, Shepperd Fairy and other street artists are less than enthusiastic when discussing the rabid success of Thierry’s larger than life art gallery. Thierry is afflicted by two symptoms that don’t necessarily go hand in hand when it comes to street art. One is his love for the art form, which is fine and dandy, while the other is his burning desire to share what he believes to be high quality personal projects with as many people as possible. He is, in effect, performing the commercialization of street art, something the people he hung out with no so long ago frown upon in many ways. This is a debate that rages on in many artistic circles, especially among movie buffs, so I could relate to this point quite a bit. If you are a serious movie fan, than surely you have partaken in a debate about the merits of mainstream and independent cinema. I’ve had discussions with people who rolled their eyes when solid, non-mainstream directors they admired, in particular those who work outside the United States, decided to take a stab at a Hollywood project. It just doesn’t feel right, that just isn’t what they do, despite the fact that having a significantly larger budget could very well mean even more ways in which said director could express him or herself.

Thierry, from the start of the film up until the end (although this last part is debatable) is very much an amateur, an admirer of filming, filmmaking and eventually of street art, but is not especially talented in any of those things. It doesn’t require a master in filmmaking to pick up a camera and shoot whatever the heck happens to pass you by. Filming something elegantly, giving a time in history a sense of character and importance, those are things that require a minimal amount of talent and understanding in film. Not necessarily a whole lot, but a little. There wasn’t one instant when I felt Thierry had that in him. He is just filming for the sake of filming. He loves doing it and that is all there is to say about the subject. His attempts at creating a feature length documentary about street art amount to nothing more than an indigestible flash in the pan. In the final third of the movie, Thierry decides the time has come to become an active participant in the street art movement given how he has already fallen head over heels in love with this form of expression. Granted, he has tailed around the world with some of the best, including his cousin Space Invader, but he has never created anything. He has never attempted to hone his skills as an artist. Does this not make him one however? Like it or not, in a matter of weeks he, with the assistance of a solid team of production designers and other creative minds, sets up a mind boggling art gallery in Los Angeles with literally hundreds of one of a kind pieces, some small (like a poster of Elvis Presley holding a Fisher Price gun titled ‘Don’t be Cruel’, hardy, har har!) while others and several stories tall (such as the monster built out of television sets). It is one thing to ponder on a single piece of art that the creator shall expose in a very specific location, something Sheppard Fairy, Space Invader and Bansky do frequently. In is entirely different story when someone, without prior experience, chooses to take the spotlight by throwing every single idea passing through his mind onto a canvas, a wall or broken down police vehicle, and to produce such pieces at an industrial pace. Banksy keenly remarks that while Thierry might be deemed by some to be the rightful heir to the famous Andy Warhol, the man’s art sort of resembles everybody else’s. But therein lies part of the debate. Why shouldn’t Thierry be considered an artist? He pulled it off, did he not? It was a resounding success, was it not? How can Sheppard and Banksy, who admittedly have years upon years of experience in street art, openly argue that Thierry is not an artist? Would they be correct in that assessment. I have to assume that many, not all, but many people who watched the movie had a similar gut reaction to what Thierry had engaged in. ‘Well, he doesn’t really know what he is doing. So he’s seen a few street artists at work, that doesn’t make him an expert!’ But that was probably people’s gut reactions, the initial reaction. Upon further reflection, who are you even to make such a comment? Heck, who was I to say that?!? I didn’t know the first thing about street art and that was my reaction! Do I know any better?...

Which directly leads me to the third and final point that struck me while enjoying the delightfully offbeat Exit Through the Gift Shop, the idea of art being accepted as such after a critical mass has been reached. This debate is intertwined with the one we touched on in the previous paragraph, only that now it is the opposite notion. The experts, if they truly are that, can declare all they want that something is not art, but what if the wider society, regardless of its lack of understanding of the art form in question (presuming that such a thing is truly required), accepts what the wanabe artists has given them? What they love it so much that they cannot get enough? In the minds of hundreds, thousands if not millions that person is an artist. Another film related example I can throw out is the critical reception and popular reception of 2009’s The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock and directed by John Lee Hancock. There wasn’t a single podcast show I listened to (Film Junk, Filmspotting, Battleship Pretension, /Filmcast, etc) where the hosts, all of which have watched a countless number of films that have refined their tastes and in some cases have background experience in film, actually thought it was a ‘good’ movie. The critical reception was at best lukewarm. On the other hand, the general public ate it up like warm, gooey, black bottom cupcakes. They loved it. It made over 255 million dollars domestically. Domestically! I personally know people with whom I almost never discuss movies because, imagine that, in my mind they just don’t ‘get’ film (totally presumptuous and pompous on my behalf, I’m willing to admit it), but they loved The Blind Side. It was a hit, a great hit in fact. So much so that Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her performance and in the film itself was nominated for picture of the year. I can take a bucket of vomit, smear it across the outside wall of a grocery store in protest of their terrible apples and call it protest art, but few people will join me. Thierry takes pictures of American icons and gives them a different hair colour and builds a monster out of old television sets and hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles citizens hail him as a genius, or at the very least find his work interesting. In took a few weeks to set the whole thing up. As Bansky himself notes, Thierry never took time to refine his style or perfect his craft. I didn’t think what Thierry set up was particularly insightful, provocative or really all that artistic. I don’t consider imitation to the all that artistic and Thierry, in my opinion, was basically ripping off Andy Warhol. But hey, he made over a million dollars with his Life is Beautiful show, so what do I know….In terms of acceptance, a critical mass had been reached (quickly, at that) and Thierry was an overnight sensation.

2010 saw the release of many interesting documentaries, but few were genuinely intriguing, which I think has a higher degree of intensity than just being ‘interesting.’ Exit Through the Gift Shop, whether real or fake, has a lot to say about the world of street art and of art in general. How art is accepted, who can really create it, commercialization of art that never intended to be for the money in the first place, etc. Did I love the movie? It’s hard to say. I believe I did, but mostly for its commentary on the topics discussed above. I don’t know if the filmmaking involved is really good per say, it all seems pretty average. But then again, I’m no expert.


thevoid99 said...

Hi Ed,

Unfortunately, I haven't been to the forum since the time I posted trailers for Somewhere and Never Let Me Go. In fact, I've been banned because I decided to insult a few trolls. I'm not really wasting my time there.

I couldn't deal with the overly-intellectual posts about blah, blah, blah and this and other stupid comments. It was too much for me.

As for Exit Through the Gift Shop, it's a film that I keep reading about through the Echoing the Sounds forum (a NIN forum) and I'm interested. I'm just trying to find a place where they can have it and not spend too much money.

CS said...

Great write-up Edgar! I will have to make a point over the next month or so to seek this film out. The film sounds very interesting indeed.

edgarchaput said...

@thevoid+CS: I'm surprised you both went though the entire article without having seen the film. It is very much worth your time, even if one doesn't think it to be 'greatness.' Its effectiveness really lies in how it can elicit discussion about art, its nature, how it is represented in society and how it is accepted.

Anonymous said...

While I liked it, I clearly didn't find it as thought provoking as you. I never felt like the film struggled with the artwork like other documentaries about art have.

I found myself far more engaged and thinking far longer about "My Kid Could Paint That."