"I don't know how to play chess, but to me, life is like a chess game."
I mentioned yesterday that the truly great documentaries tend to be about great subjects, and there are fewer great subjects put on film than Thierry Guetta. He's in a pretty exclusive class with Mark Borchardt from American Movie, Elmyr DeHory from F For Fake and Big & Little Edie from Grey Gardens that I would deem the most interesting people ever put on film. So much of what makes the film work is based around what you find out about Thierry when you find it out, and so I have to urge you to watch the film before reading this review. It's impossible to discuss the film without giving out massive spoilers, and I can't imagine watching the film for the first time with all that knowledge, so please, although it'll drive my readership down for this review, please go watch the movie before reading this (it's on Netflix instant if you have that, or you can buy it pretty much anywhere that sells dvds, and it is 100% worth your money).
Thierry Guetta is a Frenchman who's lived in LA for most of his adult life, making a pretty good living selling irregular clothing from major designers at an absurd markup. He also documents every moment of his life with an omnipresent video camera. We're told this is because of the death of his mother at an early age, he regretted not being able to capture more of his life with her, so now he captures everything in hopes that he won't miss another moment of his life. This is a bit of a quandary to me however, as I wonder how much of life this guy is really experiencing just seeing it through a viewfinder, as we know from the film that he doesn't watch any of this footage.
On a trip to France to visit family, he's given the rare opportunity to tag along with his cousin, a street artist by the name of Space Invader, on his guerilla expeditions to put his art up all over the streets of Paris. Thierry finds a new direction for his life, deciding to tag along with various street artists and document their techniques of putting their art up and avoiding getting caught by the authorities, and ostensibly using the footage to cut together a documentary about street art. He crosses paths with Shepard Fairey, one of the first American street artists, famous for creating the Andre the Giant "Obey" sticker and the blue and red portrait of Barack Obama that was ubiquitous during his Presidential campaign. Following Shepard all over the world, he earns his stripes as the premier documentarian (and lookout) for street artists wanting their fleeting art to have a second life.
The holy grail for Thierry is the notorious British street artist Banksy, who has come to prominence through a series of major guerilla operations throughout Britain and the West Bank in Israel. When Banksy comes to LA to meet up with Shepard, Thierry is finally given a chance to meet the man who he feels can finally give him the missing piece in his documentary. He tags along with Banksy, filming him and helping him on a trip to Disneyland the day before his first American show is to open in LA. What Banksy, Shepard, and everyone else don't know however, is that there is no documentary. Thierry has been filming things for the better part of a decade, but he hasn't been filing or annexing or even labeling the tapes. They go into a box, unlabeled, and are forgotten.
It seems that Thierry's real aspiration is not to make a documentary, but to use the skills and tactics he's learned from these street artists to become one himself. Taking the name Mr. Brainwash, or MBW, he has begun putting up his own art all over the streets of LA. Through some half-hearted encouragement from his idols, he takes their advice to put on a show of his own, and does just that. MBW doesn't necessarily create art though, as much as he just co-opts other artists' work and add something to them, calling it a new piece.
What is art, though, really? Is MBW not an artist because he's not really creating anything? The film doesn't necessarily answer that question, but by interviewing people that fit the mold of a traditional artist and gathering their opinions on the question, it definitely leads you to the conclusion that MBW is less of an artist than they are. Is that fair? I'm not really sure. Banksy, his crew, and Shepard definitely handle MBW with kid gloves and treat him like a bit of a foil, and since Banksy himself ended up making the film, it's definitely edited with an air of condesention toward Thierry. But is Thierry in on the joke? Who knows? I've seen this film more than ten times now, and I still have no idea whether or not he's in on it. He's the one that represented the film at the Academy Awards last year, so he can't be totally ignorant to the opinion of the people in the film, but there's the old adage of any publicity is good publicity, and he certainly seems to be making a comfortable living, so who's the real loser here?
This film is an absolute masterpiece. It's a work of art in and of itself, and much like street art is to the world of art, this film is a subversion of the documentary form itself. I'd much rather spend 90 minutes in the company of MBW than most other artists, so I guess that really says something about the art world and its denizens. The film is also endlessly quotable. The quote I put at the top, which Thierry says late in the film, is one of my favorite quotes of all time. I also love a lot of what Banksy and one of his partners say about Thierry. Banksy says that MBW is in the same vein of Andy Warhol who "repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry makes them really meaningless," and his partner Steve Lazarides says, late in the film, "I think the joke is on... I don't know who the joke is on really... I don't even know if there is a joke." These quotes sum up everything you need to know about Exit Through the Gift Shop, it's a joke that's on nobody, that may not even be a joke.
The narration by Rhys Ifans is great, he has a wonderful voice that is used to great effect, and the music is really good too, particularly the opening credits that uses Richard Hawley's "Tonight the Streets are Ours," which is pretty much the anthem for the entire endeavor. I cannot recommend this film highly enough. It is one of the great documentaries ever made, and it gets better every time you watch it. It was a joy to revisit the other night after not having seen it for several months, and I urge you to do the same if you haven't seen it in a while. Whether or not it's all an elaborate prank is beside the point. If it's entertaining and informative, it's served its function as a documentary, and it's got both of those things in spades. Do yourself a favor and spend some time in the company of Thierry Guetta, especially if it has been a while. You won't regret it.