I had heard, of course, of Banksy.
If you're even sorta-kinda plugged into the world of art, it's hard not to have heard of him, the British graffiti artist who took his work — mostly made with spray cans and hand-cut stencils — from the streets to the high-end galleries of London, L.A. and New York. Though I think most graffiti is the work of burnouts with too much time on their hands, I'm a big fan of Banksy's art: wry, ironic, often hilarious, intensely political and pop-culture-obsessed. He's one of the guys out there, like Chuck Berry and Van Gogh before him, who took meager tools and turned them into something transcendent.
When I heard Banksy was doing a movie about street art, I didn't know what to expect. Turns out, I had nothing to worry about. His film, "Exit Through the Gift Shop," is brilliant — though, like a lot of his work, it comes at you from an angle you never see coming until it's on top of you.
The film follows the fortunes of Thierry Guetta, AKA Mr. Brainwash. A naturalized Frenchman living in L.A. who made a good living selling castoff clothes to fashion-forward hipsters, Guetta has a compulsion that borders on obsession: to record every moment of his waking life on video (why he does it is a fascinating bit of psychology, as seen in the film). In the late 1990s, Guetta's cousin Space Invader was part of a loose-knit group of street artists trying to elevate graffiti to something more, riding the rise of the Internet to share their vision with the world (Invader, for example, makes mosaics of lo-fi game characters of the 1980s and affixes them — illegally — in public places). Through Invader, Guetta began filming the L.A. street art movement in its infancy, following artists as they scaled fences and buildings to bring their stenciled, pasted-on and sprayed-on art to the masses, whether the public wanted it or not. Even though they often got arrested and their art was whitewashed or chiseled off within days, they persevered. There's something pure about that.
Through this world, Guetta eventually met Banksy, who was emerging as one of the true geniuses of outsider graffiti art. As the movement developed and street artists began making multi-million dollar sales in galleries, Banksy told Guetta that he should go ahead and finish the street art documentary he had been saying he would make for years. The result: an unwatchable train wreck. Eventually, Banksy took over the project, telling Guetta that he should instead pursue his own burgeoning street art career as his alter ego, Mr. Brainwash.
I'm not going to spoil the result of that advice for you, but suffice it to say that what Guetta does next is enough to make even the most diehard supporter of culture ask some deep questions: What is art? Why do we want it? What determines which art sells for millions and which ends up on the curb? The answers to those questions, as the film proves, often have absolutely nothing to do with creativity and talent.
For his part, Banksy goes at Guetta's story with the same ironic eye that pervades his work. It's obvious he has a love/hate relationship with his former friend, co-conspirator and protege — especially given that he undoubtedly understands that it was his advice that creates what Guetta/Mr. Brainwash eventually becomes. Banksy and other artists seen in the film come down a bit hard at times on Guetta's art — which does have some interesting twists, even if it's mostly a straight-up and unapologetic rip-off of everyone he admires. That said, the film is just about perfect. Through this very simple story about a man's obsession with capturing everything, Banksy manages to encapsulate one of the most elusive ideas about art and why we seek it out: that what makes a painting valuable is not what the artist puts onto the canvas, but what we do in response.