SPOILER ALERT! Don't Read This If You Haven't Seen The Film Yet!
About 15 minutes after watching (and thoroughly enjoying) Exit Through The Gift Shop, it dawned on me that I needed to check out what, if anything, about this film was factual. Not surprisingly, I wasn't the first to wonder if the entire story was a hoax, an intricate fabrication designed to extend the static political and social underpinnings of street art and project it up on a different kind of screen/backdrop.
For any number of reasons, I'm inclined to think that we've all been magnificently played. The story of Exit Through The Gift Shop is just too perfectly ironic to be solely grounded in fact. A couple of weeks ago, I was heading down to the FBW on a Friday night and heard the tail end of a CBC Radio interview with Canadian author Farley Mowat, now 87. In the final few minutes, Farley was asked to speak to an oft-quoted charge that some of what he wrote over the years wasn't indeed “factual”. His response was fascinating. I'm paraphrasing here, but he said something along the lines of, “What I'm after is truth, not facts. Facts can change. Facts often get in the way of telling a truthful story.”
And I think that might be the most interesting way to look at ETTGS. While it certainly appears to be, at least partly (likely mostly), a scripted fabrication (anyone who doesn't take the painted elephant together with the film's title as a quasi-admission of this needs to rethink the underlying intent of subversive art), the deeper truth might be better served by this brilliant exercise in F For Fakery than any straight-up chronological documentary about the street art movement might have advanced.
The wonderful part about Exit Through the Gift Shop is the meandering mystery at its core. Is it fake or is it real? Is Thierry Guetta real or a fabrication? The pledge is made in the opening scenes... this is a film about street artists. The turn is the creation of Mister Brainwash (Banksy & crew again tipping their hand with an almost too-obvious name) and turning him into LA's street-art darling and the prestige... well, that's the best part. There isn't one....at least not yet. It's a fascinating mind-fuck to consider the possibility that Exit Through the Gift Shop is simply a elaborate prank executed on a larger scale to reach a wider audience than any building wall could ever facilitate.
The entire saga of Mister Brainwash is quirky and questionable, to say the least, but just as difficult to disprove. ETTGS culminates with a massive L.A. exhibit of Mister Brainwash’s work entitled “Life is Beautiful,” which elevates the supposed-artist’s profile overnight. Just to confirm... the exhibit did indeed take place and even though listening to Guetta talk about his art and bizarre film making ambitions seems intentionally designed as a caricature aimed at satirizing the art world, the film also seems almost too meticulously-constructed to be entirely a work of fiction. So here's another bit of mystery to ponder. Can a ruse be so perfect that it can transform into fact? Where's the line? Is this a taco inside a taco territory?
If Guetta is Bruce Wayne to Banksy's Batman, his creation of a public-fool/alter-ego if you will, just consider how elaborate the con actually is. Guetta is obviously a real person, but what if his massive art show was simply the work of several legitimate street artists (Banksy and Shepard Fairey, among others) and intended to expose the hypocrisy of the art collecting world? What if works on display at Mr Brainwash's show are intentionally diminutive? I couldn't tell whether the works were good or bad. What if Guetta was a front man, a person for the masses to focus upon while the real tricksters sat back and worked the levers from behind the scenes like some modern Wizards of Oz.
And wouldn't the ultimate prestige be if Banksy/Guetta were in fact the same person? Banksy's mysterious identity revealed at the Oscars when Exit Through the Gift Shop wins for best documentary next year and Guetta gets up to receive the award? How fucking cool would that be? And what if that was a further illusion - a taco in a taco in a taco. The whole construct just grows with every subsequent reveal, be it factual or not, like a sort of media virus. At some point the real and the made-up merge into a single entity.
Or maybe Exit Through the Gift Shop is all real... either way, and this is the strangest part, it doesn't matter. Not knowing actually serves the story ever better. Just like Farley said, facts often get in the way of telling a truthful story.