So, here goes, the last week of reviewing for the year of 2010 is on the horizon. At least this is the way it is going to be if I manage to keep to schedule for a change. I’d better, considering I’ve got a whopper of a year-end awards coming up. Believe you me, I’m going to put a lot of work into this and It’ll be the best thing I’ve wrote done regarding film yet. But, before all this boohicky, I have reviews for this film, Shutter Island, Restepo, 127 Hours and A Serbian Film coming up for certain, although I’ll try to shove in some other stuff, like Biutiful and The King’s Speech if I have my way.
Following up on my lacklustre efforts in getting up on the documentary film category this year, to stop it from becoming a one-horse race and Catfish winning the best documentary award by default, here’s my second documentary review. The film, Exit Through The Gift Shop, has got a lot of attention and acclaim, also garnering a an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, no small achievement considered the underground nature of the project. Much of the attention, like that of Catfish, has been surrounding as to whether or not the film is indeed a documentary. The first film of celebrated street artist/international prankster-satirist Banksy, the claims over its legitimate status as documentary are not surprising considering his past record.
Exit Through The Gift Shop ‘documents’ Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant living with his family in Los Angeles. He makes a living running a vintage clothes shop, but what sets Thierry apart is his obsession with carrying a film camera everywhere. Upon discovering that his cousin Invader is a street artist, his need to film everything introduces him to the world of underground street art. Thierry declares to these artists that the reason he is shooting this footage is so that he can release the definitive documentary on street art. However, what he doesn’t tell them is that the hundreds of hours of footage gathered is merely being archived, never edited or even being looked at following shooting. In his quest, Thierry ends up becoming involved with the mysterious Banksy, the so-called ‘Scarlet Pimpernel of Street Art’. However, Banksy ends up deciding that Thierry is more interesting than he is, and following Thierry’s “unwatchable” edit, gives a stab at producing the film himself, suggesting that Thierry host his own art show to keep him occupied.
To start with what is good about Exit Through The Gift Shop, I will address the question of 'is it or is it not a documentary?' The plot itself is very fantastical, real or not, and does read a bit like a feature film script. Our journey into the world of underworld street art parallels that of Thierry, his camera literally acting as the audience's viewfinder. Importantly, as the subject of the documentary, the world of street art is very interesting. The various arguments thrown up in this regard continue to challenge. Although some would claim that it is vandalism, the works of Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Invader etc would lead many to argue the opposite. The kind of 'Robin Hood' rebelliousness of these artists leads people to empathise with them. However, whether or not it is real is a question that can be thrown up about virtually any documentary, especially considering the film is very much a hyper-real product. As Roger Ebert wrote, this question "only adds to its fascination." If it is real, it is a fascinating story brilliantly caught on camera. If it is not, it is Banksy's most elaborate and well-scripted prank.
Part of the problem with the question of whether or not it is real comes down to the postmodernist form of editing. Tom Fulford and Chris King have done a cracking job of culling down over 10,000 hours of footage into a watchable, ninety-minute film. Furthermore, the editing is not just a case of culling so much footage. As a movie about a niche subject, they have avoided one of the common pitfalls of documentaries on a niche subject by over-stylising what is going on. We are able to see the work that is being put into the street art, which is important considering the topic matter. On that though, there are occasions where the line between reality and fiction does seem to blur. However, I believe this to be an intentional move on the part of the editors, designing the film to follow these blurred lines as opposed to going straight down the middle. Finally, there is so much ground that is covered, and it is the editors' skill that manages to do this. Not only do we get a documentary that never happened, we get a documentary (of sorts) on Banksy, a documentary on Thierry Guetta, and of course, one on street art. This is some of the best editing in any film in 2010 and is tremendous work.
Once again, the editing cannot be complemented or mentioned without a nod towards the cinematography (and of course vice versa). Now, the fact is that Thierry Guetta, who shot much of the film, was not a cinematographer or director, as he so liked to claim to those he filmed. Also, his own way of shooting is by no means particularly skilled or thrilling, obviously the work of an amateur who did not really know what he was doing. Nevertheless, this amateur lack of noticeable ‘style’ or ‘technique’ only adds to the feel of the film. As an underground film about an underground arts culture, it is only appropriate that the type of ‘style’ (the style of ‘no style’! I know, what a conundrum) is a reflection that parallels its subject. Thierry Guetta, if unintentional, has done a great job of capturing his subject.
My final nod has to go towards the talking point of the film, Banksy himself. As mentioned, Guetta never intended to make a film out of his footage, and as the documentary shows, the results of Banksy’s request have some disastrous results. The fifteen minutes of Guetta’s edited film (Life Remote Control) on the DVD is long-winded at its short, edited length of fifteen minutes. Although Exit Through The Gift Shop is the sum of its whole parts, Banksy must be credited for heading up this project. He certainly seems to have brought a degree of control to the film. The decision in his choice of editors is key in its success. Instead of the mess that Guetta gave in, Banksy has managed to turn this into a film that covers so much more ground than the street art documentary that is the film’s outer shell.
That said, while Exit Through The Gift Shop is a great movie, there are problems with it. The problems I think start with the fact that the film attempts to deal with so much. While the subject matter is addressed well, you never really get a true impression of who the people are in this world. While in the case of Banksy this was never going to happen, it is people like Shepard Fairey who you do not seem to get to know. Even with regards to Thierry Guetta, we only really seem to scratch upon the surface of him.
The film does admirably well under the circumstances of having so much ground to cover. However, to bring in a bit of Baudrillard, it is a product of the hyper-real. There is so much information that we are bombarded with, to the point where you are overwhelmed. I have seen the film twice now, and both times felt drained and exhausted afterwards. Films are meant to stay with you make you feel fresh and think about what you have just seen. With Exit Through The Gift Shop, fragments remain. I felt on occasions bored by the film, although it is pretty gripping at its best moments. Unfortunately though, the film does just feel as though the elements were thrown into a petri dish and they took whatever came of this, as opposed to refining it to perfection. Guetta may capture his subject well, but the overall film does not capture it’s subject as well, ironic considering Guetta did not mean to, and required vigilant editors to make sense of his work.
Exit Through The Gift Shop is not without its flaws. You do get the impression that we are only touching upon the surface of many of the film’s subjects. Also, there is a real case of information bombardment when it seems best just to focus more on one subject, as opposed to switching to another, teasing our interest. Nevertheless, I think that it is a very fine film. It has some wonderful cinematography and editing, the blurring of whether or not it is real adding to it. Finally, Banksy displays great promise as a filmmaker, managing to do an admirable job of what essentially was an abstract mess.
The Thin White Dude’s Prognosis – 8/10
The Thin White Dude’s Self-Diagnosis – Pensive
P.S: To Jack’s complete lack of surprise, I have just today watched Shutter Island and a review is on its way, and if things go to plan, I should have it posted by Sunday. I’ve got a big clump of stuff to get through