March 24 2011 12:00 AM

’Exit Through the Gift Shop’ examines an ’art terrorist’ and his oddball admirer


The term "street art" might have once triggered images of trains covered in psychedelic graffiti or slogans like "Thuggin’ ’Til The Casket Drops" spray-painted across an old fence. The Oscar-nominated "Exit Through the Gift Shop" tries to redefine that idea.

While Banksy, the shadowy figure and so-called "art terrorist" at the center of the film, certainly uses alleys and buildings as his canvases, the images he creates are carefully prepared and often assembled with the help of assistants. Nor does he deal solely in paint: He’s also a conceptual artist, capable of dropping what look like slumping telephone booths onto London sidewalks or installing an inflatable sculpture of a Guantanamo prisoner in the heart of Disneyland.

He’s part prankster and part renegade, but he is first and foremost a man of ideas who sees himself as a key player in what he insists is "poised to be the biggest counter-cultural movement since punk." His Los Angeles exhibit, titled "Barely Legal," attracts such luminaries as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and features a controversial centerpiece, a live elephant decorated with gallons of face paint to turn it into, literally, "the elephant in the room."

That’s what inspired amateur documentary filmmaker Thierry Guetta to track him down. While Guetta preserves Banksy’s cherished anonymity — Banksy appears on camera in a black hoodie, his face shadowed and his Britishaccented voice electronically distorted — he celebrates his work.

If "Exit" had stopped there, the film would have worked perfectly well. But "Exit" ultimately tells us much more about Guetta, who is challenged by Banksy to indulge his own artistic urges; before the movie ends, the mentor has taken a back seat to the student, as Guetta tries to reinvent himself as Mr. Brainwash, a startlingly ambitious would-be Warhol who arguably has more ego than true talent.

In its first half, "Exit" merrily meanders through the dark corners of various cities, as Guetta’s camera chases people with names like Borf, Swoon, Neckface and Buffmonster, each of whom has his or her own style of street art. Guetta also meets better-known personalities, such as Shepard Fairey, creator of the now-omnipresent Obama "HOPE" logo, and Ron English, who specializes in humorous, sometimes politically pointed images that put sinister spins on Ronald McDonald, Mickey Mouse and Batman.

Guetta thinks (or at least pretends) he’s compiling material for a documentary on these painters, yet he’s only accumulating dozens of boxes of videotapes. It’s only when he turns the lens on himself and his own creative process that "Exit" finds its driving force.

Banksy, who might have been the star of the show, slinks into the wings, which may be the place in which he’s most comfortable. He allows Guetta to see one of his failed experiments: a box of British 10-pound notes that substitute the face of Princess Diana for the Queen. To his shock, people didn’t realize the bills were fake and started spending them.

Guetta may have looked to Banksy for inspiration, but when it comes time for Mr. Brainwash to crash the art world, Guetta is not interested in simply doodling on walls or painting over an unused billboard. He takes over the abandoned CBS Studio Complex in Hollywood and turns it into a makeshift mega-gallery for his debut show, "Life is Beautiful," which becomes the artistic twin of a Tinsel Town blockbuster, complete with plenty of hype.

Is it actually any good? Is Mr. Brainwash — as some have speculated — simply a new identity for Banksy to hide behind? Does it really matter?

In the end, "Exit" provides a fascinating examination of two breeds of artists: the ones who go to work because they have something to say, and the ones who create primarily to have something to sell.

’Exit Through the Gift Shop’

Presented by the East Lansing Film Society 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 23, and Thursday, March 24 at Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Friday, March 25, and Saturday, March 26 in Room 107, South Kedzie Hall, Michigan State University $7 adults; $5 seniors; $3 students (517) 980-5802