“Documentary” is such a slippery concept. First, there is the oh-so-philosophical question of “what is reality”? Is the chair that I am sitting on “real”? Are my surroundings? Am I? And so on, ad infinitum, habeus corpus, magna cum laude. Once you decide to save answering that question for later, then you face determining what defines a documentary. For example, should a documentary be 100% nonfiction? If so, are reenactments considered “true” since these are scenes played by actors (although they are supposedly rooted in facts)? Also, how do we know we are being presented with the “truth” facts—not information cherry-picked to support a thesis-driven argument? Even then, certain films can be presented as giving all sides of the story, yet hide the biases of the filmmaker. A documentarian could try to be as unbiased as possible, but still inadvertently slant the view of her/his film because of her/his life experiences/education/mood that day. Let’s not even get in to the notion that some people buy documentaries as being always educational and without ulterior motives. And is reality TV considered documentary? Yeah, documentaries are a slippery genre to define. My brain gets all muddled when trying to establish a checklist of what makes a documentary. Then it probably explodes (it’s OK, I have a spare).
Films like Exit Through the Gift Shop do not make the term “documentary” any more clear in my mind. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a film about several things. At first it seemed to be a documentary about street art—shot by a filmmaker named Thierry Guetta (a French man with a desire to shoot “everything” with his camera). Supposedly, Guetta infiltrates the world of street art and films thousands of hours of footage for his masterpiece. However, after documenting many artists (such as Shepard Fairey and Banksy), he was no closer to finishing his film. After much persuasion, he edits it and it is (we are told) awful. Banksy (a mysterious street artist from England) offers to reedit the work. While he does this, Guetta decides to become a street artist like his idol Banksy, and puts on a widely well-received show in Los Angeles.
I admit, I know virtually nothing about street art—or any modern art for that matter. So the first part of this film was really interesting. I enjoyed seeing some of these amazing works from the comfort of my own living room. And yes, some people will probably debate if this is really “art” (I’d like to see Walter Benjamin’s take on this film), but I am inclined to think that some of these pieces are just amazing. However, when the film shifts its focus to Guetta producing an enormous amount of street art to fill his L.A. show, I started to get a little bored. I guess I didn’t care as much about that part of the film, and it tended to drag. I do appreciate some of the implications it makes (I think) about art reception. I believe Exit Through the Gift Shop pokes fun at parts of the art scene—how people will follow (and buy, attend shows, froth at the mouth over) what is trendy whether it is well done or not.
That being said, I have serious doubts as to whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is a “documentary” or fictional piece. It seems to have an air of mystery about it– some people believe it is real, others…not so much. I fall into the “not so much” category here. Since it is made by Banksy–a street artist whose identity is a secret (just like Superman), who has a flair for the dramatic (just like Superman), who likes to play jokes and has a sense of humor (just like Superman?), and who wears a cape (just like Superman…OK, I made that last one up to draw more connections to Superman)–I questions its “authenticity.” I also had a really hard time buying “Guetta” as a real person. He seems so much like a caricature, that I really think he is an actor (and only a mediocre one at that).
However, real versus unreal debate aside, I enjoyed a good chunk of this movie. I think that two-thirds of Exit Through the Gift Shop was truly entertaining, but it went on just a bit too long (and it was only 86 minutes). But one of the things I love about movies is that they often show me things that I was previously unaware of or that I wouldn’t have ever run across. Sure, I probably saw some street art before, but I never stopped to really look at it—to even remotely appreciate it. So in that respect, I felt I learned a little bit from this film…even if the little bit I learned stands a good chance of being untrue.
Have a wonderful day!
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