One of the glories of the art-world quasi-documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which purports to be a film first about and then by the renowned anonymous street artist known only as Banksy, is the convoluted mess that inevitably results when one merely attempts to describe it. In what you might call phase one — or, to borrow terminology from a recent movie about magic tricks, "the pledge" — we're shown a great deal of highly engaging video footage depicting various guerrilla artists (Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Space Invader) at work, all of which was shot by an eccentric French expat in L.A. by the name of Thierry Guetta.
Phase two (or "the turn") finds Banksy, frustrated by Guetta's inability to fashion his thousands of hours of obsessive documentation into a compelling primer, deciding to bogart the project and make his own version of the movie. Patting Guetta on the head, Banksy suggests that he try making some street art of his own, just to get rid of him. But Guetta has the last laugh, as phase three ("the prestige") sees him reinvent himself as Mr. Brainwash, whose first solo exhibition — a pathetic hodgepodge of half-digested ideas blatantly pilfered from the artists he'd spent the previous decade following around with his camera — becomes a critical and commercial smash, landing this genial poseur on the cover of L.A. Weekly and racking up millions of dollars in sales.
Because Banksy's identity remains unknown, and because he's a notorious prankster — some of his more famous "pieces" involved hanging his own paintings in the Museum of Modern Art and placing a mannequin resembling a Guantanamo Bay detainee in view of a Disneyland roller coaster — speculation has run high since the film's Sundance premiere that Guetta must be in cahoots with Banksy, assuming that he's not a completely fictional character played by an actor. (Mr. Brainwash's show is a matter of public record, so we know that happened.)
Truth is, it doesn't really matter much whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is an accurate record of what happened or an elaborate hoax or some opportunistic combination of the two. Either way, it serves as a bitterly hilarious illustration of the way that radical and subversive concepts get appropriated by the talentless and watered down for mass consumption — a phenomenon that touches upon virtually every aspect of modern life, from art movies to political campaigns. Whether Banksy-as-impromptu-director stumbled into an amazing narrative or constructed it for his own satirical purposes, it's one of the most entertaining yarns you'll see all year. Frankly, I hope he made the whole thing up. If so, this terrific film may just be the beginning.