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It Came From the Cultosphere: Banksy’s Action-Packed Art Doc ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’

Forget about Christian Bale. And Michael Keaton. And Val Kilmer, George Clooney and Adam West. And, while you’re at it, forget about Ben Affleck too. You want to see a movie about Batman? Forget about all those pretenders to the cape. They’re just actors.

Banksy, the star and director of ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’? He really is Batman.

The legendary British street artist has all the qualifications to be a genuine Caped Crusader: He has a secret identity (no one but his inner circle knows who he really is). He wears a costume (in ‘Gift Shop,’ you never actually see his face or hear his real voice). And, what’s more, he breaks the law (he’s a street artist), he fights for the greater good (he’s an excellent street artist) and, best of all, he spends his nights scampering around rooftops.

In ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop,’ Banksy’s story — and the story of modern street art in general — is told through the eyes of Thierry Gutta, a French immigrant who runs a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles. HIs cousin is a street artist named Space Invader, and through him he meets (and films) other artists, including Shepard Fairey, who created the iconic ‘HOPE’ campaign poster for Obama.

Eventually, he meets Banksy himself, and that’s where the movie really takes off. The scenes showcasing Banksy’s art, which combines a genuinely imaginative vision with a refreshing sense of humor, are the best in the film — and genuinely thrilling, to boot. Banksy really is like an urban superhero, staying one step ahead of the law to make his city a more interesting place to live

‘Exit Through Gift Shop’ is billed a documentary (in fact, it was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar in 2011), but it has more than a whiff of a hoax about it, especially considering the notoriously playful Banksy is the director. Is Thierry’s colossal art opening a big prank? Does Thierry himself actually exist? Is he really Banksy? Is this all one big piece of outsider art in the form of an acclaimed, perplexing documentary? Does the word “documentary” even apply in a case like this?

While Banksy pieces together the boxes of videotapes, Thierry takes on the name “Mr. Brainwash” and starts mass-producing derivative, quickie art in preparation for a huge gallery show. He’s more than a bit crazy, utterly lacking in talent and obsessed with making a fast, easy fortune. Is there any way he can fail in this day and age?

In the end, the answers to those (and a lot of other) questions don’t really matter. Truth is, ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is entertaining and exciting in a way few films — let alone art documentaries — manage to be. The scenes of Banksy, Space Invader and Fairey evading the law while creating their art are undeniably thrilling — and undeniably real.

And when the movie takes its turn in the third act and shifts focus to Thierry’s impending debut, it becomes fascinating in a whole other way, asking questions about what art is, what commerce is and what the hell’s the difference. In the end, even Banksy himself seems mystified by the whole thing. Unless, of course, his bemusement — like everything else — is one more element of the work of art you’ve been watching.

And that’s what sets this movie apart from a hundred other art docs. Like the best films — and the best art — ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ leaves its audience with more questions than answers. A lot more.

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