Saturday, September 24, 2016

Exit Through the Gift Shop: Personal Analysis through Visual Literacy Lens

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) is a documentary created by Banksy, the renowned graffiti artist whose true identity is unknown. The film is about Thierry Guetta, a French shopkeeper in Los Angeles who takes up filming street artists after documenting his cousin's work as the artist Space Invader. Gradually, Thierry is able to film more and more street artists by claiming he is making a documentary about their work. Thierry is eventually able to film and work with Banksy, one of the most elusive street artists in the world. Banksy encourages Thierry to turn his footage into a film, but the product Thierry shows Banksy is awful. Banksy convinces Thierry to give him his footage so that he can try editing the movie; meanwhile, Banksy suggests that Thierry attempt his own street art and perhaps put together a small gallery. Thierry reinvents himself as Mr. Brainwash (or MBW) and becomes a successful street artist immediately. In the end, Banksy ends up turning Thierry's footage, as well as new film Banksy shot during Thierry's rise to fame, into a documentary about Thierry and street art in general. See the trailer for the documentary below.

Banksy's professional background played an enormous role in the final product of this documentary. Banksy, as a street artist himself, said in the film that "what I do was in a bit of a legal gray area," even though street art is considered vandalism in most cases and is punishable by law. The police officers trying to apprehend the artists, as well as the animal rights activists angry about Banksy's use of a live elephant, were briefly mentioned in the film but presented as laughable, ineffective attempts at trying to stop the artists. Banksy always presented himself as the most illustrious of the street artists: the film showed many high-risk displays that he was able to pull off, he was adamant about keeping his identity a secret, his work was always given positive reviews, collectors were shown to be demanding his work and willing to pay lots of money for it, "Barely Legal" was what "brought street art into the light," etc. Banksy credits himself as MBW's mentor and claim to fame, then remarks that he is not sure he should be proud of himself for kickstarting MBW's career. (Thierry is often pictured as a bumbling buffoon in the film; for example, it is presented that he abandons his career and family for a long while to film street artists for no monetary reason, he is not able to put his art show together without a huge team of help, and he would not be where he is today if Banksy hadn't encouraged him to do his own art.) Additionally, Banksy is so elusive that people even question if this documentary is actually a mockumentary. It's impossible to watch this film and miss Banksy's influence on the direction of the content.

Banksy work near Bethlehem; photo used with permission by Markus Ortner on Wikimedia

Thinking about Banksy as the director of this film adds a whole layer of meaning to its message. This documentary was not simply about MBW's rise into the street art world. Banksy colored it with his opinions on what street art truly is. To him, street art is a necessary and coveted field of highly proficient and powerful artists; I kept thinking about them as "art ninjas" who hide under the cover of night to publicize their messages through art. Through this documentary, Banksy painted street art in an appealing way: dangerous, high-risk, mysterious, fast, high-skill, secretive, desirable, impactful, etc. Banksy goes as far as to suggest that street art is needed in society to challenge perspectives and bring light to issues that aren't being talked about enough. All of these ideas are portrayed in the film by the clips shown of the artists at work, talking about their art and messages, evading the police, and even Thierry's ultimate desire to be an artist himself. The commentary included in between clips even propagated the rise of street art, such as in the quote, "Thierry’s documentary was shaping up to be the authentic inside story of the birth of a movement, starring the biggest figures in the street art world…." Street art is seen as a "movement," and Banksy painted himself as one of its "biggest figures." While a lot of the documentary could be seen as Banksy's attempt to show off himself and his work, I do think that the ultimate purpose of this film was to show the other side to street art that we don't necessarily see; though street art is a generally frowned upon medium for spreading a message, it's a unique way for an artist to promote his or her views or opinions and should be revered in society.

Photo of Banksy's art used with permission from carnagenyc on flickr

By telling the stories of the street artists, I think this film may offend those who do not support street art. As I stated, the attempts at curbing the street artists' works (from groups such as the police and animal rights activists) were portrayed only briefly and in a mocking way. There may be people who do not appreciate street art and who see it only as an act of vandalism, so this movie may outrage them by not showing their views on the matter. Additionally, some of the subjects of the art (or the arts' messages) may be angered by bits of the content. For example, Guantanamo Bay prisoners may be aggravated by the fact that their situation was used as the subject of a public display piece in Disneyland. Banksy is a controversial street artist, and he doesn't hold back when sharing his views in his art; because this documentary is his work, he isn't afraid to rustle feathers and doesn't care about offending people.

Addressed by viewers as "The Elephant in the Room;" photo used with permission by Bit Boy on flickr

I thought this documentary presented Banksy's message in an interesting artistic style. (However, I will admit that I have not seen very many documentaries, so perhaps the format of this film was predictable to others.) The documentary used different types of clips and sounds to focus our attention. I liked the use of narration interspersed within the film; sometimes the sound was coming from the clips Thierry shot (or Banksy later added of Thierry), sometimes there were just scenes taking place or photos being shown with background music, and sometimes there were interviews with street artists. Frequently the film transitioned quickly between voiceovers or otherwise quiet times to loud clips; I was constantly toggling the volume on my computer to listen at a comfortable but audible level. I thought that the main messages of the film were explicitly stated by the artists in interview-style sessions; if there was something the audience needed to hear, it was directly spoken to the camera by an artist onscreen. The photos and videos of the art were interesting additions that allowed the audience to better appreciate the work that the street artists were putting together. I also think it is important to realize that because Banksy is an artist, this film was a work of his art as well. These clips were not slapped together in an endless commercial as Thierry's were; these scenes and transitions were much more purposeful so that the audience would glean the intended message from the documentary.

Work by Mr. Brainwash; image used with permission by Chris Beckett on flickr

One of the quotes I thought a lot about from this documentary was when Thierry said, "I felt like I should capture everything on film, because I felt like everything that I would capture at this moment, anytime in my life, would be the last time that I would see it the same way… I would make them live forever in those moments." There are a few moments in my life where I have thought about this exact thought. As I have gotten older and more big life events have taken place (graduations, birthday parties, sports events, etc.), I have thought about how I will never be able to experience those things in the exact same way again. Thierry tries to rectify this by filming things and saving them as videos; however, this doesn't change the fact that moments are lived and never lived again. He can watch a video and reminisce all he wants, but until time travel is invented, he will never be able to experience that moment in the same way. (And, even if one time travels, he or she will bring a new frame of reference to the situation due to a change in experience; so still, every moment is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.) This understanding helps me appreciate every single moment that I have and remind me not to take things for granted. I think it also helps explain people's fascination with taking photos and videos. We do what we can to make the moments last forever, but at the end of the day, they are still memories that can never be exactly relived.

Tomato spray art by Mr. Brainwash; image used with permission by Jyri Engestrom on flickr

I also think this film gave me a better appreciation for street art. I personally see street art as vandalism, and I believe it is wrong for people to use the world as their canvas when that area does not belong to them. (I am a very rules-oriented person, and because most graffiti is illegal, it makes me uncomfortable that people disobey the law in this way.) However, I now have a better understanding of why people feel the need to create graffiti/street art. To them, it is a public way to challenge worldviews and release emotions and passion (along with showing off their artistic skills). While I generally look at graffiti and look away, I want to truly examine it next time I see it. I want to try to elicit the artist's ideas and motivation for their work. Though I may not agree with the message or the means by which it is spread, I do want to at least give this type of artwork a chance and glean the artist's intentions from it. After watching this documentary, I know that my understanding of street art has changed.

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