Friday, May 7, 2010

Art on the run: 'Exit Through the Gift Shop' a cool con

Slideshow image
A scene from Paranoid Pictures' 'Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Thierry Guetta, the wacky French videographer-turned-graffiti star in this wild "Banksy" doc, knows as much as you about reinvention and making millions with little talent. But is he for real?
A documentary on the art world might sound about as exciting as eating crackers in the Gobi Desert. But when it involves Banksy, the infamous and anonymous British graffiti artist, you know this ride is going to be a wild one.
Fabulously baffling, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" whips past reality – and everything happens so fast that you barely know what's happening.
This puzzle box starts out as one man's quest to document the world's greatest graffiti artists.
It ends up with Banksy, the king of all street pranksters, pulling a tricky switcheroo.
He turns the film's director, Thierry Guetta, into its star. Banksy becomes the director. The smoke-and-mirrors study that follows of guerrilla art and selling out is mesmerizing.
At every turn we ask is this a hoax? A true story? Have we just been "Punk'd"?
All we know is what Guetta, a dead-ringer for porn star Ron Jeremy, tells us as this fascinating bit of trompe l'oeil begins.
By its end every legitimate skill it takes to become a "real" art world darling gets dumped on its head.
Is this art or an artful scam?
Taking us back to the 1990s, the audacious Guetta whisks us into his L.A. clothing store, where rich and poor trendsetters cruise alike.
The bug-eyed fashionista stumbles onto a new passion: the video camera.
With it, this obsessive little gnome with the mutton sideburns and too-small fedora travels to France and begins to film the Space Invader, his graffiti-artist cousin.
Night after night, the two tear through the city, hoisting up Space Invader's signature graffiti faster than city officials can wipe them away.
And bam! Guetta is hooked.
"I liked the danger," he tells us. "It made me feel good."
Like any junkie, Guetta ups his fix.
He shoots renegades like Neckface and Swoon, Cheez and Como. That leads to an entrée with Shepard Fairey, the designer of Obama's ubiquitous "Hope" image. The elusive Banksy follows.
In every case Guetta hooks these fearless Steve McQueens of the street art scene with this promise: "I'm going to make a film about your art."
His final cut looks like something McQueen would have puked up after a rough night on the town.
"Why don't you make some street art?" Banksy tells his pal. "I'll do the movie."
Guetta agrees, morphing into an art world monster that makes Frankenstein look puny.
Armed with spray cans and the new name of Mr. Brainwash, this clueless cameraman holds his first show in Los Angeles. The massive undertaking brings out bamboozled sycophants in droves.
"He's a genius," says one of hundreds of fans lined up outside the show venue.
Art dealers suddenly rush to buy Mr. Brainwash's Warhol-like rip-offs. Millions fall into Guetta's pocket.
Everyone from Fairey to Banksy can't believe this is happening, or that they helped create this media-hustling monster.
That's when "Exit Through the Gift Shop" takes off into a high-octane parody about fame and celebrity.
Narrated with mock seriousness by Rhys Ifans, this circus ends with the perfect topper: Mr. Brainwash's success leads to a collaboration with Madonna, the marketing marvel of all time.
If that doesn't say "I've arrived" what does?
"Exit Through the Gift Shop" may lack  the budget of an "Iron Man 2."  But its biting commentary on North America's fame-obsessed culture is weighty and wonderful.
To watch Guetta's transformation from hanger-on to media star is absolutely priceless. When it comes to art, there's no better price tag than that.

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