“Time will tell whether I'm a rabbit or a turtle,” are the last words we hear spoken by Thierry Guetta at the end of Exit Through the Gift Shop, the delightful documentary of which he's the subject, and by that late point of the film we would expect a quote no less bizarre and baffling from the eccentric Frenchman. That's because we've been exposed to an hour and a half of his flamboyant, ceaselessly entertaining antics.
The film chronicles the rise of Guetta from a camera-obsessed foreigner in L.A., to a street artist tag-along, to a self-proclaimed street art documentarian, and finally to a street artist with his own pseudonym; Mr. Brainwash. At first, Guetta innocently recorded well known graffiti artists in their element with the intention of putting together a film about the street art subculture, even earning audience with the mysterious and seclusive Banksy, whose large-scale creations defied the odds and caught the attention of the world earlier last decade. But upon realizing that Guetta was no film maker, Banksy decided to turn the tables and make a film himself, one that would follow Guetta on his quest to put on his own large-scale art show.
By the halfway mark of the film, it threatens to end up as a one-note character study about larger-than-life personality. But Banksy has bigger plans. Throughout the movie he has us questioning, “is this guy for real?”, and by the end we realize that the real question Banksy has been posing is “what are the true natures of art and genius?”. He extrapolates from a wacky biography to a meditation on celebrity, culture, the death of a movement, and creative expression vs. creative pillaging. Is Guetta a genius or a nut job? Is he the rabbit or the turtle? The answer proposed by Banksy to that small question is pretty obvious, but think about who won that fabled race, and you'll understand his definitive stance on the bigger issues.
It's also worth mentioning that Exit Through the Gift Shop is the best comedy of year. So far no other film from 2010 had me laughing more. Guetta's ambition and charisma are so over the top that sometimes it makes you wonder if he's putting on a Borat-esque performance. A sharp sense of comic timing from editors Tom Fulford and Chris King helps punctuate every hilarious phrase that leaves his mouth.
Alas, I fear this type of light material is not usually to the Documentary branch's liking (I'll be surprised if it makes the shortlist), which is a shame because it absolutely deserves nominations for Best Documentary and Best Film Editing. To have sifted through the tens of thousands of hours of Guetta's amateur movie making alone merits some kind of Iron Man award.
***1/2 out of ****