The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
What are we Watching, and Does it Matter? I'm Still Here and Exit Through the Gift Shop

Written by Rick Wallace.

Photo from the article There’s an amusing moment about a third of the way into the ‘documentary’ film Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) when a Banksy creation - an overturned and mangled red telephone box - is critiqued, on camera, by various members of the public. One passer-by identifies it as a Banksy piece straight away, a second thinks it might be a Banksy but isn’t sure, whilst a third interprets the piece more literally, suggesting, quite logically, that the twisted sculpture simply signifies that “someone is annoyed with BT telephones...”

Were Exit Through the Gift Shop a ‘normal’ documentary (a problematic category, but let’s say that such a thing might include an assumption of openness about source material) we could take several things from these three reactions. (1) That the first reviewer recognises the phone box is not a real phone box but a work of street art by notable British (graffiti) artist Banksy. (2) That the second reviewer likewise recognises the contrived nature of the scene but is not equipped with the specialist knowledge required to be sure of the piece’s provenance. And (3) that the third reviewer fails even to recognise that the phone box is not actually a phone box at all. However, the film is anything but a ‘standard’ documentary and as it unfolds, doubts begin to creep in about almost every aspect of what we are seeing and being told.

The premise of the film - stated openly at the film’s outset by a hooded figure with a distorted voice whom we are told is Banksy himself - is that French filmmaker Thierry Guetta’s attempts to make a documentary about Banksy are thwarted, due to the fact that the artist finds the filmmaker’s life to be more interesting than his own. As a result, the final film Exit Through the Gift Shop (released without ‘Director’ credits) is as much about Guetta’s life as a film-maker, documenting the birth of the street-art movement, as it is about Banksy himself. At least that’s the suggestion.

However, throughout the film an increasing uncertainty hangs over proceedings as we begin to question the reality of Guetta as both a filmmaker and, later, as an artist himself. Indeed we might even begin to suspect that ‘Guetta’ the artist does not actually exist at all and that Banksy may be the perpetrator of an elaborate hoax. Is Banksy responsible for Guetta’s art? Indeed, is Guetta actually Banksy? Upon reviewing the film in this context, the three reactions to the phone box begin to take on significantly more layers of meaning. Are these honest reactions by real members of the public or staged and scripted responses; the line about someone being very angry about BT seems almost too good a sound bite/review to be true. Are they a deliberate comment on the value of art, with the critic who recognises the box as a Banksy piece valuing it more highly than the one who sees it only as scrap metal? Are these responses also representative of the various positions an audience could take in relation to the film itself: either it is a Banksy fabrication, a mockumentary, disguised as the real thing; or it is a genuinely truthful documentary that can be taken at face value; or it is something between, leaving us unsure of how much of what we are seeing is footage of what really happened and therefore ‘truthful’. In some ways these three stances mirror the viewer’s journey through the film, initially watching it as a straight documentary about Banksy before coming to suspect that the film might actually be a Banksy.

Exit Through the Gift Shop bares many striking parallels to Casey Affleck’s document of actor Joaquin Phoenix’s apparently public meltdown in the film I’m Still Here (2010). Unlike the crew behind Exit Through the Gift Shop, who maintain its status as a genuine documentary, Affleck has openly stated that his film is almost entirely contrived and performed, and that Phoenix’s public appearances were made for the benefit of the mockumentary cameras. This declaration should make the two films entirely dissimilar, and decisively alter the way in which we view them.

However, this is not entirely the case, since the various artists’ revelations of the ‘truth’ don’t stop us from making alternate readings of the film, based on aspects within the texts themselves which don’t sit altogether comfortably with the given information. Each film therefore comes from opposite ends of the documentary/fiction spectrum, Exit Through the Gift Shop purporting to be a documentary, I’m Still Here, a mockumentary. Yet neither feel quite at home in these categories, feeling instead as if they occupy a more blurry area somewhere between the two.

Occasionally the two seem to swap positions. Thierry Guetta, we are told from the start, is not a filmmaker as such but a man obsessed with recording his experiences in the world of street art (and elsewhere). Although the graffiti artists he follows believe he is filming them in order to make a documentary about the history of street art, Guetta in fact has no intention of doing this, or so the film tells us. It is only when Banksy calls his bluff that Guetta begins to trawl through the thousands of hours of film to create a ninety minute movie, Life Remote Control, which is reported to be almost unwatchable. So the filmmaker (which is how Guetta introduces himself to interviewees) is unable to make films, and when he turns his hand to graffiti he appears to be equally incapable, though he is still able to stage a very successful art show due to clever marketing, highlighting the cynical behaviour of the art world.

Significantly, we hardly ever see Guetta actually creating any art (or even supervising assistants in its creation), strengthening the proposition that as an artist he may in fact be a complete fabrication, and that his body of work could actually consist of genuine Banksy pieces, made to look deliberately poor in order to make a point about the art market and the decline of the ethos of street art as a movement. So the central figure of this supposed documentary, Guetta, is both a filmmaker and an artist who is not very good as either and who we practically never see actually making films or painting.

By contrast, Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘fictional’ journey from film star to rapper is filled with footage of Phoenix actually doing the things which are supposedly fake; writing rap songs, rehearsing his lyrics, presenting demos to various producers (including P Diddy) and performing these songs in front of sizeable crowds. Phoenix it seems has genuinely become a rap artist, enacting a supposedly fake process for real. In comparison to Guetta, who we seldom witness doing anything in the supposedly real documentary, Phoenix has become a rap star and to all intents and purposes has lived his public life in-character for a significant period of time; yet we are supposed to view this as somehow less ‘real’.

This of course is not new to the mockumentary. The members of Spinal Tap, a putatively fictional band, write and record their own songs, have released albums, and have embarked on several tours. In this sense they are about as fake as Metallica, Led Zeppelin or any of the other more ‘genuine’ bands parodied by the film. However, both Tap and Phoenix’s musical material is slightly off kilter, perhaps highlighting the parodic or satirical edge of the films. Taken as rock music, Tap’s songs are not bad songs, they just lack intelligence, and, in common with Phoenix, might betray the fact that they are not personally invested in the style of music that they are performing, and do not completely understand it. Diddy even questions Phoenix about his reasons for choosing rap music over other musical styles that may perhaps be more suited to Phoenix’s personality. So Tap go through the motions of heavy metal posturing without really understanding what it means to enact those ideas, and Phoenix’s songs, which are surprisingly competent, occasionally come close to derailment with extraneous uses of the word ‘bitch’ - included, it seems, in order to conform with a stereotype which the ex-actor fails to realise is itself almost self-parodic to start with.

As with Tap, the extra-textual existence of the mockumentary character - in this case the retired actor and rap-pretender Phoenix - is significant to the reception of I’m Still Here, and is perhaps an essential component in Affleck’s enforced acknowledgement of the contrived nature of the film. Made after a number of critics (including Roger Ebert) stated that the film could not be anything other than genuine, Affleck’s statement should theoretically have put an end to any speculation about how real, or how fake, the film was. Phoenix’s public appearances seemed legitimate and the fact that for about a year and a half he maintained the unshaven, bedraggled look whenever he was out in public also seemed to confer legitimacy onto the whole idea that he had retired from film making. However even at this stage questions were being asked, specifically about why the most significant examples of his outlandish behaviour - his surprise resignation announcement to E! Online or his David Letterman appearance - were in the presence of Affleck’s camera. The reveal, made after the film’s release and done seemingly to improve poor box office takings, should have cleared up these inconsistencies of opinion.

However, the fact that Phoenix appears, both in the film and in real life, to have been living, for real, a life which Affleck suggests is actually fictional means that simply stating that everything is a performance is not enough. Add to this conflicting statements by various personalities involved in the project - Letterman has claimed he did not know that Phoenix’s appearance was contrived, whereas members of his staff insist that the presenter was in on the joke - make the revelation that everything was faked seem as much a part of the falsification process as anything that appears in the film itself.

Films like I’m Still Here and Exit Through the Gift Shop positively encourage us to take them apart, examining the tiniest details in order to locate clues which might expose the cracks, in turn unlocking the films’ secrets. During the conclusion of Exit Through the Gift Shop for instance, Guetta notes that “some people might think that I’m a rabbit, because I’m running around and they think that I’m not organised. But I said, wait till the end of life and you’ll see if I am a rabbit... or a turtle”. This moment seemed particularly pertinent in the ambiguity stakes. Although clearly referring to Aesop’s well known fable The Tortoise and the Hare, the substitution of a rabbit for a hare, and a turtle for a tortoise, seems somehow significant in a film that frequently hints that everything we are seeing is not quite what it appears to be, as if the filmmakers are hinting in this substitution that what you are seeing is close to the reality but somehow skewed, off-kilter and not quite right. In this sense the turtle bares the same relationship to the tortoise as the mockumentary does to the documentary. The substitution of a turtle for a tortoise and a rabbit for a hare would also turn the contest into a one-horse-race, whether on land or by sea, and makes the narrative nonsensical. It is only a tiny piece of dialogue, easily missed, but the incongruity of the words seems to have added meaning.

Or maybe they don’t. Having circled around the issue, wondering if maybe ‘the turtle and the rabbit’ was perhaps a more colloquial name for the fable, or a dubious mistranslation by the Frenchman, or a deliberate clue designed to be followed (Alice’s white rabbit perhaps?) it quickly becomes clear that this line of enquiry is almost entirely futile. Questioning the minutiae of what could indeed be a straight documentary or a fabricated mockumentary gets us nowhere in answering the question of what precisely it is that we are watching. Indeed, asking such questions only make us less sure of our place if the questions remain unanswered, or they simply provide us with lists of ‘stuff’ - who shot which bits, whether certain things shown in the films actually happened or not - which are equally unsuitable objects of illumination.

Part of the point of these films, it seems to me, is to deliberately place the viewer in a position of being lost-at-sea. The process of questioning what we are watching, and not receiving any concrete answers, might be frustrating for some, but from my perspective this seems to be exactly the experience that these films, and at times the official commentary around them, are attempting to create. Tempting though it might be to resist these experiences in the search for definitive answers, such an approach seems to me to miss the whole point of such work, which is to create such uncertain feelings in the mind of the viewer. Questioning the ‘facts’, or their presentation, might move you closer to being rescued, but one needs to be aware that there will be no end to this line of questioning; you will always remain tantalisingly out of reach of safety.

Ultimately, we are supposed to experience films like I’m Still Here and Exit Through the Gift Shop in a similar way to the second Banksy reviewer, faced with the mangled phone box - aware that what we are seeing is problematic but unsure what to do with it. Is it worth photographing because it’s a Banksy, or is it worth photographing because it’s a mangled phone box? Either way it is worth taking a picture, but we remain unsure of what exactly we have taken a picture of. In the end it may be enough simply to enjoy the problem without feeling any compulsion to actually solve it.

This article was published on April 01, 2011.

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