EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP

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When the 20th anniversary of Andy Kaufman’s death came and went without the promised return, many among us finally accepted that indeed, the ultimate prankster was, in fact, safely tucked away in his permanent rest. Rumors continue to persist that he’s fucking with us yet again, and that such an obvious comeback would yield instead to some random appearance at the most bizarre location imaginable. Instead of an announced visit with David Letterman on, say, his birthday, he’d show up at a county fair in Iowa, playing the whole affair so low key that he wouldn’t even bother to bring along Tony Clifton. Neither appears to be in the cards, though with the release of Exit Through the Gift Shop, it just might be the case that Kaufman is, against the odds, alive and well and passing as a Frenchman. Thierry Guetta, the alleged subject of this alleged documentary, is, from all appearances, not the actual Kaufman made flesh, but let me be the first to suggest that he’s damn near the resurrection; a lamb-chopped cast-off from the very school founded over thirty years ago by one of the 20th century’s most brilliantly psychotic performance artists. Behold the new genius for our time.

When we first meet Guetta, he is attempting to convince us that his fetish for rolling cameras produces an insatiable need to film every waking moment of his life. He walks, stalks, and rambles among the reeds of Los Angeles, pausing only to change tapes, all of which will be boxed in a way familiar to anyone who collects their own urine. Refusing to label a single tape, Guetta appears at first blush to be yet another internet era narcissist who can’t function unless every banality is preserved for posterity. Drilling down further, his primary goal seems to be highlighting street artists in general, with the mysterious Banksy as his specific white whale. At this point in the movie, I was only half-interested, and though street art can be fanciful and exciting, I was prepared for an inevitable rage, as few things grate like the entitled artist; jobless, broke, and saddled with an obnoxious propensity for defacing private property at every turn. I’d watch the damn thing, but what on earth was the point? The stammering Frenchman was quickly becoming tiresome, though I had a feeling I should wait until he completed his much-discussed movie. Surely this would bring everything full circle, yes?

Once Life Remote Control is under wraps and ready for release, it hits us with a shot: the world of the documentary has been left far, far behind, and it’s doubtful it was ever on speaking terms with a single person associated with this movie. Playing like a parody of an art film, Life Remote Control is, according to Banksy, an earnest attempt to chronicle the days and nights of street art, but one so woefully inadequate that it fails to become the final word on the subject. Only it’s not earnest, though it shouldn’t surprise anyone if it became essential viewing at the pretentious university of your choosing. This was not, as presented, culled from thousands of hours of maddening video, but made exclusively for this “documentary”; a well-crafted, deliberately offensive dung pile to ensure maximum loathing of Monsieur Guetta. Once dispatched as a contemptible hack, the next stage of the game is ready to begin. Banksy convinces the Gallic turd to become a street artist himself, a challenge he readily accepts because, well, the script says so.

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The next phase, whereby Guetta becomes “Mr. Brainwash”, provides the sort of instant fame we’ve come to expect in a no-talent age. How far, exactly, this hoax extends is difficult to assess, but rest assured, if they speak to the camera, they’re part of the plan. That plan, above all, is to establish, promote, and hype Mr. Brainwash to such an extent that he becomes the Next Big Thing, taking L.A. by storm in a manner usually reserved for serial killers and gin-soaked celebrities. Guetta, as we know, is not an artist, even under the loose guidelines of the term since modernism, but who can be sure? Admittedly, everything he produces is factory-based, derivative, and superficial, but where’s the committee that ruled against such things? Instilled with technique but nothing by way of meaning or inspiration, Guetta is accepted by the community at large not because he takes art in a new direction, but rather out of a sense of obligation. If there’s enough noise around an event, surely it’s important, right? Whether the paint is splattered by an animal, child, mentally retarded criminal, or (gasp) irritating Frenchman, the only thing that separates a man from his wallet at an art show or auction is the perceived stature of the subject. It’s capitalism distilled to its purest form, and the loudest trumpet yet to at last break the stranglehold “purity” has had on the matter. By “creating” Guetta, Banksy – himself a creation, perhaps myth – is giving us a peek behind a curtain we thought inaccessible to mere mortals. Art is commerce, and commerce is, well, art. Distinctions are for fools.

If you check the internet, Mr. Brainwash is real, in that information can be found on such a person, but he’s about as authentic as Exit Through the Gift Shop itself. He’s a commentary on our gullibility, stupidity, and lust to connect our lives to something greater and more noble, but when the crowds fall silent and only the man remains, he’s crafting his next move, not struggling, monk-like, to create meaning from whole cloth. He exploits our needs and wants, and we fall into line because, at this stage of human development, there isn’t a damn thing to separate us from the artifice. Banksy, then, has fashioned the ultimate performance art, where thousands of his fellow men actively participate, though without consciously doing so. Fuck Kaufman’s milk and cookies bus ride, this is on a scale not even he could have envisioned. Still, he’s a proud father of all that followed, and with Facebook, Twitter, and You Tube, there’s no avenue left for the lonesome traveler. Join or die, and having joined, never let ‘em see the real you. Only Kaufman had it right the first time. The real you, or any semblance thereof, is the price of admission. And like the Hotel California, once arrived, you can never leave.

About Matt

Matt is the site’s Longest Serving Critic and chief misanthrope. He divides his time between classics of cinema and the most ridiculous movies he can find on Redbox.
Follow Matt: @mattcale52