With the street artist's documentary up for an Academy Award, more questions are arising about what the film is really saying.
2010 was a big year for identity-crisis documentaries with a prankish air. Catfish, I'm Still Here, and Exit Through the Gift Shop all sparked lively debates over their authenticity, with critics and audiences speculating about just how much these films manipulated the documentary form, and to what end. That conversation has spilled over into this year thanks to Exit's best-feature-documentary Oscar nomination, and its amusing crypto-campaign for the trophy.
Several street-art pieces that appear to be the handiwork of shadowy British artist Banksy—the director of Gift Shop, as well as a voice-disguised and behoodied talking head in it—have turned up in L.A. over the last few weeks, with one of them even featuring a shrouded statuette guarded by Stormtroopers. It must be the first Oscar-related publicity to actually extend the concerns, and deepen the mystery, of the movie it's intended to promote.
Exit Through the Gift Shop, currently available on home video and to stream "instantly" on Netflix, takes up the issue of how value has come to be almost arbitrarily assigned—through some inscrutable algorithm factoring in publicity, authorship, and, to a lesser extent, actual aesthetics—to works made in the street-art vernacular. This area of inquiry is particularly relevant to the medium of stencils and billboard defacements, since its power often depends upon the public context in which the art is originally presented. While Gift Shop sometimes feels like the very successful Banksy's bid to re-establish his eternal-naysayer credentials, another man of mystery emerges as the film's main character.