Street artist Banksy, above, tells Mr. Brainwash's story, maybe, in "Exit Through the Gift Shop." (Paranoid Pictures)
There's an understandable temptation to take "Exit Through the Gift Shop" as an elaborate hoax orchestrated by its "director," the mysterious rogue street artist known only as Banksy.
After all, the film questions what constitutes art, good taste, popularity and the relationship between art and commerce. It revels in a story that shows art patrons as little more than sheep while spinning a tale that seems too far-fetched to be true.
But in the end, you believe, even as you shake your head in wonder.
"Exit Through the Gift Shop" is the supposedly true story of French expatriate Thierry Guetta, a used-clothing store owner in Los Angeles who in the '90s becomes addicted to videotaping his life. Then his addiction expands to videotaping street and graffiti artists as they pursue their outlaw projects in the middle of the night.
After years of gathering hundreds of tapes, Guetta finally meets up with the elusive Banksy, the most renowned and reclusive of all street artists, and begins taping him in action, even covering for him when he nearly gets caught setting up an installation at Disneyland.
Banksy then encourages Guetta to assemble what is now a decade's worth of tapes into a movie. The movie Guetta makes is beyond unwatchable.
So Banksy takes over the tapes while Guetta decides to reinvent himself as Mr. Brainwash, a pop-image artist, and to stage a giant show in L.A., depending on his association with Banksy and others to hype the event.
His lack of talent and utter cluelessness is almost as huge as his gift for self-promotion. The show is immensely successful -- he earns more than $1 million -- and he ends up designing a Madonna album cover.
Banksy, always hooded and his voice disguised, hangs his head in despair. His sometime friend Guetta has just proven one of the great esthetic ideals thoroughly wrong: Not everyone has an artist inside of them. Or at least not a good artist.
Despite this turn of events, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" is great fun to watch, a lot like giving an inmate at the asylum a camera and carte blanche.
Guetta is such an oddball character, and the artists he tapes are such dedicated goofs, that you join in their thrills.
Then when Guetta begins his art career it's like watching a delusional person announce his candidacy for president. Except in this case, the nutcase wins the election.
Hoax or not, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" ends up energizing, aggravating, enjoyable and revealing. Is it art or isn't it? Who knows? Apparently no one.