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Movie review: ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ spotlights street-art scene

Fri., Aug. 13, 2010

The iconoclastic English painter Banksy may be the most important artist on the run from police. Or the most creative vandal.

The graffiti muralist’s unauthorized use of urban buildings obliges him to remain anonymous. Yet prints of his art fetch a fortune at Sotheby’s and his coffee-table books are sold at Urban Outfitters.

Banksy’s tightrope walk between secrecy and publicity is a central theme of the documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Thierry Guetta, a French expat living in L.A., meets the aerosol guerrilla through Guetta’s cousin, another notable street artist known as Invader.

When Banksy visits California, Guetta amasses a huge library of footage of the street-art scene.

Then things get really interesting. Banksy sees Guetta’s disastrous attempt to fashion a film from it and reassesses him as “maybe just someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera.”

So Bansky takes over the movie and encourages Guetta to create some art of his own. Calling himself Mr. Brainwash, the impulsive Frenchman launches a wildly ambitious show and becomes, to the chagrin of Banksy and his comrades, an empty overnight success.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop” poses some bitingly funny questions about the meaning and value of art. Is it in the eye of the beholder? Anything you can get away with?

Though his face is obscured by shadow and his voice distorted, it’s clear that Banksy appreciates the irony of his art-world pranks backfiring.

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