In the past couple of weeks a lot has been made about street-artist Banksy’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. At the center of this filmThierry Guetta, a documentarian (of-a-sort) that has now gone on to fame as a street artist himself, using the name Mr. Brainwash.
For those who haven’t seen it the world of street-art is the backdrop for the film, but the central story revolves around Guetta’s transformation from a somewhat-lovable goof with a camera to a full-fledged, sought-after Artist. All of this, despite the fact that his art is awful, derivative, meaningless, slop filled with noisy “symbolism” signifying nothing. Don’t believe me: Exhibit 1, Exhibit 2, and Exhibit 3.
Since the film premiered at Sundance a number of critics and viewers have questioned whether or not Thierry Guetta actually exists. There’s a creeping suspicion that he is somehow himself a prank, that Banksy and Shepard Fairey have constructed him. Well, this ties in nicely with the episode of Sparrow Songs we’re currently working on which happens to be about The Truth, or rather people who believe they have the truth and feel the need to share it with others. This, oddly, is exactly how I feel every time I read a piece questioning the veracity of Thierry Guetta’s existence.
You see, a year and a half ago I got a phone call from a friend looking for someone to help out on a potential documentary about Shepard Fairey. It was in the early stages but from what they said, they had tons and tons of unbelievable footage of Shepard bombing various cities all of shot by a crazy Frenchmen, named Thierry. I was finishing up my thesis film for UCLA, needed money and this seemed like a good fit. I was told that the job would entail logging the footage and sorting it. “Okay, not too bad,” I thought.
For those of you who’ve seen the Banksy film, you know that this wouldn’t be an easy job. Thierry shot everything. Everything. The camera never stopped rolling and the tapes were in no discernable order or grouping. The logs ended up looking something like this:
- Shepard in hardware store. (6 mins).
- Shepard walking down street (3 mins).
- Camera left rolling on table while people eat dinner (42 mins).
- Camera still left rolling on table while people finish dinner (33 mins).
- Camera blocked by dessert tray (6 mins).
- Walking down street in New York (12mins).
- Thierry talks to woman (5 mins).
- Shepard pastes New York water tower (20 seconds).
- Thierry getting lost near Holland Tunnel (15 mins)
… and so on.
This is all to say that while I’ve never met Thierry in-person I’ve spent days and days going through his footage. In a recent LA Weekly piece Banksy described the strain this puts on an editor:
“The film was made by a very small team. It would have been even smaller if the editors didn’t keep having mental breakdowns. They went through over 10,000 hours of Thierry’s tapes and got literally seconds of usable footage out of it.”
When you spend that much time with someone’s footage it feels like you’re spending time with them. You see the world the way they saw it and you hear their questions, frustrations and observations. As bad as the footage was Thierry’s personality came through in the tapes — he speaks in non-sequiters, doesn’t respect people’s personal space and is distracted by all things equally. It was maddening.
In fact, if you want to replicate Thierry’s footage all you need to do is strap a camera to the hood of a muscle car, remove the steering wheel, hit record and drop a brick on the gas pedal.
All of this is to say that in the time I spent with Thierry’s footage I found that he is without a doubt absolutely fundamentally lacking any self-awareness.
Which is the exact reason people seem to think that he’s a character constructed by Banksy and Shepard. How could anyone possibly stand behind the work he does? How could someone keep a straight face while standing next to a painting of Larry King in a Warhol Marilyn wig? How could people believe him?
I don’t know, in fact I have no idea, but I know that Thierry Guetta is real because I spent weeks and weeks wishing he weren’t.