Cinematic Soulmates: Man on Wire and Exit Through the Gift Shop
It’s documentary day here at Cinematic Soulmates. Today we’re going to look at two movies that don’t appear to be all that similar, but are united by their subjects, both of whom are larger than life men who hail from France and set out to accomplish amazing things while presenting heightened versions of themselves to the world. Now, before you read any further, I have to warn you that there are going to be mild spoilers for one of the films I’ve written about here, so if you haven’t seen Banksy’s movie yet, you might want to skip this one until after you’ve had a chance to check it out. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to it, shall we?
With Man on Wire (2008), director James Marsh presents the gripping story of Phillipe Petit, a young French street performer who hatches a plan to walk a tightrope he and his friends will string between the rooftops of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The film is a mix of contemporary interviews, archival footage shot by Petit and his group of co-conspirators, and recreations to chronicle Petit’s life leading up to the big event, detailing his walks between the towers of Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbor Bridge, as well as his relationships with his friends and lovers. The latter half of the film plays like a heist movie, following Petit and his friends as they sneak into the Twin Towers, hide from the guards overnight, and string several feet of industrial cable between the roofs of the buildings. The film concludes with Petit offering up his particularly effusive observations about the profound ways the walk changed him, and how it impacted the lives of those closest to him.
On the other hand, there is Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010). Directed by enigmatic street artist Banksy, the film is ostensibly a documentary about Banksy. The film uses footage shot by eccentric French shopkeeper and amateur filmmaker Thierry Guetta, who claimed to be making a film about the beginning of the street art movement by focusing on the biggest names in the movement, such as Shepard Fairey, Space Invader, and Buffmonster. However, Guetta is not 100% honest about his motivation for filming the artists, and it turns out that he is a camera happy eccentric who simply wants to meet Banksy. Guetta achieves his goal, but is put on the spot when Banksy asks to see the completed documentary. Guetta scrambles to assemble over 1000 hours of unwatched footage into a two hour long film about a burgeoning art style, but it’s evident that his editing skills are not quite up to snuff. Banksy tells Guetta that he should take some time and try to make some art, so Guetta does just that. Taking the name Mr. Brainwash, Guetta takes a page from Andy Warhol’s playbook and sets up a shop staffed by graphic artists who are tasked with cranking out the MBW brand, slapping it on everything from stickers to canvases to billboards all over Los Angeles. Now, Mr. Brainwash is determined to conquer the street art world, much to the consternation of Banksy, Fairey, and the other artists who inadvertently encouraged this weird little Frenchman.
On the surface, it would appear that the only thing these films have in common is the fact that they are documentaries, and even that is a bit unclear. While Man on Wire is pretty much rooted in verifiable fact, Exit Through the Gift Shop exists in a weird gray area, thanks in large part to Banksy’s reputation as a prankster. While the film is presented in a straightforward documentary style, the audience can never really be sure what is real and what is fabrication, which is right in step with Banksy’s playfully subversive style. So while there is a street artist called Mr. Brainwash, and while he actually is a hyperactive Frenchman named Thierry Guetta, the actual facts surrounding his evolution from family man to street artist remain a bit blurry. On the other hand, the whole notion that the film is a hoax could also just be part of the prank. With Banksy involved, it’s hard to say. Either way, much like Man on Wire, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fascinating portrait of a man who has an unconventional dream, and sets out to make it come true, no matter what.
The main thing that both films have in common is that they focus on larger than life Frenchmen who are determined to conquer something much larger than themselves. In the case of Phillipe Petit, he believes that walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers will be the defining moment of his life, and that it will change not only himself, but the relationships he shares with those he cares about. It’s tempting to say that he is doing it just for the thrill of it, and there is probably an element of that in his motivation, but it’s much more than that. He wants to walk that tightrope because of how it will change his perceptions of life, and will also change how he is perceived. By conquering this seemingly unconquerable obstacle, Petit reinvents himself as a worldwide celebrity, though one who is somewhat more infamous than famous. But that is not why he set out on the quest. No, he simply wanted to do it because of the effect it would have on him and his relationships. For Petit, the simple act of making his dream come true was enough.
On the other hand, Thierry Guetta feels that if he could just meet the reclusive Banksy, his life would take a turn for the better. In the process, though, Guetta is introduced to a new quest, one that sees him reinventing himself as a street artist. Now, having adopted the guise of the cool and effortlessly brilliant Mr. Brainwash, Guetta sets out to conquer the world of street art. The burgeoning movement is his tightrope strung between the Twin Towers, and by taking that first step onto it, Guetta sees his entire life change. Suddenly, he is no longer a weird little man with a camera and no talent. Instead, he is Mr. Brainwash, the man of the hour with a warehouse-turned-art-gallery full of paintings and prints that put one in mind of Andy Warhol. He is the man who has single-handedly reinvigorated the art scene in Los Angeles. As one woman says during the official opening of Guetta’s gallery, “There should be more things like this in Los Angeles. They say art is dead, but sweetie it’s all around us.” Guetta has made his dream come true, but in this case, the dream was not to change his life for the better, but to completely change himself into an entirely new person.
Another thing that both men have in common is that they are constantly performing. Petit is always “on”, playing up his already oversized personality at all times. He is animated and overly dramatic, delivering every word with breathless excitement. The Petit we see in the film is undoubtedly a character that is very much larger than life, but not unlike a professional wrestler or the boys in Spinal Tap, the image he presents to the world appears to be his own personality ratcheted up to eleven. We are in fact seeing the real Petit, albeit a somewhat exaggerated version. Thierry Guetta, however, is also presenting an image to the world, but it’s a very carefully crafted one. Once he adopts the identity of Mr. Brainwash, that is the only aspect of his personality that he allows anyone else to see. Sure it is still him, but ultimately it is a performance, and one that is designed to make people see him in a very specific way. This need to perform is the one thing that unites both men, but also separates them, for they each approach it in very different ways.
So, while it would appear that both Man on Wire and Exit Through the Gift Shop have little in common aside from the tropes that are pretty much standard within the documentary genre, they are actually united thanks to the rather ostentatious personalities of their subjects. Phillipe Petit and Thierry Guetta are consummate performers who were determined to make their dreams come true, and were unwilling to let anything stand in their way. In the end, their experiences changed them, and they walked away from their deeds as completely different men. While they may have reinvented themselves in very different ways, ultimately they are walking similar paths, and that is why they are striding side by side as Cinematic Soulmates.