07 May 2008

Be Kind Rewind

Written & Directed by: Michel Gondry
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: A-

In his previous two fiction films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry indulged his taste for whimsy and invention by setting his films inside the imaginarium that is the human mind; Be Kind Rewind, on the other hand, is set in the idealistic world of the cinema, on strips of magnetic tape, where a person can be made to disappear with just a little bit of creative on-camera editing and day turns to night with just the flip of a switch.

As with the other two films, Be Kind Rewind is also set, sometimes, in the real world, in the urban blight of Passaic, NJ; Gondry finds his pathos in the tragic disconnect between life and invention. Not just an ode to the pleasures of moviemaking and moviewatching, the film also serves as a moving rejection of corporatized homogenization. When our movies are focus-group tested and one-size-fits-all, it should come as no surprise that our communities follow suit; say goodbye to the corner video store and its peeling paint and say hello to cookie cutter condominiums and corporate video stores where there are only two sections, Comedy and Action-Adventure, a thousand copies of the same movie, and a staff that wears name badges but doesn’t know the difference between John Huston and John Hughes.

Plenty of directors have tried their hand at making movies about making movies, but it’s unusual for a filmmaker to demonstrate so staunchly and reasonably the rewards of the trade beyond the individual’s. Despite the prevalence of auteur theory in critical circles, and its focus on specific directors, film is a collaborative art, the end result of hundreds of technicians’ combined efforts. In Be Kind, Rewind, Gondry presents two fights, one to make movies and the other to save a neighborhood, and unites them through their shared sense of community.

Jack Black plays a local mechanic who, after an accident of questionable science, becomes magnetized and erases all the tapes at the local video store (after which the film is named), run by Danny Glover and staffed by Mos Def. To try and keep themselves out of trouble, Black and Def start reshooting the movies that were erased, using a standard video camera, creating their own versions of Ghostbusters and other popular classics of the ‘80s and ‘90s. (Although Gondry takes it a little farther at one point, even remaking The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, of which we unfortunately only get a quick glimpse.) The “new” movies are a big hit in Passaic—people come all the way from New York to rent them—and soon the whole neighborhood is participating in the moviemaking process.

Early on, Black says that people only live in his town because they have nowhere else to go, but once the filmmaking begins, the individualized product creates a bond among neighbors, the sense of belonging to a larger group that has disappeared from most American cities. They become citizens of a specific place, thanks to a localized film culture that prides itself on “movies with heart and soul,” not just more mass-produced commodities.

Of course, copyright lawyers from Washington (boo!) storm into town and shut down the video project, but that only redoubles the community’s resolve to go on and write their own movie, a Fats Waller biopic/docuoralhistory, in which Gondry is able to let his surreal madness wildly soar in the guise of DIY can-doery. (See: the piano with black and white human fingers instead of keys.) The little guy still loses in the end, but loss has rarely been as beautiful as it looks in the shot of the flickering light bouncing off the screen and onto the faces of smiling Passaiacans. Be Kind Rewind, with a Blast from the Past poster conspicuously hanging in the background and an embrace of VHS over DVD, isn’t about looking forward; rather, it’s about looking back to a happier time that, while it may have never really existed, was created and preserved through a combination of tall tales, shared through a community, and cinema.

Watch the trailer:

And then watch Michel Gondry's hilarious remake of the trailer, starring himself:

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