Be Kind, Rewind

| February 27, 2008

Great films often speak great truths, but they can also whisper beautiful lies. According to Michel Gondry, the beating-heart visionary behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, those lies can be valuable, too. The heroes of Gondry’s brain-teasing fantasias are dreamers and poets of the unreal: in Sunshine, Joel reshapes history through his backwards-spinning, selective memory, and in Science, Stefan lets his epic reveries invade and transform his waking life. Now, in Be Kind, Rewind, the writer-director’s unabashedly goofy and spirited love letter to the cinema, a couple of working-class stiffs start churning out low-rent versions of beloved blockbusters, and end up igniting the artistic passion of their entire community. It’s a fairytale of a fable–by remaking Hollywood, the amateurs remake their lives–but one that speaks to the importance of shared cultural experience, guerilla artistry, and the transformative power of the human imagination. “We dream, therefore we are,” Gondry asserts, but to whom does the so-called Dream Factory really belong: the Suits or the teeming masses they feed?
Given his preference for in-camera effects and papier-mache marvels over CGI wizardry, Gondry’s an analog player in a digital world. Grooving on nostalgic affection for a half-imagined past, Be Kind, Rewind views our collective, movie-addicted present through the artist’s own whimsical. Rose-tinted shades. In some anachronistic, alternate-universe version of Passaic, New Jersey–an urban small town where everyone knows everyone and the hoodlums just talk tough–Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) runs a VHS-only rental shop that, like most of the buildings on the block, hasn’t seen much change in a solid decade. (Rush Hour 2 appears to be the most recent addition to the store’s library.) Facing serious competition from the DVD-touting chains, Mr. Fletcher scurries off to rethink his business plan, putting in charge his employee and surrogate son, Mike (Mos Def). Things go well for about a day, until the bumbling Jerry (Jack Black) enters the picture. Having been zapped by electricity in a freak accident–the film’s bizarre, slapstick nadir–he becomes a walking magnet and subsequently wipes clean every tape in the store. Facing a small but very loyal and very impatient clientele, Mike concocts a novel (if hair-brained) fixer: he and Jerry will re-shoot the movies on video, playing all the parts themselves and crafting make-shift props out of cardboard, aluminum foil, and whatever the hell else they find lying around. First on the production schedule: a short but hilariously faithful take on Ghostbusters.
It’s from this highly improbable dilemma-and-solution that Be Kind, Rewind springs to giddy, boisterous life. Much to their surprise, Mike and Jerry’s home-movie homages prove to be big hits around town, and everyone wants to get in on the artistic action. A bustling neighborhood is united by a shared love of pop art–think Frank Capra’s Block Party–and Gondry lets that infectious communal spirit run wild. Those who objected to the ramshackle plotting of the director’s last film, the messy, painfully personal Science of Sleep, will find plenty more to gripe about with this new one. A music video veteran, Gondry seems largely uninterested in the traditional rhythms of narrative storytelling, the ups and downs of a well-balanced, well-paced, three-act narrative. He’d rather chase his muse wherever it takes him, be it a wonderful, one-shot mosaic of on-the-the-fly moviemaking, or the not-so-wonderful sight of Jack Black’s magnetic, radioactive urine flowing down the sidewalk. As is often the case, Black proves both an asset and a liability: though the funnyman’s wild-eyed enthusiasm–reigned-in and honed to hysterical perfection in School of Rock, and nowhere else–roughly aligns with Gondry’s own, the actor’s tireless antics also threaten to push the film over the edge into the realm of total anarchic silliness. What keeps it grounded is Mos Def. A restrained foil to the manic Black, he’s a soft-spoken straight man with his own gleeful silly side, and, like Joel and Stefan before him, a hopeless romantic often stifled by his own insecurities. Perfectly matched, the two stars feel like opposite halves of Gondry’s idiosyncratic whole, Black the unhinged id and Def the rational superego. Their chemistry is never more charming, believable, or laid-back then when they’re out making their movies, which suggests that this may be the closest Gondry has come to depicting, however abstractly, his own creative process.
About those movies, though: were it nothing else, Be Kind, Rewind would still be remarkable as a showcase for the filmmaker’s elaborate, imaginative art direction, his organic, all-natural special effects, and his sophisticated visual compositions. Seen only in snips and pieces, Mike and Jerry’s mini-epics are nonetheless sheer marvels of expressionistic design, successful in both their low-rent mimicry and their flourishes of wild, hungry invention. (Never mind that it takes incredible talent and a lot of time to make something as fantastically cool-looking as these supposedly slapdash toss-offs.) It’s telling that very few of the films remade by the duo are revered classics or fawned-over “masterpieces”; many are, in fact, fluffy distractions, potboilers, and genre larks of the last twenty years. This makes Gondry less of a highbrow Film Buff, more of a starry-eyed Movie Nerd, an unapologetic champion of popular (and populist) cinema. But it also speaks to the growing appeal of junk-art hybrids, of using established works as the found-footage raw material for headier and more challenging experiments. Could these worn-out crowd-pleasers find new life in shorter, messier form? Stripped of their visual artifice and reduced to their skeletal essences, could their visions emerge more pure and profound?
More relevant, perhaps, is the question of who, in this mash-up, remix, and sample-heavy age, owns the sounds, images and icons of our popular culture. Led by Sigourney Weaver, sleepwalking through in a power-suit, studio executives descend upon Mr. Fletcher’s store, demanding that Mike and Jerry’s unauthorized tributes be destroyed. It’s a tired and conventional David vs. Goliath plot turn, one that balances the film curiously between its affection for Hollywood fare and its disdain for the money mongers who produce it. Really, though, this low-point for the dynamic duo–and for the film itself–is just a manufactured setback on the road to a feel-good big finish. In a development that would seem more cornball and contrived if it didn’t have so much to say about the universal needs and desires of every culture, all of Passaic comes together to make one more film, a moving ode to the myths, exaggerations, and pure fabrications that have come to define their community. “The past belongs to us,” says one of the town’s most familiar faces. “We can change it if we want.” Their movie is a fantasy, a delusion, a knowing act of historical revisionism–a boldfaced lie, in other words. But it’s a useful, uplifting lie, and Gondry’s choice to begin and end Be Kind, Rewind with Mike’s endearingly quaint, black-and-white biography speaks volumes about the filmmaker’s belief in better living through fiction. And of his own delusions, the useful lies that his work tells, none is worthier of believing in than the assertion that great art can tear down all boundaries between race, age, creed, and class. It’s a romantic, utopian dream, conveyed not just through the film’s cast of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural characters, but also via Gondry’s most striking, symbolic image: black hands over white hands, fingers meshed together to create the keys of an imaginary piano. Strike those keys in unison, and the sound will be no whisper and no lie, but the loud-and-clear, wide-awake music of a brighter and better future.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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