Digital Killed the Video Store
By Elbert Ventura
Be Kind Rewind
Dir. Michel Gondry, U.S., New Line Cinema
For a director drawn to neurosis and insecurity, Michel Gondry is remarkably sure of himself. Insistently idiosyncratic and unworried about self-indulgence, he seems unable to second-guess his ideas—which would be a problem if his ideas weren’t so inspired. Not to say that Gondry is without flaws. Be it whimsy overload or muddled politics, Be Kind Rewind contains reminders of the limits of this brilliant artist. That the movie still enthralls is a testament to the fact that Gondry’s starting point—an aesthetic in which each frame bears its maker’s sensibility—is miles ahead of where most filmmakers aspire to be.
From its sepia-toned overture recounting the life of Fats Waller and the birth of jazz (in Passaic, N.J.!) to its wide-eyed Kumbaya ending, Be Kind Rewind is unmistakably Gondry’s. Jack Black (Jerry) and Mos Def (Mike) play buddies who hang out in the only video store on the planet that refuses to carry DVDs—and one on the brink of being bought up by developers looking to build a new downtown center called “Olde Passaic Gardens.” After a mishap at the neighborhood power plant, Jerry becomes magnetized, and ends up accidentally erasing the store’s stock of videos. Worried about disappointing Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), the store’s owner, who left him in charge, Mike arrives upon a solution: the two remake the deleted movies with a camcorder and what and whoever are at hand. Improbably, the movies become hits, and a cottage industry is born.
Be Kind Rewind counts among its many pleasures a blithe indifference to plausibility. Its object of fetishization alone is hilariously antiquated: the videotape. The premise allows Gondry to play to his strengths. Somewhat uninterested in story (also a flaw in the otherwise wonderful The Science of Sleep, the only other film he’s written), the movie really comes alive when Mike, Jerry and a crew of neighbors make their movies. Gondry, master of the handmade, gets plenty of room to stretch out and show off. How would one reenact the upside-down walk in the spaceship in 2001? How about the opening credits of Umbrellas of Cherbourg? Or a shoot-out from Robocop? Brimming with bric-a-brac and ingenuity, the movie beguiles with the pure joy of invention.
Part of what’s endearing about Gondry is his ardent belief that anyone can do this moviemaking thing—all it takes is a little moxie, a little creativity, and a little help from your friends. Clearly a product of a singular sensibility, Be Kind Rewind paradoxically revels in the collaborative thrill of creation. The festive “let’s put on a show” mood is part of a larger celebration of community. With its street-fair vibe and rebuff of corporate America, Be Kind Rewind emerges as an inner-city paean to small-town values: Capra in Passaic, right down to the climactic rescue of a failing business by the masses.
In its celebration of community and its irrepressible optimism, the movie most closely resembles an oft-overlooked Gondry movie: Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. A chronicle of a music festival that Chappelle put together in Brooklyn, the film stood out for its effortless good nature. (If ever there was a movie built on good vibes, that was it.) Be Kind Rewind is similarly sunny and uncomplicated. Without a jaded bone in its body, it offers cornball homilies about communal joy and movie love without a hint of a wink—and pulls it off for the most part. Still—and I feel like a curmudgeon for saying this— the movie would have benefited from a bit of gloominess: gone and missed is the nagging circumspection of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. For all of their whimsy and wonder, both movies hinted at the pathological flipside of the creative mind. In Be Kind Rewind, imagination has no cost. It’s Gondry’s most tension-free narrative film yet, and it may end up being his most disposable (not counting the unfortunate Human Nature, a forgivable first misstep).
Just over a year after Time gave its Man of the Year title to “You,” Gondry has crafted his own tribute. Be Kind Rewind may well be remembered as the first of many hymns to the YouTube generation (still to come, Son of Rambow and a Spielberg-approved movie about that backyard remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark). It’s indicative of Gondry’s confused thinking that Be Kind Rewind is unabashedly nostalgic and anti-digital. After all, the democratization of production that the movie implicitly hails has been hastened by the technology and modernity it views with suspicion. Also nettlesome are the broader questions raised by Gondry’s everybody-is-a-star outlook. In uncritically championing the creative urge in everyone, Gondry also obliterates the distinction between good art and bad art. In the world of Be Kind Rewind, the act of creation is all that matters; questions of standards and taste never intrude on this utopia. It’s telling that we never see Mike and Jerry’s movies, only snippets of their making. Could it be that a 20-minute, camcorder version of 2001—like the vast majority of homemade spectacles on YouTube —might not be that interesting? If we saw the ragtag remakes in their entirety, we’d probably end up wondering what the rest of Passaic was smoking to enjoy them so much.
The homage to DIY also leads to some troubling implications to which Gondry seems oblivious. The movie’s stunning pièce de résistance is the making of a biopic/documentary about Fats Waller, inspired by Mr. Fletcher’s claim that the jazz great was born right where his decrepit store sits. There’s only one problem: Waller was born in Harlem. Caught in his lie, Fletcher is reassured by his neighbors, who convince him that the movie should be made anyway. “The past belongs to us,” says a loyal customer (Mia Farrow), “we can change it if we want.” Ignoring the difference between story and history, Be Kind Rewind unwittingly summons up the well-founded fears of the cultural and political consequences of a Wiki-world. But to Gondry, it’s all good—what matters is that we’re making something.
Missing the complicating autocritique of Gondry’s best movies, Be Kind Rewind is his most puerile film: childlike awe and aw-shucks imbecility are affirmed as states of grace. But this goofy and buoyant movie sends you out grinning anyway. Anything that has a whiff of quirk these days is suspect, but Gondry’s eccentricities are borne of an authentic sensibility, not the product of hipster-posturing and calculation (I’m looking at you, Diablo). An ardent love of people and communities informs Be Kind Rewind, and it’s a quality that, as much as his enchanting bricolage, makes Gondry’s movie genuinely transporting.