Saturday, February 23, 2008
Be Kind Rewind
Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind is blessed with such a deliriously silly premise and such heartfelt execution that it's easy to overlook its many shortcomings and simply enjoy the ride. It's a film about two video store clerks (Jack Black and Mos Def) who accidentally erase all the videocassettes in their store. Yes, they're the last VHS holdouts in a DVD marketplace, a fact that becomes important in light of the film's implicit (if somewhat confused) critique of mainstream Hollywood and the decline of personal, creative experiences in the movies. In any case, faced with a video store full of suddenly blank tapes, the duo of course decides what other logical response, really? to remake every film in the store themselves, in makeshift 20-minute versions where all the parts are played by themselves and some local friends, and the special effects are as improvised and shitty as possible. These hilarious remakes of course turn out to be a massive hit in the neighborhood, and the guys are catapulted to local stardom.
The film is at its best as long as it focuses on the remakes themselves, which are unfailingly a riot. The guys put their own unique slant on RoboCop, Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2, Driving Miss Daisy, and dozens of other Hollywood flicks, each one accomplished with a combination of visual ingenuity and real old-fashioned technical improvisation. What's great about these recreations, as opposed to recent movie parodies like the utterly disposable Scary Movie franchise, is that the original movies are pretty much left alone, treated with respect and genuine affection. In this case, it's not the original films that are being mocked; the humor arises from the way these two goofy, naïve friends flub and stumble their way through a grand tour of mainstream cinema with all its warts and ridiculous genre exercises. It's a tribute to good old-fashioned mechanical know-how, the moviemaking instinct that leads filmmakers to continually think up new ways to shoot convincing action scenes or achieve particular effects. That ingenuity is there when these two amateurs use a fan threaded with strings, placed in front of the camera, to give the effect of a scratchy old black-and-white film, or when they switch the camera to negative mode to shoot day-for-night. In many ways, the film feels like an impassioned plea for the return of this kind of mechanical creativity in films, a more personal touch for achieving special effects than the slick surfaces of CGI animation.
Gondry is also evoking nostalgia for an older era in which movies were a true communal experience, when there seemed to be an utopian potential in the movies that has long since departed killed, ironically, at least in part by the prevalence of home-viewing formats. The film's finale is a warm and touching tribute to the power of watching movies in large groups, a fantasy about the potential for movies to draw entire communities together in celebration and pleasure. As Gondry pans across the faces of the neighborhood people, illuminated by the flickering blue glow of a cinema projection, the real affection he has for the movies as a communal experience is immediately apparent. This is even more true of the final scene, which expands the movie-going experience into the streets of the city, where people from all over the neighborhood gather in groups to watch the flickering screen and rejoice in it. They are of course watching a film which is itself a piece of nostalgia, a recreation of an imaginary jazz age New Jersey that never existed, in which Fats Waller figures prominently, not as he really was in life, but as he might be in fantasies, tall tales, and legends.
Be Kind Rewind is also a fantasy, and a totally unabashed one. Its villains, evil Hollywood lawyers, storm into the video store with impressive but totally off-base legal jargon, confiscating everything in sight, and then actually running over the amassed videocassettes with a steamroller. It's an inspired bit of comic book villainy, to be sure. But it's also indicative of the film's somewhat confused stance towards Hollywood, part of a love/hate relationship with the mainstream that never quite resolves itself. On the one hand, Gondry wistfully recalls an imaginary Hollywood past in which the movies actually brought people together in communal joy, and his remakes of even recent Hollywood fare shows a real affection and appreciation for the simple pleasures of an enjoyably stupid genre flick. It helps that, in the process, he's made an enjoyably stupid genre flick himself. But Gondry is simultaneously undercutting the studio system, lambasting the destruction of communal values in cinema although why this should be ascribed to DVD and not VHS is not at all clear and protesting the suppression of creative voices by a slick mainstream apparatus. This ambivalent stance towards Hollywood is never quite resolved, and neither is the contradiction inherent in Gondry's appreciation of the community while he actually slights the film medium in favor of home-viewing media like videotapes.
Despite these problems, the film as a whole is an enjoyable diversion. When it's not focused on the film-making exploits of Black and Mos Def, the film does fall apart a bit, and the ancillary characters are barely developed. Danny Glover, as a wise old black man stereotype, is particularly egregious in the film's early scenes, a few of which are nearly unwatchable, while the great Mia Farrow is simply wasted as a mildly quirky neighborhood woman. Whenever the characters aren't making or showing one of their creations, one inevitably wishes they were, just because the film crackles and sparkles during its creative scenes and too often fizzles otherwise. Towards the middle of the film, Gondry provides a hilarious montage, structured like one of the music videos that originally made him famous, a patchwork construction of scenes from various remade movies. Some of these gags are so good like the refrigerator they use to approximate HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey or the cardboard cutout animals for The Lion King that one wishes the film had lingered longer on some of these moments and trimmed the excess surrounding details a bit. As it is, Be Kind Rewind is not necessarily the comic masterpiece promised by its very original conceit, but it's entertaining enough and rich enough in warmth and humor that it overcomes even its considerable structural and thematic flaws.