Monday 10 June 2013

Be Kind Rewind (2008)


Despite the huge hiatus I took from this already enormous project, I think it should be pretty damn obvious at this point that movies mean a lot to me. If they didn’t, I don’t think I’d be even remotely close to the person I am today, let alone attempting to review every film I own one by one on the Internet. I love movies, and so I especially like it when a film comes out that so clearly comes from that same place in the filmmaker. Michel Gondry is one of those filmmakers that can do this. Idiosyncratic, quirky, absurd and possessed of a unique visual style, Gondry looked back to the films of the past to tell a story of what they mean to people and how they can bring them together through the acts of communal memory.

In Passaic, New Jersey, Elroy Fletcher (Danny Glover) runs a video rental store in a condemned building he claims was the birthplace of jazz legend Fats Waller. Facing foreclosure, Fletcher goes on a business venture, leaving his foster son Mike (Mos Def) in charge of the store. However, when Mike’s friend Jerry (Jack Black) tries to sabotage a nearby power station and becomes magnetised, he inadvertently erases every tape in the store. Mike and Jerry quickly hatch a plan to hide the disaster by making homemade versions of every title to rent and save the store. With help from the local community, their films develop a cult following.

When Gondry first talked to Jack Black about the project, specifically the premise of two friends who accidentally erase all the tapes in a video rental store and have to quickly make up new versions themselves, Black assumed that it was to be a period piece, set in the 70s or 80s. Gondry corrected him that it would be set today, that it would be a video rental store that, now in a world of DVD players and digital playback, was now finally on its way out. Right away, there is a rather wistful sadness to this idea. That this store, its name of Be Kind Rewind now being something that's redundant in this modern day, has held on for way longer than it really should have and is now on the verge of collapse. This point is actually quite literally made, since the entire building itself is due to be condemned, failing to meet some of the most basic requirements for safety and public use. Progress is coming, whether they want it or not.

The store’s owner, Mr. Fletcher, is clearly someone who could never really hack it in a fast-paced world. Early in the film, whilst having lunch with Mike and Jerry, they ask him why he was never married. He answers, “Well, the common story is, the girl that you was gonna ask, you waited too long to ask. She went on to marry somebody else and then you can’t find anybody to compare to her. So, what happens? You get old.” And old itself has a sort of double meaning here, too. Yes, Mr. Fletcher has indeed got old and is now too far gone to catch up, but the force of progress that threatens to oust him and end his business comes in the form of a neighbourhood gentrification project, which plans to clean up the rundown area and rename it Olde Passaic. Mr. Fletcher wants to keep his home and his business, but he needs time to do it.

His foster son Mike (I say foster son, though I’m not really entirely sure as to what the relationship actually is between the two, but it seems the most likely) also wants to hold on to the old neighbourhood, as opposed to the Olde neighbourhood, for a few reasons. Like Mr. Fletcher, he wants to keep things the way they are. He wants Mr. Fletcher to be happy. And he likes the neighbourhood, though when pressed he has kind of a tough time giving reasons as to why. When he and Jerry argue about it, both have their viewpoints on Passaic.
            Jerry: Mike, you have zero ambition.
            Mike: What?
Jerry: That’s your problem. You’re gonna be stuck in this dump
for the rest of your life. Good night.
            Mike: What? What? What’s a dump? What’s a dump? My shop
is a dump? You live in a junkyard.
Jerry: Not just the store… this whole city is a swamp.
            Mike: It’s a swamp now?
Jerry: Yeah, a dump swamp. When you get stuck here, you’re
stuck for life. Come on, Mike, what is so great about this town? Huh?
            Mike: … the people.
            Jerry: The people? You’re gonna make me cry. The people. The
only reason there’s anybody here is because they have nowhere to go.

Perhaps Jerry’s less positive outlook can be forgiven. At least Mike has reasons to hold some affection for his neighbourhood. He grew up here, has something of a life, albeit not a particularly good one if we’re honest. And he’s proud to have lived in the very building in which jazz great Fats Waller was born. It’s the story that Mr. Fletcher has told him since he was young, and is the story that we are told right at the start of the film, that Harlem wasn’t the capital of the jazz scene back in the day; Passaic was. How can you not want to hold on to such an important part of history when it’s so close to you? That’s why he tries to paint a mural of Fats beneath an overpass, to give the people of the neighbourhood something to look to and in which they can take some level of pride.

However, with Jerry, he has comparatively even less than Mike. Jerry does live in a junkyard, in a trailer, right next to a power station. Worse still, he believes that microwaves from the power station are causing his brains and the brains of everyone else to become affected, which is all part of a government conspiracy to alter behaviour. To buy things, to accept things… yeah, he’s a little strange. And people do dismiss him as the paranoid oddball for his strangeness. The local cops even make something of a joke of visiting his trailer in the night, taking turns knocking on his walls, claiming to be from the government, that the black helicopters are here and such… but Jerry has a plan: sabotage.

When Mr. Fletcher leaves town to go to a Fats Waller remembrance ceremony, leaving Mike in charge, Jerry enlists Mike in his plan to scale the fence of the power station and destroy it by swinging a grappling hook onto it and……. well, that’s actually it. Jerry thinks that should be enough to stop the microwaves from controlling everyone, somehow. Mike initially declines, but goes along anyway (it’s kind of plot hole, but not a particularly major one). However, halfway through the mission, Mike gets cold feet about the plan and abandons Jerry and takes off. Jerry stays to follow through, but in a moment that you’d think could only happen in films from the 80s, the power station fights back and sabotages Jerry.

The next morning, when Jerry visits the store to tell Mike about the previous night, Jerry gets in an argument with a customer when he keeps re-arranging all the tapes in the store. It’s not until a little later that we find out that this is the moment when Jerry, having been magnetised by the attempted sabotage, has inadvertently erased every single tape in the store. After an initial period of worry, and under the threat that Mr. Fletcher will be told how poorly Mike is coping, he has an idea. Grabbing a VHS camera and the blank tape of Ghostbusters, he announces to Jerry, “I’m Bill Murray, you’re everyone else.” They are going to personally remake every title in the store, using themselves as cast and crew, from memory, thus keeping the store in business.

Yes, the premise is bizarre as all hell, but don’t you just love that? For the potential downer that Be Kind Rewind could become (the end of VHS, for these people, for this neighbourhood), there is an absurd whimsy and warmth about the whole thing that is incredibly charming. Instead of succumbing to the inevitable, these two guys fight back, armed with a camera and some of the most ridiculous props and costumes available. And as they go, their notoriety escalates. They become so famous that people from all across the state come to see what they’ve made, like their 20-minute version of Ghostbusters featuring a ginger cat as Zuul and proton beams made of Christmas tinsel; their remake of Boyz n’ the Hood in which gunshots result in a literal pizza on the ground standing in for blood; or their take on RoboCop, where the titular character is made entirely of autoyard scrap.

Not only do Mike and Jerry become moderately famous in the city, but the community comes together to help them make more films, effectively becoming an enormous production crew and repertory company. Everyone bands together to make new versions of these films, but all in the uniquely zero-budget way they called “Sweded”.

It’s in this nature of Sweding that we see some of the great tricks of what is effectively guerrilla filmmaking, many of which Michel Gondry used himself growing up. They utilise depth of field and perspective tricks to create a sense of scale between a giant Jack Black-shaped King Kong and the screaming woman he snatches through a window; they flip the camera to negative in order to film night shots during the day; and they use cheap scale models for scenes like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man attacking New York. It’s such a wonderful combination of crass cheapness and incredibly imaginative technique. What’s even better are some of the titles they claim to have Sweded, either from what is seen on shelves or are mentioned during filming montages. Return of the King is one such title that would be absolutely hilarious to see as rendered by three people using a budget of about $20 and filmed in New Jersey. On the other end of the scale is mentioned a Sweded version of Harmony Korine’s Gummo, which, if you’re familiar with that film, proposes an idea of such absurdity since Gummo is as close to the real world equivalent of Sweding films as it’s possible to get. (Harmony Korine even outdid that in 2009 when he made Trash Humpers, a film made entirely on VHS and edited using two VCRs instead of actual editing equipment.) There is even a shot in Be Kind Rewind of genuinely impressive staging in which we are presented with a montage of the films being made, but it is actually one single, uninterrupted shot, with everyone moving from set-piece to set-piece, taking in films as diverse as King Kong, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Men in Black and Carrie. It’s a great shot.

Eventually, things do start to catch up with the Be Kind Rewind crew, with representatives of movie studios looking to enforce copyright law showing up to end their business. It’s here once again that the idea of progress, or at least a contrary sense of progress, seems to enter the film. Even though what they are doing is a violation of copyright law, the films that they make are helping them to progress and make some headway in saving their business, and also fostering a sense of community. Indeed, what they are doing can be found on the Internet and in most film schools, with students remaking scenes and sometimes whole movies in order to develop and progress their skills as filmmakers (I once happened upon a short piece of film on an edit suite in which some students were re-enacting a scene from Twilight… it was pretty funny). And this idea of creativity being derived, borrowed, flat-out stolen from what has gone before has been acknowledged by some great innovators in the world of art. Pablo Picasso famously said that, “good artists copy; great artists steal” and that, “every act of creation is an act of destruction”. Indeed, the history of creating new art or technology or science is a history of taking what has come before and reworking it into something else, something new. That the studios go after the Be Kind Rewind crew is as much an act of desperation that their product will be devalued as it is the defence of intellectual property. In a weird way, Gondry's film that revolves around the anachronism of VHS being overtaken by the new technology of DVD, and those that fight to save it, finds its parallel in the studio executives (like those who try to shut down this small movement) who find themselves on the line of being ousted by the surge of independent filmmakers who rise thanks to the new media opportunities of the Internet and digital distribution... hell of a thing, that.

This idea of taking from the past and turning it into what you want or need it to be is addressed directly in the film when, after the visit from the studio reps ends their Sweding run, the community band together for a last chance at saving the neighbourhood by making something new. It’s no longer about the community banding together over the shared love of other films. Now, it’s about keeping that community together by creating something that speaks for them all. As Jerry says, “We can make any movie we want… they can’t sue us if we’re making new ones.” And the story they choose is simple… a history of Fats Waller’s life as lived in Passaic. They want to tell the story of someone who Mr. Fletcher called “a happy man.”

Given that the film is as much as ode to community as it is to film, Michel Gondry embraced the real community of Passaic as much as he could. Some roles were given to real residents of the area. Pretty much every extra you see was local to the area they were shooting. And the final shot that assembles the community at large is a genuinely heart-warming sight. In making a film about a community coming together, Gondry really did bring a community together.

Be Kind Rewind may require you to screw on something of a whimsical head at certain moments (if you can take Jerry’s attempted sabotage of the power plant as the hilarious throwback that it is, you’ll be fine), but it is a truly warm and charming film, with a deep affection for film, for music, for people. Everyone is great, from Mos Def and Jack Black’s odd double act to the delightful Melonie Diaz to the slightly spaced out kookiness of Mia Farrow. In this film, Gondry has created something of sincerity and obvious love, and it is most certainly worth the watch.

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