Michel Gondry Celebrates the Bygone Days of VHS


Like his previous feature The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry’s gently outlandish Be Kind Rewind is a fantasy about fantasy—a fragile, somewhat precious celebration of DIY filmmaking and cult-film consumption that, given its gaps in logic, spectators are more or less obliged to mentally assemble on their own. The setting is a counterfactual universe in which VHS tapes remain rentable commodities, and Passaic, New Jersey, is the former world capital of jazz—mainly because someone claims it as the birthplace of the movie’s presiding deity, stride pianist Fats Waller. Although shot on location, Gondry’s Passaic is a sister city to Chelm, or one of the other towns found in Yiddish folklore that is populated by cheerfully self-absorbed fools. The two principle village idiots, Jerry (Jack Black) and Mike (Mos Def), are introduced painting a Fats Waller mural beneath a highway underpass—an example of vernacular surrealism in which an eye is mistakenly substituted for a nostril.

Mike is a clerk in the rundown Be Kind Rewind video store located, according to its crusty proprietor Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), in the ground floor of the very building where Waller was born. Jerry, an auto mechanic, is Mike’s childhood buddy and the store’s most annoying customer—his natural idiocy exacerbated by his trailer’s proximity to the local power plant. Hence the protective strainer he wears on his head. While Mos Def is effectively (and affectingly) dim, Black is iconic. He’s a fully developed comic presence—quick-witted yet stupid, charmingly obnoxious, expansively sarcastic.

“Microwaves” are not the only menace. The good folks of Passaic, which is to say the simpletons who patronize Be Kind Rewind, are menaced by the encroaching gentrification—or at least urban renewal—poised to level the video store. All that history turned to dust. Before the bulldozers arrive, however, Jerry’s paranoid attempt to sabotage the power plant backfires. Dressed in tinfoil and lurching like Frankenstein’s monster, he returns as a human magnetic force field who both distorts the movie’s image and provides its situation when he inadvertently erases all the VHS tapes in the store.

Jerry has the ability to create minimalist video art simply by touching a TV screen, but, to make up for the lost inventory, he and Mike begin producing new 15-minute videocorder versions of ’80s and ’90s movies—beginning with Ghostbusters. (“I’m Bill Murray—you’re everybody else.”) The hilariously impoverished special effects are predicated on scribbled pictures, giant cutouts, and pragmatic camera placement. Reducing movies to their most infantile level, they’re like kids at play. Jerry’s assistant Watson (rumple-faced Irv Gooch) assumes the female parts until the filmmakers draft Alma (Melonie Diaz), a bored employee at the dry cleaner next-door.

Subsequent productions include RoboCop, The Lion King, When We Were Kings, and Driving Miss Daisy (with Jerry an aggressive Jessica Tandy to Mike’s sullen Morgan Freeman), but not Back to the Future—the movie that Be Kind most resembles in its tricky premise, double-edged sentimentality, and convoluted nostalgia. Hardly industry calling cards, these ridiculously low-tech little movies—which Jerry and Mike refer to as “sweded”—are exercises in junkyard whimsy. The customers are thrilled (this is Chelm, after all), and anyone with a feel for film form will be delighted. The sweded productions are pure underground, somewhere between the 8mm epics the teenaged Kuchar Brothers made a half-century ago in the Bronx and the ritual developed by the Peruvian Indians in Dennis Hopper’s Last Movie.

Given the inspired cheesiness, obsessive object animation, and wild creative geography that enlivened The Science of Sleep, it’s obvious Gondry conceived Be Kind mainly as a means to orchestrate these grotesque fan remakes. It’s also unavoidable that their brio would overshadow everything else. For all of Black’s physical comedy, and despite Gondry’s attempt to texture Be Kind with throwaway sight gags and a Preston Sturges–like density of comic secondaries—most disturbingly Mia Farrow, genuinely nutty as the store’s most loyal customer, Miss Falewicz—the mini-movies inevitably drain energy from the straight narrative.

Is this comic bricolage a form of criticism? Gondry privileges audience devotion over corporate profit and argues that studio movies have grown ever more depleted since the ’80s and ’90s. (Having studied a successful DVD store, Mr. Fletcher realizes that there need be only two sections: Action Adventure and Comedy.) Villainy arrives in the form of an intellectual-property lawyer (Sigourney Weaver, herself a ghost of Ghostbusters), who shows up to enforce the piracy statutes and levy a $3 billion fine. The loss of the sweded tapes forces the community to produce an original movie—Fats Waller Was Born “Here.” (Mike and Jerry both assume themselves physically appropriate to play the lead; everything grinds to a halt when Jerry shows up in blackface.) Structurally, Be Kind Rewind is a sort of warped Möbius strip—only at the end does it become apparent that we’ve been watching bits of the Fats docudrama all along.

Although frequently funny, Be Kind doesn’t have the same pathos as The Science of Sleep. (Nothing approaches the loneliness projected by Gael García Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg.) As suggested by the recurring ensemble scenes that dramatize the filmmakers—Jerry, Mike, and Alma—trying to think, Be Kind is essentially cerebral. Their sweded films are serious examples of the grassroots “imperfect cinema” imagined by Cuban cultural theorist Julio García Espinosa back in the days of ’68. And Be Kind‘s utopian project is made explicit in several ringing declarations. Alma wants to involve the townspeople in the production, making them “stockholders in their own happiness.” Miss Falewicz is even more radical: “Our past belongs to us—we can change it if we want to.”

That’s easier said than done. Gondry’s fable ends with all Passaic united in shared wonder, transfixed by the spectacle of their collectively produced movie (or, more clinically, the realization of their shared fantasy). Such sentimentality might sound egregiously Spielbergistic, but Gondry strikes another chord: This illusion is an illusion. The studio that Jerry built is about to be demolished, and the music dubbed over the shot is Duke Ellington’s plaintive “(In My) Solitude.”