Eschewing the digital special effects of late that have reached dizzying heights of technical achievement (and despairing depths of mediocrity), he is a practitioner of a more material form of wizardry?one that is all the more enchanting for us, knowing that it is a trick: playing with perspective, tinkering with the mechanics of the camera, even something as simply running the film backwards. The 'how-did-he-do-that?' wonder that he evokes is a kind of invitation for the viewer to try it himself. With his newest film, Be Kind, Rewind the invitation has never been more clearer or as inviting.
Passiac, New Jersey, a place that seems to stretch up one urban block under a highway is the economically depressed neighborhood that is home to 'Be Kind, Rewind', an anachronistic video store that rents actual VHS movies. The film's central relationship is between Mike (Mos Def), the affable guy who works for his father figure Mr. Fletcher at the VHS store, and Mike's best friend Jerry (Jack Black), the oddball mechanic from across the street. When Jerry electro-magnetises himself and accidentally erases every cassette in the store, the pair replaces the movies with their own home-made amateurish versions with kitschy remakes of blockbusters of yesteryear.
Mike and Jerry's goofy productions ignite the imagination of their community, who line around the block to get copies, and eventually to feature in the little knock-offs themselves. Granted, there is an assumption on the part of the filmmaker of the audience's familiarity with the source material, but the scenes of productions with their improvised sets and costumes are surprisingly fun, and sometimes frustratingly short. The Rush Hour 2 sequence recreated on a playground jungle gym set as the high-rise building of the movie's action movie is ridiculously grin-inducing. With a premise like that, Gondry allows himself to pull back the curtain to peek at his cinematic alchemy to a degree unprecedented, capturing the playful and experimental essence of his approach.
Be Kind, Rewind probes the strange antipathy between an industry that is preoccupied about copyright and safe formulaic movies, and an audience that feels an attachment, fondness and ownership to the movies that rely on the studio system. The filmlovers here aren't rarefied connoisseurs but prosaic, everyday people who watch blockbusters. It is only tepidly subversive?after the studio suits descend onto Passiac and deem the remakes piracy (featuring a scene-stealing Sigourney Weaver who complains sarcastically, "we're the villains, right?" after she orders a steamroller to run over the inventory of cassettes one more time), the defeated filmmakers acquiesce. However, the abiding anthem of the film, that of a charge for a visual culture that is participatory, community-based and assessable, not to mention envisioned as so darn fun, is jauntily electrifying.
Be Kind, Rewind
Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Mos Def, Jack Black, Melinda Diaz, Danny Glover
2008. PG-13. 102 mins.