A George Méliès for the age of infinite possibilities, Michel Gondry, like the music-hall conjurer turned f/x pioneer of cinema’s infancy, takes “the magic of movies” as a literal proposition, a matter of process. Gondry’s calling-card music videos are thumbprinted with papier-mâché sets, button-eyed props and Lego superstructures, maker’s marks hinting at the man behind the in-camera and post-production wizardry. We wonder at his creations, in “wonder”’s literal and then lofty sense.
In Be Kind Rewind, video store clerk Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black), the live-wire man-child from down the street, erase, via a Process 2 Complicated 2 Explain, the entire stock of the titular underdog shop, barely propping up a crumbling corner of Old Jersey. They “Swede,” that is, remake, FBI Warning classics, donning aluminum foil suits to bust ghosts and driving Miss Daisy to the back-alley backlot. They’re Gondry.
Thing is, Gondry wasn’t the one who remade Méliès’s Voyage to the Moon as the video for Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight Tonight.” That was Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, future perpetrators of Little Miss Sunshine. Populism can have a pretty slack jaw, especially when it’s marveling at someone else’s creations; the difference between being inspired and being awestruck is the difference between activity and passivity. For all Gondry’s ingenious tinker toys, and the pride and participation Mike and Jerry spark in their gentrification-battling community, Be Kind Rewind is ultimately content, like the townsfolk at the climactic screening, to feel the glow of the silver screen on its upturned face.
The autobiography Gondry made for his “Director’s Label” DVD collection is called I’ve Been Twelve Forever. In The Science of Sleep, Gael Garcia Bernal’s slightly autistic performance as the Gondry stand-in bobbled towards an auto-critique of the childlike in-my-room hermeticism of Gondry’s inventiveness; Be Kind Rewind, though, is rhapsodically naïve. Gondry’s commitment to Sweding extends to the use of cardboard to fashion Be Kind Rewind’s characters, especially the black-suited, practically fanged corporate villains (and Danny Glover’s platitudinous eminence grise). Alma (Melonie Diaz), the leading lady and co-director discovered behind the counter at the dry cleaner’s, is the vertex of a presexual love triangle, fueled by screwball banter that dries up during arguments about kissing and other gross bodily functions. (Then again, Gondry’s wide-opened American eyes are colorblind: he sees nothing but joy in diversity. Will he ever make a Block Party or a Be Kind Rewind in his native France? They could use one…)
The Sweded films, despite some lip service to the far side of the mainstream, are the core curriculum of adolescences of a certain vintage. Sweding — the actual mechanics of which Gondry mostly sprints past, like a teen trying to take in all the sights before the fair closes — has a bunkmate in the forthcoming, similarly sweet-hearted Son of Rambow (about 12-year-old Brit boys remaking First Blood), and a role model in the recently rediscovered suburban shot-by-shot Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Remake. The VHS tape made saw-it-ten-times-this-summer popcorn fare available, for the first time, for repeated viewings in semi-furnished basements, in a technology compatible with every family’s memory-machine. Rambunctious creativity was spurred; art democratized. Of course, plenty of gadgets serve that function today, but sans the archaic personal craftsmanship beloved by Gondry; the populist promise of VHS is a nostalgic proposition. Like the title says, Be Kind Rewind is a story of innocence regained.
Opens February 22