Rundown French cinemas inspired Michel Gondry's latest, "Be Kind Rewind," which had its world premiere at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and opens this Friday (February 22, 2008) in U.S. theaters. "I noticed in my district in Paris there were so many abandoned movie theaters," Gondry noted last month in New York, in front of a standing room-only crowd at the Apple Store Soho. The director sat down for an in-depth talk with iW editor-in-chief Eugene Hernandez about the film, as well as his previous work in film and music videos.
"I had this Utopian philosophy that I could gather people who live next to this theater and give them a camera, and basically the principle will be that they create their own film all by themselves and they watch it all together one week later, and every week they make a new film. It would be very poor technically, but it would be totally compensated by the fact that you look at yourself and your friends."
Such is the case in "Be Kind Rewind," which stars Mos Def as a video store clerk and Jack Black as his idiot man-child best friend who becomes temporarily magnetized after a power plant accident, inadvertently erasing all of the store's tapes. The two attempt to videotape their own crude recreations of the films with props they find around their store (starting with "Ghostbusters," and continuing through "Boyz in the Hood," "Rush Hour 2," and "The Last Tango in Paris"), calling their process "Sweding"; as the films become popular throughout their town (Passaic, New Jersey- in the spirit of the film, a lot of the local residents played extras), the residents start Sweding their own ideas, as the film comes to an ersatz Capra conclusion about the power of filmmaking amongst ordinary people.
Hernandez noted that this was, in fact, happening more often, with the spate of current production technology and such websites as YouTube, but Gondry brushed it off, saying "This technology, it was always there since the Super 8 and even the first VHS cameras... YouTube, and all that is...just for the ego, it's to get many many hits." He then added, "I don't want to seem nostalgic."
Of course, the charm of Gondry is that he IS nostalgic (who else would base a story on a video store that refused to convert from VHS to DVDs?), filling his movies with ingeniously analog technology as an ode not as much to a better time as to his own childhood. There is a good deal of artful childishness throughout Gondry's work; the script for this film, as with that of his previous film "The Science of Sleep," seems not to have been written so much as free-associated by a six year-old (it's easy to miss his collaborations with Charlie Kaufman; particularly when working with an actor as mercurial as Jack Black, Gondry could do with a little discipline). A documentary on the director's video box set is entitled "I've been Twelve Forever," but even this seems a little bit generous; when one audience member asked "What was the first thing that you created that you remember being happy about", he answered, without hesitation "My poop."
Regarding the term "Swede" for the films, Gondry said, "Initially I thought I would 'Pimp' the movies, but my editor told me it would age very quickly, this term, so I came up with a completely blank name, a name that meant nothing to me." Gondry did not want the actors to study the films being Sweded, saying "I didn't want to just make a copy, I wanted the film to be recreated from collective memory" (much like the recreations in "Son of Rambow" or the grade schoolers' "Raiders of the Lost Ark" project).
What Gondry's films and videos lack in discipline is more than made up for in an intuitive understanding of unconscious association, particularly in his conceptual music videos (think of the Lego White Stripes in "Fell in Love with a Girl," or the dancing instrumental monsters in Daft Punk's "Around the World"). This has led to a particularly fruitful collaboration with fellow lunatic pixie Bjork, and the director showed his latest marvel for the singer's "Declare Independence" (their first video together in 10 years), in which a clanging machine spits colored rope into a megaphone, which Bjork shouts into the heads of an industrial audience. Somehow, it makes sense.
"In concert," explained Gondry, "she would jump on the stage and sing with great energy and give this energy to the audience, and then the audience would give the energy to her, and it would effect not only her but the musicians, and the musicians would feed her this energy, and I could see it as a big thread that was giving energy, and I wanted to reflect that with this machine."
To conclude his show, Gondry brought down the house with a Sweded recreation of the "Be Kind, Rewind" trailer, starring himself, which will-- whether he approves or not -- probably find its greatest audience on YouTube.