Sweded Out Case File #119: Be Kind Rewind
More My Year Of Flops
When I first heard about the premise of Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind—two desperate video store employees remake popular favorites on the cheap after one of them accidentally erases the store's inventory with his radioactive brain—I was agog, delighted, electric with anticipation. It had the makings of a blockbuster and a masterpiece. It seemed like the perfect vehicle for Gondry's homemade sensibility. It promised to catapult the elfin man-child onto the A-list. Rewind's premise taps into something powerful and seductive rippling through the culture: the cult of the amateur, the rapt celebration of non-professional exuberance that pervades YouTube, blogs, vlogs and reality shows where ostensibly normal people make asses of themselves for money or fame or the opportunity to get venereal diseases from hair-metal frontmen.
It goes without saying that the skanks on Rock Of Love or Flavor of Love or I Love Money are anything but normal. Nobody appears on Rock Of Love unless daddy touched them in their special places when they were on the cusp of womanhood or they're getting back at an ex-boyfriend. A few days ago, I stumbled past the Rock Of Love bus walking back to the office from a screening. Loitering in front of this giddy motorized den of vice was a 100% genuine Rock Of Love trollop, sucking down nicotine, hypnotizing passersby with her poorly preserved cleavage, and looking like eight miles of bad road leading to eight more miles of bad road. I was geeked, then deeply ashamed of being geeked.
To cite a more benign example, I am morbidly fascinated by Videocracy, the only section of The A.V. Club I'm faintly embarrassed to consume. For a long stretch it seemed like half the videos on Videocracy consisted of cute girls lip-synching to pop songs or nattering on about something or other. There's something achingly poignant about lonely men or women eschewing millions of other, more professional forms of entertainment for the simple pleasures of watching a pretty girl being mildly flirtatious. It's all the more remarkable considering that the Internet is overrun with videos of pretty anonymous girls doing unwholesome things with small woodland creatures or farming implements.
But these homemade videos, with their sub-public access production values, offer the illusion of intimacy and accessibility in a way slicker productions don't. Joe Masturbator knows damned well that he can't get within 20 feet of Hayden Panettierre without being tasered or shot on sight. But he can pretend that QuirkyPirateGirl17 is lip-synching "Umbrella" just to him. That's part of the reason people were upset when the sad travails of Lonelygirl15 were exposed as fiction. Creepy online voyeurs (honestly, doesn't the Internet turn us all into creepy online voyeurs?) couldn't pretend that the doe-eyed minx was their make-pretend Internet girlfriend any more. She was just another goddamned actress like all the rest.
Reality shows promote the idea that anyone can be a TV star and YouTube offers the shimmering proposition that anyone with an exhibitionist streak can be a celebrity. Rewind posits the equally, if not more, irresistible idea that anyone can be a movie star. Anyone who doesn't leave a showing of Raiders Of The Lost Ark or Enter The Dragon cracking an imaginary whip or decimating an army of invisible attackers with roundhouse kicks and uppercuts is a black-hearted Nazi robot. We don't just want to passively consume some of our favorite movies: we want to live them. Rewind vicariously affords us the fantasy of making the leap from passive viewer to active participant, from dreamer in the dark to onscreen hero.
So why did a movie with a big star, an acclaimed director, a clever viral marketing campaign, and a wonderful, timely premise fail with critics and audiences? Why did Gondry's irresistible fantasy prove so resistible?
The answer has a lot to do with Rewind's sometimes-oppressive Michel Gondry-o-sity. Rewind is a film with little use for cynicism or protective irony. It's a whimsical romp that appeals to the kid in anyone who ever ran around pretending to fly while wearing a blanket as a cape after seeing Superman.
I have a strained relationship with my inner child. I don't like him. He doesn't care for me. But as long as I feed him a steady diet of spank mags, grape soda, and fluorescent orange foodstuffs, he doesn't give me too much trouble. Yet my inner child dug Be Kind Rewind even if he found the screenplay faltering at times, the pacing dodgy, and Jack Black and Mos Def's chemistry hit or miss. Christ, even my inner child is hypercritical.
(Now would probably be a good time to apologize for writing up two relatively new films in a row. I try to mix things up here at My Year of Flops, but these babies take a long time to plan and write and sometimes I just run out of time. I promise the next couple of entries will be older and more obscure, beginning with next month's Righteous Kill and My Best Friend's Girl.)
Gondry is many things. He is a renaissance man who transformed the mercenary business of directing commercials and music videos (i.e. commercials for songs) into deeply personal, resonant, and artistic means of expression. He is a brilliant visual stylist and a peerless idea man with a bottomless imagination.
He is not, however, a great screenwriter. For starters, Gondry doesn't write about grown-ups. The leads in The Science Of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind are overgrown children given to petulance and temper tantrums. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is Gondry's magnum opus because it fuses his strengths—haunting visuals, a melancholy tone, a brilliant core idea—with Charlie Kaufman's complementary talent for grounding far-fetched sci-fi conceits in messy, complicated, adult human emotions. Left to his own devices, Gondry tends to populate his films with overgrown nine-year-olds.
Jack Black and Mos Def play two of those perpetual pre-adolescents in Rewind, misfits whose ramshackle lives revolve around the titular Passaic, New Jersey video store, a gleefully absurd anachronism that rents out videocassettes in a coldly Darwinian Netflix/Blu-Ray world. It's no coincidence that a poster for Blast From The Past occupies a place of pride in the store. It's poetically apt that the store's best client is played by Mia Farrow, who 23 years earlier played a moony dreamer who blurred the line between onscreen fantasy and real-world drudgery in Woody Allen's transcendent Purple Rose Of Cairo.
When owner Danny Glover goes on a reconnaissance mission to find out why his store is failing and on the verge of being condemned (here's a hint: he's renting videocassettes for a buck apiece), he leaves Mos Def in charge with explicit orders not to let Black into the store. Black blunders into the store anyway and proceeds to erase the store's inventory with his brain following a lo-fi mishap at a nearby power plant. Terrified of driving the store out of business, Def and Black hit upon a plan as brilliant as it is stupid: instead of simply replacing the tapes, they decide to remake the films on the fly with themselves in starring roles. To offset the cost of production, the enterprising twosome charges $20 for their "Sweded" films instead of the usual dollar. That's a business model that wouldn't fly even at the height of the dot.com bubble.
Rewind wastes too much time getting to its gloriously half-assed remakes. Gondry is a whiz at fantasy and whimsy but is utterly lost when it comes to documenting the mundane and day-to-day. So it is to the film's detriment that the guerrilla filmmaking doesn't begin until a half-hour in. The film, and the fun, truly begins when Black n' Def (which, incidentally, should be an Old School rapper's name) shoot an amateur version of Ghostbusters with the help of aluminum foil costumes and vacuum cleaners for proton packs. Here we're immersed joyously in Gondry's homemade kingdom of make-pretend, where enthusiasm is more important than slickness and the only logic that matters is dream logic.
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The boys' remakes quickly take off. Customers respond to their infectious, scruffy energy, or maybe they're just so baked that they find the prospect of hapless would-be auteurs remaking Rush Hour 2 on the fly gut-bustingly hilarious.
The black roles in Rewind are split more or less evenly between Black n' Def. Why not cast Black as a pale-faced Muhammad Ali in a remake of When We Were Kings? Rewind belongs to one of my favorite movie-movie subgenres: the Ed Wood-style "Let's put on a show" comedy where misfits unite to mount a production unencumbered by even the faintest hint of professionalism.
Black n' Def rope others into their mad scheme/dream, including Melonie Diaz as a pretty local who is drafted to play the female lead in the boys' videos. The budding filmmakers transform their sleepy New Jersey neighborhood into Little Hollywood and their neighbors into collaborators/co-conspirators.
Then the bad guys show up from the real Hollywood. In an ironic twist, Sigourney Weaver, the female lead in the first film the boys remake, plays an emissary from the coal-black heart of the film industry, a hiss-worthy suit who threatens to bust the boys for copyright violation for their unauthorized reproductions.
In a fit of inspiration, Black n' Def decide to make an original movie based on the life of Fats Waller, a local boy made good who, alas, wasn't a local boy at all. Glover posits his humble little store as the birthplace of Waller as a way of instilling pride in Def but eventually tells his devastated employee the truth. The townspeople of Passaic are a resilient bunch, however, so they decide to make a movie about a Fats Waller that exists only in their collective imagination, augmenting the bare facts of Waller's life with all manner of fanciful conjecture. In the Black n' Def version, for example, all of Waller's siblings were all killed by gangsters. The boys make up the facts as they go along, using whatever tidbits of truth suit them and disregarding the rest. This is commonly known as the Oliver Stone approach to historical filmmaking.
The Fats Waller biopic isn't enough to save the store. In a poignant climax, the neighborhood gathers around to watch the fruit of their hard work just before the store is demolished. There is an ephemeral glory to their labors, a bittersweet sense of accomplishing something that will inevitably be swept away by the relentless march of progress.
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Gondry wrote the part of the video-store employee/filmmaker for Dave Chappelle. Rewind shares a populist spirit of generosity with Gondry's Dave Chappelle's Block Party as well as a common belief that art and entertainment belong to the people who consume them as much, if not more, than to the artists themselves. Rewind takes that notion even further in its third-act by arguing that our common cultural history belongs to us as well, and if we collectively want to believe that, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in the same building that now houses The A.V Club's offices, then damn it, F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in the same building that now houses The A.V Club's offices.
I suspect that Rewind would have done much better with critics and audiences if Chappelle had played a lead role. It wouldn't have just been a film; it would have been an event. The sense of child-like joy at the core of Black's persona would have perfectly complemented Chappelle's impish exuberance. Def, on the other hand, seems overmatched. I like Def. He's got great presence. He was funny on Chappelle's Show. Then again, Chappelle was Chappelle's Show. There's a big difference.
There is something inherently disingenuous about a big Hollywood movie celebrating creative piracy and amateur ingenuity, just as there's something ironic about a movie star like Black playing a regular guy playing at being a movie star like Jack Black.
It's also possible that Be Kind Rewind, a film about video-store geeks who attain fame by ripping off the movies they love would have done better if it had retained its original title: The Quentin Tarantino Story. Rewind functions as an abstract meditation on the cult of Tarantino, Roger Avary, and every other fortunate soul who made the leap from lovingly consuming culture to creating it.
Rewind is a proudly analog film in a digital world and a heartfelt love letter to the fading glory of the video store and the sense of community they sometimes engender. I am a soft touch for movies like this, both because I worked for years in a video store and am a sucker for populist crowd-pleasers. I'm on record as liking The Postman, for starters.
It's strange how a film like Rewind can seemingly capture the zeitgeist and elude it simultaneously. The present has been cold to Gondry's comic fantasy. It grossed a pathetic $4 million dollars in its opening weekend and scored a middling 53 on Metacritic. But I have a hunch that history will be kind to Rewind.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success