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The Gondry Strategy

Michel Gondry's latest feature, Be Kind Rewind, provides more evidence of the French filmmaker's talent and passion for turning the mundane into the magical.
By Maya Singer


You could make a case that Michel Gondry is the only current director worthy of being called an “auteur.” The French filmmaker would surely blanch at the term, but consider the distinctiveness of his filmmaking style: He’s both a proletarian and a dictator, filling his sets with homely, handmade objects, then forcing his will on them with a combination of aesthetic specificity and technical originality that boggles the mind. Much imitated but never duplicated, this strategy marks all of Gondry’s work, from his early videos for Björk and Beck to his celebrated films Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep to his fourth feature, Be Kind Rewind, which just opened in theaters.


Indeed, while Be Kind Rewind is about many things, this familiar approach is at the forefront. A tale of two ne’er-do-wells forced to make their own versions of films such as Rush Hour and Ghostbusters after all the tapes in the Be Kind Rewind video store are accidentally erased, the film is essentially a plot machine designed to advance Gondry’s trademark idea, that human creativity can transform the mundane into the magical—no CGI required.


Holding court at Deitch Projects in Soho, where a video store-themed art exhibition and amateur movie-making workshop inspired by Be Kind Rewind had just been installed, Gondry acknowledged the utopian thinking behind his latest film.


“I have this dream that people can make their own entertainment,” he explains. “That they can have a greater reward from what they make themselves than from watching the entertainment that’s made for them. The trick was in writing a story where that discovery happens by accident. The characters have to stumble onto their own creativity.”


Gondry had that theme in mind but was stuck with a bad case of writer’s block when he stumbled onto a catalyst for his own creativity in a most unlikely place. In case anyone was wondering how a French-born writer/director based in New York City happened to locate one of his films in Passiac, New Jersey, Gondry’s explanation is concise: His mechanic lives there.


“He’s this sort of genius mechanic—he can make a bed into a car, a car into an organ, whatever I ask him. He can work from garbage to make my dream come true,” Gondry says. “At the time I had begun the Be Kind Rewind script, he was slicing up a car for the White Stripes video [“The Denial Twist”], and I went out to see how this was coming along. And when I go there, I see this junkyard, body shop area, right next to a power plant, yes? And people are living there, even—there’s a trailer, and the owner of the junk shop is this man who’s balding on half his head and complaining that the waves from the power plant are making his hair fall out, and affecting his brain. And I thought, ‘Maybe I shoot the movie here.’”


That junk shop owner wound up inspiring the character of Jerry, played in the film by a typically antic Jack Black. One night, Jerry’s plot to take revenge on the power plant next to his trailer results in a freak accident that magnetizes him. When he turns up later at the video store where his friend Mike (Mos Def) works, Jerry unwittingly demagnetizes all the tapes. Faced with this quandary, the two friends set about re-filming VHS classics on an as-needed basis—“Sweding” them, to use the parlance of the film. (The “Sweded” films can be seen at The duo’s homespun remakes become a local sensation, but it’s not until Big Bad Hollywood steps in (in the person of Sigourney Weaver) and destroys the copyright-infringing flicks that Mike and Jerry see the meaning in what they’ve created.


“And then, you know, their response is to make something more meaningful, more true to their own experience,” Gondry explains.


Mike, who has long been fascinated by his boss’ stories about Fats Waller, the jazz great who supposedly once lived in the Be Kind building, initiates a community-made biopic about the legendary pianist. Gondry says that making and screening the Waller film was the highlight of the Be Kind Rewind shoot—as close as he was able to come to putting his utopian theories into practice on his own set.


“We hired as many people from Passaic as we could, and I told everyone on the crew, you can only use materials that Mike and Jerry would have available,” he recalls. “For example, I said to the costume designer, you cannot go outside Passaic for any costumes for this Fats Waller film. If the characters look less than perfect, that’s the point. Only use what they would use.


“When we finally screened the film, with all the locals watching,” he continues, “we were shooting their reactions to seeing what they’d made on screen for the first time. That scene in the movie, where those kids are sitting and staring at themselves up there, stars, that’s real. Everything else in the film is make-believe. But the looks on their faces, that part is true.”


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