By Ray Pride
“Be Kind Rewind,” Michel Gondry’s second feature as solo writer-director, is a shambling and idiosyncratic comedy, set in a parallel universe of a rundown Passaic, New Jersey, where old ideas die hard.
Danny Glover runs a video store, still dedicated to VHS, in a rundown inner-city corner building where Fats Waller was reputedly born; Mos Def plays a clerk whose paranoid friend (Jack Black) manages to electrify himself during one of his foolish ventures and erase the store’s inventory. Solution? Do remakes starring themselves, and eventually the community (including made-for-movies Melonie Diaz, at once cartoon and vital beauty). Bubbling and bristling on the surface, with a quiet wallop of an ending that seems at once utopian and elegiac, “Be Kind Rewind” essentially suggests there is no future for mass cinema. “I would be the first one out of a job if there were no movies or commercials, but I would not miss them,” Gondry says to me at the end of one spiraling disquisition. In a couple of conversations before its Sundance 2008 debut, and reading other interviews, I discover the endlessly inventive director almost never repeats himself (except to say, “Just let me have my concept” regarding the VHS). We continue with the topic of movies made with and for only one’s friends. Philosophically, “Be Kind” seems to be about how each individual finds a way to tell that story, even if only to friends on the block.
“I’m going to experiment with that,” Gondry says of an exhibition tied to the movie at Soho’s Deitch Projects. “I want to show that is possible. The exhibition is going to be very welcoming and contrary a little bit, but I believe people are going to walk in and in two hours, they’re going to write, direct and watch their film. I think a very specific motive of my philosophy is to avoid any sort of concentration of power or control and [any] sort of fame.”
Non-hierarchical? “Yeah. It’s gonna be, provided there is the same amount of people to make the work to watch it. Everybody makes it and everybody watches it. It’s not the voice of one person, it’s the voice of many people going to the same amount of people. I think that’s the only way to preserve the certainty of democracy. A lot of people compare, mention YouTube and the net and compare what I am doing to that. I think there is a major difference. With YouTube, it’s still going to be you have one person, I mean, you have the chance for everybody to be heard, but still it’s one person is going to be heard more than another, and pile up all the attention. It’s the same way that you can say the journey is the destination, the making, the process of expressing yourself is as important as watching the work. Of course, it’s probably more important than watching it, buying it, whatever you do with it. I think [we must find] a system [where] you cannot generate profit that would interest, that would captivate the interest of a corporation. It is the only secure way to keep the spirit there. Anything you do that can lead to a market, it’s going to be taken by people who are completely interested in profit.”
“I like more to listen to the voice of the less charismatic in general,” the 44-year-old director continues. “I started to develop this concept in real life and I am continuing when I will be done with this movie. I want to find a protocol for people to gather in communities, write a movie and shoot a movie in four sessions. First, you find the title and the genre and the storyline. Then from the storyline, you develop a more complex storyline with scenes. You take each sentence of the storyline and we transform the sentence into a scene. You do the casting. I started to gather people to work with them and I immediately noticed something I should have before, because I knew it. The debate will be dominated by somebody who can’t stop talking!
“And people who have more the will to express themself than something to say. One of the sort of the rules I would write in this protocol to protect the democratic process would be to make sure all is not coming from one person. I would try to find a way that everybody can give his idea and his view. My argument on that is that those who are shyer are often more rich inside and have something to say, only they don’t have the faculties and capacity and the ease to express them, so we have to make sure those people get heard as well.
“The last meeting would be all the people who participated to the shooting of their film, plus their friends, if they want to come, come, have beer, snacks and watch it and then it’s finished. And then if it works in different cities, then people can send the tapes or DVDs to another place and watch other movies, but they have to sign something that they never put it on YouTube, never play it on the official [media] because it needs to remain parallel and not be endorsed by any system. People come to me and say, ‘Oh you could have Sony promoting it,’ and I say no, no, I would rather buy the camera myself and give it to everybody just to make sure there’s no sticker from a corporation.”
He pauses. “My friend Spike Jonze says I have something like Tourette’s. I just say what I’m thinking, but I don’t swear.” “Utopian Tourette’s,” I suggest. “Utopian Tourette’s,” he repeats, cocking his head.
“Be Kind Rewind” opens Friday.