Monday, January 11, 2010

Be Kind Rewind

Be Kind Rewind is a little movie from 2008 written and directed by French filmmaker Michel Gondry that got a good bit of buzz, but didn't do so well at the box office. It's a strange movie, especially because it is set in a VHS rental store. Yes, VHS in 2008. It's a strange conceit, even from the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But it is an attempt to portray our characters and their neighborhood as an almost charming throwback to the late 20th century. In other words, these are not people who are in the know, nor can they financially afford to be.

The story is about a couple of goofs named Jerry (Jack Black) and Mike (Mos Def) who attempt to save the crumbling Be Kind Rewind video store from the hands of the evil city council of Passaic, New Jersey. When Jerry accidentally erases the tapes in the store, the two decide to begin re-filming all of the movies themselves and renting these new versions of popular movies to the customers, and hopefully save the store in the process.

From the beginning there is an odd B story about Fats Waller being born in Passaic, even born and raised in the building that now houses the video store. The movie opens with poor quality black and white film clips about Fats Waller. They aren't documentary films of Fats Waller, but re-creations. And bad ones at that.

The Fats Waller story rears its head every once and a while throughout the film giving the audience tiny snippets of information. Sometimes it is the store owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) who tells the story. But it seems that, more often than not, it is Mike, who holds up Fats as a sort of a hero. And this hero worship is the driving force for Mike to do just about anything.

But it isn't just Mike who gets caught up in the Passaic Fats Waller story. His friend Jerry is also enthralled. At one point they are even painting a fairly impressive mural under the bridge on the main thoroughfare past the video store. It's a giant ad for Be Kind Rewind, but Fats plays a prominent role in the mural. Even though others in Passaic don't even know who Fats Waller is, Mike is not deterred in his quest to make Fats the most prominent historic figure in Passaic history.

The section of Passaic that Be Kind Rewind serves is itself is an odd mix of characters that seem to be divided into 2 simple categories: African Americans, and eccentric Caucasians. Every causcasian, from the guy wanting to "swede"(what a request to re-make a movie is called) Rush Hour 2, to Mia Farrow's Miss. Falewicz keeping a somewhat prudish eye on the store, to Jack Black's Jerry and his pre-occupation with conspiracies, are all strange characters that are almost overly eccentric. Jerry is especially strange, and is the source of most of the movies odd-fitting humor. The only other prominent caucasians in the movie are the bad guys who want to tear down the store for a new development, and the other bad guys who represent the film studios who threaten to sue the store for intellectual copyright infringement.

The African Americans, however, are a much wider mix of different characters. They don't seem to be either good or bad, but average people who are trying to get by like anyone else. Its a strange choice, especially since it all feels so planned. The message seems to be that white people can't be trusted, which would be a fine message except it clashes so badly with the moral of the film.

There is no hint of outward race problems in the movie, however. It would have made much more sense for a character to decry the negative racial relations in the town rather than just depict the white people as crazy or bad. It would have added depth to the film, and would have especially made the ending that much more poignant.

The moral of the film is that movies can bring people together. After the evil film studio lawyers confiscate and destroy all of Jerry and Mike's oeuvre, they decide to make one last film in an attempt to raise money to try and save the store. Mike's hopes are dashed by the knowledge that all that Mr. Fletcher has told him about Fats Waller is untrue, but they decide to make a movie about Fats' life as it started in Passaic, history be damned.

This choice is an interesting one, in that they decide to be explicitly dishonest about the actual biography of Fats Waller's life. They decide to go throughout the community and get everyone involved in telling Fats' life story in Passaic. Letting people make up stories about Fats suggests that the filmmakers believe that the act of filmmaking itself is a process worth doing. It doesn't matter that the movie is patently false, or that the film is of atrocious quality. All that matters is that the community comes together to make a film together and, in the process, learn what it is to be a community.

This emphasis on the process of filmmaking is further accentuated since, throughout the film, the equipment is out of date. The camera they use to record with is a VHS camcorder. They record audio on cassette tape.  They decide to show the film at the end on a small, 13 inch black and white TV. It's almost quaint to watch the two would-be filmmakers struggle with make-shift effects and camera effects that were out of date 15 years ago. But it it all adds to the theme of community filmmaking. It is against all of these obstacles that the community completes the film and comes together.

In the end, the entire neighborhood shows up to watch the film that Mike and Jerry have made on the life of Fats Waller. There is even a quick scene where one of the city representatives stops by to remind Mr. Fletcher that he was supposed to be out of his building hours ago. Against all Hollywood cliche, Mr. Fletcher accedes to the town's demands, admitting they weren't able to raise the money to save the building. This same man later congratulates Mr. Fletcher on the Fats film, shaking his hand surrounded by other community members. But the audience is left a little in the lurch, because there no realization that the city was wrong. There is no realization by the city representative that they need to save this important landmark store in the community. Instead, Mr. Fletcher and Mike are moving to the projects, and their film premiere is a good-bye party.

The ending suggests that you can't always beat "the man", but the goal is to try. Jerry and Mike make a movie that leaves the community rolling in the streets with laughter and enjoying an evening of camaraderie. For one week the neighborhood comes together to support the store through film, and that seems to be the important lessen. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn't set up a story in which the community needed to come together, or that Jerry and Mike needed it to. Without some greater rift in the neighborhood, the ending rings a little hollow, and leaves one wondering what the film was really about, and what character needs were truly met in the end.

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