As a film critic, it is only natural that I’d be drawn to movies about movies. Movies that celebrate the art and craft of filmmaking like “Day for Night” and “Living in Oblivion;” movies that criticize filmmakers for pandering to common tastes like “Sweet Liberty” and “Incident at Loch Ness;” movies that closely examine the creativity that goes into the filmmaking process like “Adaptation;” movies that explore the shady line between film and reality like “Last Action Hero” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo;” and movies that rip into the idiocy and vanity of the industry like “New Suit” and “The Disappearance of Kevin Johnson.” So I was naturally excited to hear about a new film by Michel Gondry, who helmed movies I really enjoyed like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Science of Sleep,” which promised a new take on movies. I have to tell you, though, it was a bit of a letdown.
Gondry’s new film, “Be Kind Rewind,” starts with an absolutely idiotic premise: a tiny video store in suburban New Jersey only rents a small selection of videotapes. Business is so bad that the building is threatened with demolition. The owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), decides to go on a trip to research the competition in his industry and discovers there are these new, round, shiny things called DVDs which seem to be the future. In his absence, the store is looked after by his clerk Mike (Mos Def) who can’t get rid of hanger-on Jerry (Jack Black) who works in the garage down the street. Jerry attempts to sabotage the local power plant but instead is zapped with an incredible dose of electricity. Now what happens to you when you get zapped with thousands of volts of electricity? You get magnetized, of course. And by the way, how do you become un-magnetized? Naturally, you just pee out the magnetism and you’re all healthy again. Hey, this is Hollywood; there’s no room for real science here.
Anyway, while he is magnetized, Jerry manages to erase every videotape in the store. And so when a customer (Mia Farrow) demands a copy of “Ghostbusters” in a couple of hours, the only logical solution is for Mike and Jerry to pick up their home video camera, rush down to the local library and attempt to refilm “Ghostbusters” with themselves as actors, hoping that the customer won’t notice the difference.
To make a long story short, Mike and Jerry end up reshooting many famous movies using cardboard boxes for special effects and the people in the neighborhood, particularly the friendly Alma (Melonie Diaz), to be actors. They remake films like “Rush Hour 2,” “Men in Black,” “Boyz N the Hood,” “King Kong” (yes, this is Jack Black’s second remake of “King Kong”), “Robocop,” “2001 A Space Odyssey,” “The Lion King,” and their silly, amateurish versions become incredibly popular. Customers are coming from as far away as New York to rent these childish adaptations. And although their amateurish acting is absolutely horrible, Mike and Jerry become local celebrities and crowds beg them for their autographs.
Despite the ridiculousness of this premise, there is a neat proletarian philosophy underlying this, as pointed out by A. O. Scott of the New York Times. Film starts with the studios, and goes from the top down as it’s consumed by its fans; but then, here, it is reclaimed and re-imagined from the bottom up. There is something ideal and utopian as Mike and Jerry take ownership and put themselves inside the movies they love.
And of course, we boo when the corporations come in to reclaim their ownership. I like that “Be Kind Rewind” brings up the issue of copyright, but I was disappointed that it didn’t really explore the legal area. After all, cultural icons are in the public domain. If Mike and Jerry had attempted to remake “Gone with the Wind,” that probably would have been okay. I can imagine a lawyer arguing the case for “Ghostbusters.” But they didn’t put up a legal fight. Instead the solution was to make an original film of their own—a documentary about Jazz musician Fats Waller. But in the classic Hollywood vein of blurring the lines between fiction and reality, they make up a number of facts.
So yes, there is a lot going on in this movie about movies. But when it comes down to it, I didn’t really like what it had to say. All the movies that Mike and Jerry remake are the kind that have nothing to do with reality. Movies like “Ghostbusters” and “Robocop” live in the Hollywood fantasy world that would be comfortable with a guy turning into a giant magnet by an otherwise lethal dose of electricity. It makes as much sense as fighting a giant city-devouring marshmallow-man with streams of ectoplasm.
These amateurish movies-within-the-movie play like satires of their originals, possibly because they are so ridiculous that they are easy to satirize. However they are actually intended to be straight-forward remakes—in fact, substitutes—for the originals. So what does this say about these films and those that pay homage to them?
There is one movie that Mike and Jerry remake that they really don’t want to, but do because a good customer requested it. That’s “Driving Miss Daisy.” And it’s the one remake that they have the most trouble with. It’s the only movie-within-the-movie which deals with a tender, human relationship. Granted, it could be argued that a friendship between a Southern Jewish woman and her Black chauffeur may be as unlikely as a robot cop or a giant monolith on the moon, but nonetheless it is touching. Still, neither Mike nor Jerry can make it work.
For me, as a film critic, “Be Kind Rewind” brings me to the question of what are movies all about. Here, they seem to be nothing more than escapist fantasy. A bit of fun and nothing more. But if I really thought that, then I’m in the wrong profession. I’ve always viewed film in the same way I view art, as a reflection of reality that can show me something about myself and/or my world. A friend once told me that that was “an unreasonable expectation,” yet I have seen so many movies—many of which I have written about for this website, many of which just got Chizfilm Awards in my most recent article last week—which do touch me on that level. “Ghostbusters” and “Robocop” aren’t among them. And neither is “Be Kind Rewind.”
I guess film is a medium, like any other. Like writing or painting. What matters is what you put on the canvas, not the canvas itself. I don’t believe in praising books, in general; there are some great books that I will praise and some horrible ones that I will criticize. And I guess that’s how I feel about this celebration of film. Mike and Jerry—and by extension Gondry—don’t remake “Casablanca” or “The Godfather” or “Amadeus,” or “Schindler’s List,” or “My Dinner with Andre.” It’s “Ghostbusters” and “Rush Hour 2” that matters to them. Those movies have nothing to do with reality. And if you’re too immersed in escapist fantasies, ignoring reality, you may end up like Mr. Fletcher, the video store owner who is more than a decade behind the times, teetering on bankruptcy.
The one advantage that videotape had over DVDs was that it could be erased. Now some would say that’s a disadvantage, but with some of the films which “Be Kind Rewind” remakes, perhaps that’s a good thing. For these big-budget, unoriginal, unrealistic, escapist, formulaic, and mediocre films deserved to be erased and then ridiculed by no-budget, amateur filmmakers who can do a better job than the studios.
So in the end, at least for me, the key question is, does “Be Kind Rewind” celebrate or condemn the films of Hollywood escapism? I finally conclude that it praises them, and as such, that is not a celebration I wish to join.
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