cinema in transition: a comedy

megan carrigy places michel gondry’s be kind rewind

 Jack Black, Danny Glover, Mos Def, Be Kind Rewind

Jack Black, Danny Glover, Mos Def, Be Kind Rewind


Be Kind Rewind offers us commentary on cinema’s current period of transition, where both analogue and digital technologies coexist in a variety of configurations. The implications of this curious hybrid scenario have concerned many makers and theorists at least since the official centenary celebrations for the cinema back in 1995.

Be Kind Rewind, the name of the local video store at the centre of the film, only stocks movies on VHS. It is to be demolished by the local council as part of a cityscape upgrade. The store is losing money. Nobody wants to rent old videos anymore. But its owner Mr Fletcher (Danny Glover) is eager to raise the funds for repairs to prevent being relocated to the periphery—“the projects.”

When Mr Fletcher goes on holiday, leaving his assistant Mike (Mos Def) in charge, Gondry makes comic and dramatic use of the fact that VHS tapes are easily erased. Mike’s accident prone friend Jerry (Jack Black) rocks up at the shop after being magnetised during a failed sabotage attack on the local power plant and inadvertently erases the entire video collection. This accident is the key turning point in the narrative.

The renovation that the VHS collection subsequently undergoes is not, as we might expect, a digital upgrade to DVD. The West Coast Video store in town already specialises in a limited range of DVD blockbusters. Instead, in an attempt to prevent Mr Fletcher from finding out what has happened, Mike and Jerry decide to remake each movie as it is requested with their old video camera and a host of cheap improvised costumes and special effects, recruiting Alma (Melonie Diaz) into their scheme.

Jerry declares that these remakes are “sweded” and the name sticks. Sweding is supposed to suggest that the remakes are very rare, as if imported from Sweden, thus justifying the significantly higher rental fees Mike, Jerry and Alma start charging for these boutique titles. Word spreads and the remakes become hugely popular, prompting Mike and Jerry to set up a cottage industry production studio in the vacant lot next to Jerry’s trailer in order to maximize production output and profits. Multiple low-grade special effects are set up and the actors manically jump between sets, pumping out key scenes at high speed.

When the demand gets too high even for this production model, they begin to invite local community members to take on roles in the films each of them has requested. The remakes start changing shape as more people become involved, transforming production into an impromptu community development project.

Be Kind Rewind embraces the hype in recent decades around the idea that just about anybody can now make a movie on cheap, easily obtainable equipment. At the same time, however, Gondry does not even bother to buy into what has already proved to be a largely failed promise that this leveling of the technological playing field would produce untrained superstars. Instead, he enthusiastically embraces and celebrates the pleasures of clunky DIY amateur cinema, placing the emphasis on participation.

The sweded films, with their back-to-basics special effects, put the mechanisms of film production on show rather than seamless digital technology. The point of all this for Gondry is to embrace the possibility that everyone might create their own entertainment with cheap equipment, rather than just being consumers of entertainment. Thus the film imagines a utopia where the commercial concerns of the mainstream industry are no longer at the centre of production and consumption.

The practice of sweding underscores the complicated role that the remake has played in our consumption of cinema history. Consumption does not have to be a passive affair but can fire a desire to dress up and re-imagine what we have seen. The sweded remakes perform acts of remembering—the ways in which we internalise and critique the movies and how they enter the vocabulary of everyday life.

Be Kind Rewind itself is not without its own inspired intertextuality. Jack Black played Carl Denham in Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong. In the sweded version Black plays Jerry playing Kong in a fluffy brown costume, roaring as he climbs a cardboard tower, grasping a screaming Alma. Delightfully, Gondry has even made his own sweded version of the Be Kind Rewind trailer, where he plays all the characters.

The sweded remakes also comment on the history of African-American representation in the cinema. Driving Miss Daisy is sweded not once, but twice. When Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow) asks Mike to swede it for her, he tries to talk her out of it, but she insists. The first attempt with Mike as chauffeur Hoke and Jerry as an excessively bossy Miss Daisy fails. Mike cannot stand Jerry’s condescending behaviour and Jerry, insulted by Mike’s criticism of his performance, walks off the set. Later when sweding has become more widespread, Miss Falewicz makes her own version, rambling on and on in the back seat as Mr Fletcher obligingly plays the chauffer.

It’s significant that Driving Miss Daisy is the target of so much jest. The pace, mood and setting of Be Kind Rewind evokes the feeling of a Spike Lee film. Lee’s Do the Right Thing was nominated for an Academy Award in 1990, the year that Driving Miss Daisy controversially won four. As John Harkness puts it in The Academy Awards Handbook, “In the year of Do the Right Thing, Hollywood chose to honour Driving Miss Daisy, an uplifting film about the good old days when blacks were faithful family retainers.”

All this creative consumption and reinterpretation of the cinema proves to be too much for Hollywood. Sigourney Weaver, in an impeccable cameo as a Hollywood legal representative seeking damages for copyright, waves a document that enables her to destroy every sweded remake the store has produced, reasserting the power of the big studios.

This prompts Mike, Jerry and Alma to apply their sweding skills to an original, devised project with their local community. It is never clear whether they save the Be Kind Rewind building from destruction. Instead, Gondry closes with an image of the community as audience watching themselves on a big white sheet, the light from the projector flickering on their bright faces and illuminating the shop’s front window.

Be Kind Rewind, director, writer Michel Gondry, cinematography Ellen Kuras, editing Jeff Buchanan, music Jean-Michel Bernard, producers Geoges Bermann, Julie Fong, Partizan Films, Australian distributor Village Roadshow

RealTime issue #84 April-May 2008 pg. 18

© Megan Carrigy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2008