The premise to the film Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008) is a very entertaining one. Small town car mechanic and village idiot Jack Black is afraid that the power plant near his trailer will microwave his brains, so he decides to sabotage it. But the power plant strikes back, thereby magnetizing Black’s character Jerry. Jerry subsequently, and unintentionally, erases all the VCR tapes (what wonderful nostalgia) in the video store where his best friend Mike (Mos Def) works. With the boss out of town, and regular customers to satisfy, they decide to remake all the films in the store’s catalogue themselves. This leads to funny do-it-yourself versions of scenes from Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2, Carrie, Men in Black and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
These scenes are entertaining, Black is good in the film, Mos Def annoyingly mumbles his way through, and the bigger story arch that holds it all together is very, very poor. But this is not supposed to be a review of the film. Rather, I would like to reassess the idea behind the film. That you can remake popular films yourself, and that these new films would somehow be more interesting than the originals. Also, the question of intellectual property arises, both in the film and in this short essay.
The first problem, as is the problem with any pastiche, is that the film never would be or could be funny without familiarity with the original, and could never exist in the first place if the films it makes vulgar fun of had not existed. The form is a very disrespectful parasite. Ghostbusters is treated with some decency, but Rush Hour 2 and Driving Miss Daisy are poorly treated. Although the film tries to exude a love of film, it merely looks down on it.
Second problem comes directly out of the first one. The film is directed by Michel Gondry. Gondry is French. And he made films like Sleep, in which people, well, sleep. He also made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Great film. Not a comedy, but a film about memory, love and regret for serious people. Michel Gondry is a great filmmaker, but the very LAST you want to direct a smart little comedy about Jack Black being in love with popular cinema.
Third problem comes directly out of the second one. Jack Black is a nice actor. He does slightly more serious stuff like King Kong and High Fidelity very well. He does flat out gross comedy okay, as in Tropic Thunder. But he is at his best as a the sympathetic underdog in love with popular culture. See School of Rock. But in this film he is not the nice character. That’s Mos Def. In Be Kind Rewind Jack Black is annoying as hell. He wines, vomits, shouts and is generally a pain in the ass. If the unsympathetic character is the one to embody the love of film in this movie, than this love will not be shared by the audience.
Fourth problem is a new one. Copyrights. In an inexplicable and completely unnecessary plot contrivance Jerry and Mike’s film remaking (or ‘Sweding’ in the vernacular) are shut down by copyright lawyers, who destroy all their films and dispense ridiculous fines and threaten with prison sentences. Wait, what? This film is still made by major Hollywood producer New Line, right? Is this some sort of statement? Now that the copyright lawyers are declared bad guys by New Line, am I allowed to remake or redistribute their film? Or is it sheer hypocrisy? Did they not have copyright problems with this film themselves? Ghostbusters surely was not produced or distributed by New Line…
Fifth problem. VHS. The film is set in the early days of DVD. What then about the internet, about Youtube, about do-it-yourself cinema. This is not an original idea! Much better film parodies have been made and shared by film fans over the world. Has New Line secured copyrights for the idea of Be Kind Rewind from them?
Sixth problem. Theory. Be Kind Rewind offers a simple-to-swallow introduction of the concept that is central to most theoretical accounts of postmodernism: collage. Snips and bits from various media are recombined to produce a new work. However, the central story arch of Be Kind Rewind is one of nostalgia, the yearning for a pre-big-corporation-era American town life. Which in the end appears to have never existed, but that does not matter, because through the miracle of cinema, Jerry and Mike recreate it with their neighbours. Contradiction alert!
The problems with the film are numerous. It is thought-provoking, but not smart enough to keep up with the thoughts it provokes. Be Kind Rewind is a dumb movie. It feels fake. It feels like a remake or rip-off of a much better movie that has not been made yet. And that, paradoxically, is again very postmodern.