Taping Over Old Ideas of Community

"It comes from a utopia I had -- do you say 'having a utopia?' -- a belief I have that people can create their own entertainment. I always wanted to create this community that would come and tell their own story, shoot it -- and watch them. The idea is to not have one entity who creates the work, the project, and another entity who consumes it; the idea is people create their own work, like somebody cultivating his garden."

--Michel Gondry

Be Kind, Rewind, French director Michel Gondry's latest film, is a contemporary fable about the transcendent power of playful creativity within communities, and the modern-day dark forces (greedy corporations, real estate developers, lawsuit-happy lawyers) who threaten to take that power away from us, ordinary people.

And what better trio of messengers of this neglected, contemporary truth than Michel Gondry, Mos Def, and Jack Black?

In the bleak Hollywood landscape of cookie-cutter movies and blockbuster dynasties, Gondry has established himself as a rare bird (most notably, through his 2004 film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Mos Def rose to fame in the late 1990s as part of the hip-hop duo Black Star (with fellow wordsmith Talib Kweli), whose highly original and complex lyricism distinguished them from the tired cliches of so many rappers of the time. And finally, there's the ever-silly Jack Black, who drew a cult following with his rock-comedy band Tenacious D and films -- namely High Fidelity and School of Rock -- that focused, in part, on the power of music and creativity in community. If Black's characters worship at an altar, it is that of innovation, friendship, and spontaneous fun.

Together these actors lead the film into frequently touching and tender, and almost always surprising territory. The plot is wacky, urban magical realism. Jerry, (Jack Black) is a junkyard worker whose brain becomes magnetized one night when he tries to sabotage the power plant near his trailer home. When he visits his best friend Mike (Mos Def) at the local video store, he inadvertently erases all of the videos with his radioactive gray matter. Mike is desperate; his boss and father figure, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) will be none too pleased if he returns to his store and finds the merchandise obliterated. City officials are already threatening to close his store down if he can't come up with the cash to fix the falling roof and get the building back to code standards. Jerry and Mike are faced with an age-old comedy movie question: what are they to do?

The age-old movie answer (with a new Gondrian twist): be ridiculously and hilariously creative. Make the replacement movies yourself.

They spend much of the remainder of Be Kind, Rewind recreating the scenes of some of Hollywood's biggest hits using only the props found lying around in Jerry's junkyard, an ever growing cast made up of intrigued and bored neighborhood folks, and a sense of childlike play rarely documented on the big screen so beautifully. Imagine The Lion King, Rush Hour, Ghostbusters, King Kong, When We Were Kings, Driving Miss Daisy, and Robocop as home movies. The difference between Jerry and Mike's remakes and the originals is like going from a pristine, store-bought birthday cake to your senile grandmother's amazingly delicious, if a bit lumpy and disheveled, layer cake.

The earnest and innovative collaborations brought to life in Be Kind, Rewind make for gut-busting humor. But they also make for some undeniably serious commentary on our life and times, the state of creativity and community, and how much we have to lose.

First of all, what could be less relevant than a video rental store? In the age of DVDs, video iPods, and Netflix, most people haven't seen the inside of a Blockbuster -- much less a locally owned video rental joint -- in over a decade. But as anyone who has watched their favorite mom 'n' pop store deteriorate into bankruptcy knows, the loss isn't just the merchandise -- it's the sense of shared obsession (in this case, movies) and the unlikely community. It's walking in to hear the rattle of that familiar bell on the door, greeting the clerk with a friendly "Hi Mike," and having him beam a big smile as he pulls out the movie he set aside just for you. It's hanging out too long at the counter, debating which one of Marlon Brando's films is best or which Harry Potter movie was most true to the book. It's a dying economic model, a surefire money-waster, the epitome of inefficiency. It's pointless and random and, yet, it's everything.

The setting of Be Kind, Rewind hammers this point home over and over again. Whether it's the randomly assorted boxes of old '80s movies at the store or the scrap metal and abandoned cars of the junk yard, everything reminds us of refuse and irrelevance. But the life within these scenes -- Jerry and Mike and the homeless guy and the dry cleaner's daughter and the zany, old woman and the hypersensitive gangster boy -- are so fiercely alive and in the process of constant creation (revision, recycle, rebirth) that you remember what really matters.

What's great about watching movies isn't the Hollywood gloss or the immediacy of HBO On Demand. It's about art that makes you think and feel, who you experience it with, how you turn-key that inspiration into your own fantastic invention.

Everything about the Jersey town where Be Kind, Rewind takes place is dying and decrepit. The viewer has the sense from the very start that the townspeople are doomed to lose. The moneyed developers' invasion appears inevitable. Corporate, Hollywood jerks (led by the frigid and funny Sigourney Weaver) show up demanding that the homemade videos be destroyed because of copyright violations (or else Jerry and Mike will be charged with fines with too many zeroes to count). And then there's the ridiculous task at hand of recreating the store's entire video library.

But in the end, it is the townspeople's commitment to one another, their tenacious creativity, their joy and spontaneity, that actually makes the lightening-speed march into the future -- the focus on money and legality and technology -- irrelevant. They win because they're not even playing the game of uber-American consumption and competition. They're just hanging out, imagining, and creating. Having a good communal laugh. In the end, it is this creativity, kindness, and community that really matter.

The last homemade film -- this one not a recreation, but an original film about a collectively imagined hometown-boy-done-good -- is projected on a big, white sheet hanging over the store's front window. The developers will come soon. The store will be torn down. The other homemade films have already been crushed by the giant machinery of the corporate thugs.

The motley cast and crew watch their masterpiece from inside the store, sharing one last collective laugh. But the last shot of Be Kind, Rewind reveals that the story doesn't end there. The street outside is covered with locals, sitting on the hoods of their cars, snuggling on blankets and in folding chairs, hanging off of balconies, watching the projected image that comes through the sheet. The resilient community writ large, Gondry gives one last image of creativity's unstoppable reach.

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