Sunday, July 17, 2011

Local Heroes

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2008)

I liked Charlie Bartlett, a film directed by Jon Poll. Maybe there’s some arrested development to it – a guy like me in his 40’s, lapping up this teen-oriented stuff (albeit oriented to a much more sophisticated echelon of teens than, say, Meet The Spartans). But it’s all so damn winning. Charlie is a silver-spoon kid and congenital envelope-pusher who’s been kicked out of all the available private schools and signs up at the local high, for which he’s flagrantly unprepared. Within no time at all, the tough guy who beats him up on his first day is helping him to peddle prescription drugs to the students, and Charlie’s popularity swells. Anton Yelchin plays him as a beguiling dreamer, a mystery even to himself, in over his head and needier than he looks, yet as charismatic as a budding Obama.

He’s surrounded by an immensely pleasing cast. Is there anyone who does more with a run-of-the-mill line than Robert Downey Jr, and wow, I sure liked the lead actress Kat Dennings (now there’s some arrested development on my part). It’s not hard to criticize the movie – among other things there’s some strain in the set-up, and the wrap-up is just off-the-shelf emotional bonding. Although it has satirical elements, it’s nowhere near as strong on that score as say Election. But it’s very smooth and funny. I’ll bet you anything you’d like it. Well, OK, The New Yorker hated it. But this is Toronto!

Be Kind Rewind

I’m not so sure though how you’d react to Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind. Gondry’s last film, the sadly overlooked The Science Of Sleep, was one of my favourites of the year before last. It’s an extremely personal work about a young Mexican man living in Paris, who habitually confuses the boundaries between dream and reality. It’s an utter delight - the kind of film so packed with invention and non-linear creativity that you wonder how any human mind ever arrived at it. But it never feels like a mere jaunt, partly because the complex romantic relationship at its centre (beautifully incarnated by Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg) is so scintillatingly conceived. Gondry’s best-known film Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind had greater scope perhaps, but Science Of Sleep is the one where he really got to me.

I was rather shocked at the drabness and general clumsiness of Be Kind Rewind’s opening section. It stars Jack Black and Mos Def as a couple of low-achievers in Passaic, New Jersey, who work or hang out at the dismally rundown Be Kind Rewind video store. While the owner (Danny Glover) is away, Black becomes magnetized after a guerilla attack on the local power plant (talk of strained set-ups…), and accidentally erases all the tapes. The two hit on the idea of replacing the departed movies with their own recreations, each lasting around 20 minutes and shot on maybe $5 budgets. The stuff catches on, and the two are soon local celebrities, turning out “sweded” versions of everything from Robocop to Last Tango In Paris (sadly, we’re not shown too much of the latter). The movie also features Danny Glover (playing more or less the same role as he just did in Honeydripper, although with a dumber hairstyle) and Mia Farrow (perhaps intended to carry allusions to Purple Rose Of Cairo in particular).


As many critics have pointed out, it’s very strange that the picture seems to be set in the present day rather than, say, twelve years ago – virtually all the movies referred to belong to the 80’s or early 90’s, and DVD comes across here as a new-fangled technology slowly gaining the upper hand, rather than (amazing as this is) a medium that may already be past its own best days. Coupled with the film’s strangely downbeat look and tone, and the generally uninteresting performances, it sure runs up a lot of negatives.

It’s possible however, although maybe only as a result of excessive generosity, to view this as a strategic misdirection. The film’s charm lies in its vision of a new kind of cinema, rejecting Hollywood’s strategies and production values for a more direct relevance and intimacy (albeit, in this case, of a cartoonish and superficial kind). This is more than a hypothetical idea – in an age of You-Tube and cheap technology, we commonly read about the democratization of art. Be Kind Rewind depicts that broad movement, but turns its back on the technology – I’m not sure the Internet even gets a mention in there. It’s as if Gondry, knowing that any film trying to take the temperature of its times will instantly date itself, perversely dated his own movie even while making it, trying thereby to get to something more elemental.

As in The Science Of Sleep, he’s great at conjuring up tricks and illusions out of, well, bits of crap really – where you and I would see junk to be hauled away, Gondry sees possibilities, evocations, connections. The film whizzes past some of the best of his inventions (there’s a selection available on the Internet, although I suspect for most of us that’ll sit squarely in the ‘life’s too short’ category).

Among Gondry’s previous films, Be Kind Rewind’s closest cousin is Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, a filmed record of an event staged by the comedian in his old New York neighbourhood (he’s probably best known of all for his high-concept work in music videos, but I confess I’m barely familiar with his oeuvre there). That had a similar sense of community, of momentary excitement sweeping through a neighborhood that seems generally lacking in it. Gondry was remarkably self-effacing there, but never unengaged. Elements of the new film could only be his; others are simply confounding. It would be nice to think this too is a deliberate muddying of creative identity.

Fats Waller

The film starts with a paean to the life of Fats Waller, who we’re told was born in the building now housing the video store, and it returns to the singer to find its happy ending. It’s another wacky decision of course – Waller isn’t exactly a vivid touchstone for the mass audience now. But for better or worse it’s the ultimate proof of the film’s belief in the right and power to tell the stories one wants to tell, no matter how flighty, ungrounded or questionable, and the ending is quite sweet.

Still, even if you look it that way, it’s not much of an argument for paying to see Be Kind Rewind versus, you know, doing your own thing, and the film’s weak patches prompt the sense that Gondry’s inspiration pretty much stopped here at the Big Idea itself. It’s not a bad Big Idea, and none of us should become complacent about commercial cinema, nor should we overlook how frequently it makes fools of us. But if you go to a movie this weekend, I’m guessing you’d rather just let it wash happily over you, which is why I’m still feeling good about that Charlie Bartlett recommendation.

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