Saturday, December 06, 2008

"Our past belongs to us; we can change it if we want."

So says Mia Farrow's character at a critical moment in Be Kind Rewind. (Spoiler alert: It arrives two thirds of the way into the movie, and there's no way to make the point I want to make without revealing at least a little of the final third, so you may want to skip the rest of this post if you enjoy surprises.)

As a big fan of Michel Gondry's earlier films and music videos, I'd been meaning to see this 2008 feature during its brief run in theaters, despite the mediocre-to-bad reviews I'd read, but I never quite got around to it until now. I fully understand the poor reception, even from fellow lovers of Eternal Sunshine and The Science of Sleep (for the record, I even love Human Nature, which nobody seems to like). Throughout its first two acts, I kept thinking Rewind was his worst film, marred by a farfetched/downright silly premise and a gratingly generic performance by Jack Black. (The best thing on the DVD is not the movie, but an accompanying short, "Passaic Mosaic," which makes a beautiful if unspoken case for BWR as the missing link between Gondry's surreal features and his otherwise utterly uncharacteristic documentary/concert film, Dave Chapelle's Block Party.)

If you're familiar with Rewind, here's the high-concept part you know: Black's character becomes magnetized and erases all the stock in the last shop in Passaic, NJ (if not America) that still rents VHS tapes, which leads him and clerk Mos Def to shoot amateur remakes of each one. (This practice is called "sweding" in the movie, but they're basically fanfilms.) A wacky enough idea, I suppose, and the best bits are in the official trailer. But it all seemed beneath the talents of Gondry, one of the most imaginative writer/directors around. It also begs two questions: What about DVDs? and Isn't this whole thing a massive violation of copyright? Question #1 is dismissed in five seconds, but the second one proves a doozy. To make matters worse, our heroes learn that one of the major subthemes of the story has been completely fabricated. Fortunately, there's an entire third act not really hinted at in the trailer.

That's when things get interesting--and Gondryesque. Farrow's character states the premise pretty directly in the line above. What began as two guys covering up an accident evolves into a communitywide art project. I'll spare you further details, but it's interesting that the major studio's lawyers are the bad guys (way to stick it to the Man, New Line!) and that the entire film is a defense of fans' rights to retell and extend their favorite corporate fictions. I'd suggest, in the spirit of sweding, that you could even tweak Farrow's line to read "Our fantasies belong to us; we can refine them however we like." There's an intriguing invitation in the final credits directing us to the official website to see the "sweded" films excerpted in the movie, but that site has disappeared and there's no trace of them on the one that remains to plug the DVD. (I kinda wonder if maybe actual copyright lawyers made them go away.) However, you can see a few examples on this YouTube channel.

And if those aren't enough, check out this handy list of Sweded films made for a contest including a parody of Batman Begins featuring a rather fetching Bruce Wayne/Bat.

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