Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Landmarks of Early Film & Be Kind Rewind

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Landmarks of Early Film & Be Kind Rewind



Without intending to, I recently watched Landmarks of Early Film and Be Kind Rewind back-to-back. The former is a disc collecting works by the pioneers of cinema, while the latter is French director Michel Gondry's latest film, featuring Jack Black and Mos Def as video clerks forced to create homemade versions of blockbuster films for their customers after the originals are accidentally erased. Both these works, the first rather inadvertently, the second very self-consciously, celebrate the imaginative power of film alongside its documentary capacity. Indeed, the primary charm of the video clerks' work is that the artifice is so transparent. Their mini-films are simultaneously journeys into a fantastic world of made-up stories and a couple guys goofing off in home movies. The films they make provide both an escape from and an affirmation of their lives.

This same fusion of reality and illusion was omnipresent in the early years of film. We all know the story of how spectators (supposedly) cowered in their seats as the Lumieres' train pulled into the station; today few would be compelled to do the same, yet the power of the images lingers. Why? Unlike their American contemporary, Thomas Edison, whose studio produced shorts that were little more than curios to be viewed through a peephole, and whose content was easily summed up by simple names (The Kiss, The Cock Fight, etc.), the French brothers always suggested a world outside the frame. They took their cameras out onto the street, using natural light and capturing images of middle-class domesticity and working-class public life. People walk in and out of the frame and the fixed view, rather than having a narrowing effect as in Edison's work, creates a curiously widened frame of references, enriching what we see by virtue of what we don't.

Heightening this effect is the Lumieres' fondness for angles; diagonal lines run through their pictures and subjects are rarely filmed straight-on (the exception being portraits like that of the baby being fed by parents). The precision of the viewpoint and the careful attention to framing ironically suggest something painterly in these documentary works, and so from the very birth of the cinema we have this interesting friction between the largeness of the world, the objective reality without, and the fixation of the human viewpoint, the subjective "illusion" within. Andre Bazin rightly celebrated the almost mystical result of this tension in his famous 1940's essays which, unfortunately, I am unable to provide a link to at the moment (I believe they can be found in his book "What is Cinema?"). The Lumieres, credited with inventing the movies, show that what makes the medium so compelling was there from the beginning.

However, it is another pioneer, the magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Melies, who most resembles the director of our Be Kind Rewind. A creator of probably the best music videos in existence, Michel Gondry loves to celebrate the homemade and the power of imagination, always ensuring that the artifice of what we see is part of the magic; if we fell too deeply into the virtual reality the spell would be broken. His snowscapes charm because they are so clearly made of cotton, yet they encompass the screen in ways no ordinary kid's art could. Unlike Melies, whose obvious artifice was more a function of limited technology than aesthetic preference, Gondry (an astonishingly able technician) prefers the slightly unreal to slick illusionism. One of the flaws of Be Kind Rewind, a many-flawed film, is that it spends more time with the silly and erratic plot than it does on the magical, here-there creations of its protagonists. The best sequences involve long tributes to the wackiness of lo-fi recreation: cardboard and cheap camera trickery abound as the video-store auteurs attempt to re-imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey and King Kong as DIY backyard projects. Gondry is at his best in the realm of fantasy and childlike imagination: when set free to envision his own universe in short-form music videos, there is no one with a firmer control of his craft. Plot, sadly, is not such a strong point.

In Be Kind Rewind, we get overelaborated and unconvincing plot developments, as if Gondry (who wrote the screenplay as well as directed) determined what he wanted characters to be doing (Danny Glover must be out of town for the duration, Jack Black has to be magnetized so that he can erase the tapes) then worked backwards to provide unconvincing motivation which he was unable to disguise. Characters behave bizarrely ("sweding" wins all kinds of unlikely followers) storylines disappear (Black's anti-government paranoia vanishes when it's no longer necessary to get him into the power plant, his magnetism is easily - and literally - pissed away once the tapes have already been erased). Gondry is most comfortable immersing himself in the dreamlike moment of invention, and getting from point A to point B proves unnecessarily and woundingly overwrought.

But this is not to dismiss Be Kind Rewind's non-fantastic elements altogether. As the film builds to a climax, it finally finds its voice, allowing the sweetly offbeat denizens of its real-life post-industrial town (Passiac, New Jersey) to join together in the making of a documentary about supposed favorite son Fats Waller (another random plot element that seems tacked-on but ends up providing a satisfying means to end the film). Here the antecedent is not so much Gondry's video work but his 2004 documentary Dave Chappelle's Block Party, in which the comedian brings a bunch of musicians and random Midwesterners to Brooklyn for a trans-communal concert. In the final sequences, Gondry finally is able to tie together the different strands of the film, fusing his love for fantasy with a genuine and touching feel for downtrodden but tight-knit communities. The townspeople (many played by actual residents of Passiac as documented in a winningly sincere special feature on the disc) gather in the video store to view their opus unfold on a makeshift screen, cheering their success, enjoying the film for its artifice (they laugh when Black tries to convey grief onscreen), reaffirming their ties to one another and the store, while outside a demolition crew waits to destroy the store once the screening ends. Here Gondry finds the tension that was lacking in the rest of the film, between reality and illusion, artifice and conviction, past and future, community and personal fantasy. And this tension gives the film, for all its missteps, a genuinely satisfying conclusion. The Lumieres would be proud.

(On a personal note, this is my first entry on my first blog. It is one of several million so it's quite safe to assume no one's out there in the void at this moment. I'm not entirely satisfied with this post and it's a work in progress but I felt I should get started so here it is. Every day I will add a new post but I will continue to revise this one until it's where it should be. If anybody does stumble across this entry in their journey through the ether, please forgive the piece's flaws. We all have to start somewhere.)

(Second update: Eh, screw it. The post is long-winded and not quite punchy enough but it makes its point. As a great man once said -- don't look back. I'll leave it be and move on.)

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