February 2008

Be Kind Rewind

“Be Kind Rewind” is a charming mess of a movie, but a mess nonetheless. It’s a typical story about how Jack Black’s magnetic urine—indie band name alert!—erases the entire inventory of VHS tapes in a small thrift store in Passaic, New Jersey, which forces Black and Mos Def to re-film every movie until the evil holders of copyright stomp out their creativity.

Director Michel Gondry is an inventive filmmaker and one of the most creative guys on the planet, but he needs a blacker soul like Charlie Kauffman to keeps his tendency toward icky whimsy in check. “Be Kind Rewind” feels like it’s mostly improvised, with Black doing his manic Jack Black thing, Mos Def mumbling a lot while trying to be a geek instead of a cool rapper, Danny Glover playing the Danny Glover character, and other people sort of coming and going. Its version of Passaic takes place in some sort of alternate universe, where there exists these kinds of perfectly quirky, idyllic neighborhoods full of contrived eccentric people who get along way too well. And it has a typical message about the evils of yuppies and condos and Starbucks.

Coming from a Hollywood movie that thanks companies like Apple in the credits, that rings a little hollow. Maybe if they replaced the ramshackle thrift store with an Apple store—all those poor people need iPods and Macbooks too!—everyone would be happy.

Ignoring the fact that they could probably re-purchase the entire stock of VHS movies for like $1, the re-filmed—or “Sweded,” as the movie calls them—movies are really funny. Gondry is known for his love of low-budget, analogue effects (see the extras on the “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” DVD), and some of the ways they re-create “Ghostbusters,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Rush Hour 2,” “The Lion King,” “Robocop,” “2001,” and others are incredibly cool and creative. I can’t wait to see the low-fi versions of them on BluRay.

(They missed out on an opportunity to Swede “Lethal Weapon,” though, with Black and Def doing Mel Gibson and Danny Glover… or maybe Danny Glover would do Danny Glover. Or better yet, he’d do Joe Pesci.)

Still, it’s hard to wrap your brain around how people recreating existing Hollywood blockbuster movies are an alternative to Hollywood blockbuster movies. But it makes it kind of a cousin to the other YouTube movie of the moment, “Cloverfield,” in that the YouTube generation is supposed to be making stuff and sharing it with others. The touching ending of “Be Kind Rewind”—where the neighborhood gets together to watch the first “original” film from the cast and neighborhood residents—is a stark contrast to the reality of showing original works. In the movie, everyone loves the amateurish creation; in the real world, someone posting something that lousy on YouTube would be savaged. Instead of supporting and rewarding originality—even if it’s kind of sucky—YouTubers are brutal. The criticism you get is just off-the-charts.

A friend of mine was doing a public access show in Vermont, and she edited together all sorts of things, created original segments using Barbie dolls and various other craziness, and started putting them up on YouTube to much derision. (And praise too, but I think the negativity took her by surprise.) People criticized her looks, complained about her being too old… it just got nasty.

Sensitivity to criticism and fear of sucking in public keeps me away from sharing most of the things I create, but my friend sticks with it because, as she says, you have to suck if you’re ever going to be good. And if there’s anything to take from “Be Kind Rewind,” it’s that if you’re going to suck, suck doing your own thing.

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If you like some of the movies/videos by/from Michel Gondry, this interview is worth reading.

He’d be one of my favorites only for his music videos (like “Fell in Love With a Girl” by the White Stripes, which you can see a documentary on its making right here), but he also direct Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is in my Top 5 movies ever.

Anyway, I particularly liked this comment from the interview: “But sometimes they use the word “quirky” in the pejorative sense. I get frustrated, because they feel like I’m doing whatever I want, and there is no ground, and I don’t really care. They feel it’s cynical. But I don’t think I have any cynicism in me. And if I had some at some point… I hate cynicism. I wipe it from me. I don’t like cynical people. I don’t like cynical movies. Cynicism is very easy. You don’t have to justify it. You don’t have to fight for it.”

I totally agree with this. It’s so easy to be cynical, it’s what we lazily fall back to when posting on message boards or when discussing most “serious” things. It seems like everyone is in some contest to be more ironically detached than anyone else from the things that interest them. Like on a message board, someone will post how much they dig something and inevitably, some douchebag pops in to say how much he hates it. And then the conversation follows that path and much of the original joy is lost. It’s one of the reasons I rarely post to message boards anymore; I’m tired of arguing, of everyone trying to out-clever each other with one-liners, of “zings,” of having people pile-on because you dare hold an opinion counter to whatever’s currently in vogue with the hive mind.

Maybe I’m old or naive or an idiot, but I miss being able to be passionate in public about something without people pissing all over what I dig. Yeah, I could ignore them, but I’m kind of hoping all the cynical hipsters will realize that they’re the ones conforming now. Maybe positivity will replace it, and maybe that’s illustrated by the success of Juno, which doesn’t have a cynical bone in its pregnant body and has proved to be a huge hit. (And is now suffering some hipster backlash.)

As some people who followed the Computer Games Magazine saga are aware, we finished our May 2007 issue in the first week of March, sent it to the printers, and were then told it wouldn’t be printed and were all laid off. (And by “all of us,” it was mainly myself and our art guy at that point. Other people stayed around longer to shut things down.)

Anyway, our featured review that month was of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, the oh-so-controversial big MMO of early 2007. We had a tag-team, three-man review of the game, by myself, Tom Chick, and Kelly Wand.

I was rummaging through some files and found the text. I think it was a lot of fun to read. (It was especially fun to do; at least it was when Kelly wasn’t getting me killed.)

So, here it is (hah hah, Tom Chick gave it 4 stars):