February 10, 2008
Be Kind Rewind: Between Participation and Control

One of the great pleasures of living in Cambridge is that we regularly have access to sneak previews. About a month ago, I got to see John Sayles' latest opus Honeydripper, and just last week Michel Gondry came to the MIT campus with Be Kind Rewind. Both push different boundaries and deliver an honest, dare I say "authentic," authorial gaze. (See recent C3 posts about authenticity here and here.)

Be Kind Rewind is an unpretentious movie. Its plot, as it's accurately described onIMDB is about Jerry (Jack Black), a junkyard worker who attempts to sabotage a power plant he suspects of causing his headaches. But he inadvertently causes his brain to become magnetized, leading to the unintentional destruction of all the movies in the family store of his friend (played by Mos Def).

In order to keep the store's one loyal customer, an elderly lady with a tenuous grasp on reality, the pair re-create a long line of films including The Lion King, Rush Hour, Ghostbusters, When We Were Kings, Back to the Future, Driving Miss Daisy, and Robocop, putting themselves and their townspeople into it. They become the biggest stars in their neighborhood.

Although the conflict of the movie is not quite believable, what comes through is the love not so much for the films they remake, but for the act of filmmaking. Gondry shows off tricks that could have very well belonged to the silent era's special effects. The movie plays with video as a medium that is still discovering itself and at the same time relishes in the audacity of discarding all of Hollywood's paraphernalia and achieving the same type of engagement from his audience.

This playful experimentation leads to a somewhat accidental discovery of participatory culture. With each movie they remake (or swede, as they christen the process) the main characters (and eventually the whole town) become immersed in a dialogue with the media they care about. As Jack Black's character describes it, "It's putting you into the thing you like."

In this rather utopian look at media production and self-expression, Gondry raises issues of civic engagement and community creation. The loss of their neighborhood life is fought through collective acts of creation that have no other practical end than the process itself.

I have come to see it is a movie about the fringe (a fringe that is becoming more central every day) that has chosen to play by the conventional rules.

Most of the movie's marketing campaign is marked by the inherent contradictions between the film's message and the mainstream industry's policies. On the U.S. website, the company invites you to 'swede yourself,' which 'allows' you to insert your photo in a movie poster. This one element in the campaign clearly depicts mainstream's media attempt to appear to understand participatory culture, while still expecting to retain all of the control.

In fact, for all its bottom-up, innovative and even goofy attitude, Be Kind Rewind is a true offspring of the mainstream industry, something that was immediately perceived by the MIT community when we received the invitation to the preview alerting us that 'New Line Cinema reserves the right to admit or refuse admittance' and that all recording devices (which included most of our cell phones) would be confiscated. Apparently there is nothing better to promote a movie than to treat its audience as potential criminals.

This generated a response by the Free Culture chapter at MIT which distributed name tags with phrases like 'I am a recording device' and 'I (heart) the MPAA'. I wore one that said 'I will recount this movie to my friends', and that is sort of what I'm doing. My classmate and Free Culture member, Kevin Driscoll, showed up with a giant box labeled 'Pin hole camera'. At least Michel Gondry saw it and enjoyed the prank.

The movie has two YouTube Channels, and in the UK version, there is a contest to swede your own movies. Ironically, the grand prix is a trip to Hollywood, so the contest uses a fringe practice to validate the center of the American movie industry.

I've been wondering if this movie would have been better served through a self-distribution strategy like that followed by Honeydripper, and that is the issue I will address in my next post.

Our comments feature is still down, but if you send drop me a line at anadk@mit.edu, I could incorporate your comments as update to the post.