You’ll Like this Film Because You’re in It: The Be Kind Rewind Protocol, by Michel Gondry. New York: Picturebox, 2008. Paperback $16.95. 80pp. ISBN: 0-979-41538-1.
If film is a religion, then Michel Gondry is its Saint Francis, a holy fool whose childlike wonder and sense of compassion becomes contagiously selfless — presenting a challenge to the “orthodoxy” of clichéd indie festival hoopla; igniting a holy fire that infects everyone — or almost everyone — it touches. His Be Kind Rewind (2008) was a special event, a very metatextual love poem to the movies, recognizing them as our popular myths and arguing that people should have the right to reinterpret and celebrate them, acting out puppet show versions of The Lion King, or running around the local library with guns twirling long Xmas garlands to re-enact Ghostbusters. The film found its supporters (including me) but seems to have been slightly forgotten. Luckily Gondry has left us with this book, a thorough guide to setting up amateur film groups.
The book chronicles the events of his DIY film installation at Deitch Projects in New York City, March 2008. The gallery was turned into something between a poverty row film studio, a volunteer community garden, and an after-school art class, with clear and clever guidelines Gondry worked out in advance (and changed as the process evolved). He’s very open and honest, and why not? His whole style is so bracingly selfless and ego-free that he knows he can’t fail; there’s nothing he’s trying to win. He’s not even playing; he’s just a vessel for his own love of cinema and joy in sharing the creative process.
I first became aware of Gondry’s power-of-example humility and humanity via the rich feeling of community provided by his David Chapelle’s Block Party (right). Catching it at a half-full afternoon show in downtown Manhattan, I walked out of that theater on air, my eyes meeting and greeting everyone of all races as we exited the audience, exhilarated, humbled, and filled with a special sort of grace. We came away wanting to break down the walls that separated our cultural worlds; we didn’t, but the warm looks were enough to let us know it was possible. Be Kind Rewind was clearly an effort to combine this interracial sense of community with his own plan for conducting random community low-budget video workshops. The interracial cross-class, cross-cultural approach is key here, there’s no discounting the votes of the ghetto kid who wants to remake Chucky any more than the NYU art kid who wants the Godardian self=reflexive mockumentary approach. The result? Ingenious combos: The Chucky Story, A Doll Remembers, for example (I just made that up, but you get the idea).
The book is fascinating, and for a micro-budget filmmaker, far more interesting and vital than the countless “how to make and sell your movie at Sundance” style manuals out there. There’s lots of great photos, including 16 color pages of all the box cover art for the movies made at Deitch — the titles alone are ingenious: Holiday Death Camp, Too Many Children in a White Room, and Popping Benadryl: Restrictions May Apply. Gondry is self-effacing and fun as our guide through the process of group filmmaking, with his observations being a winning mix of behavioral studies and how-to guide: “Generally, the agreement on decisions would come naturally, as if laughter would count as a round of hands” (p. 53). He also discusses — most enjoyably — his own career, and language problems that plagued the native French speaker for his first several films and the lessons learned from Block Party, of which even Spike Lee turns out to be a fan: “They had all assumed I was black” (p. 13).
In the wake of his Be Kind Rewind, Gondry formed filmmaking groups wherever he went, “converting” adults into the angels they were before the trials and deferrals of adulthood got them by throat. The book is a joy. It’s a small book (80 pages) with lots of pictures, and a fully detailed script for conducting these seminars at the end (“Note: A well-balanced grid is a well-balanced movie.”) Is seminar the right word? Encounter group more likely, as the opening up and interacting thing is retro 1970s, and we’re getting it back now slowly but surely, and it’s beautiful.
If you’ve ever tried to work with amateur actors or crew on your own no-budget movies, you’ll want to have this book handy. Misanthrope artists like myself especially can use Gondry’s warming humanism as an ignition spark to get their mechanisms in gear and start making more art with more of their novice friends. If ever a culture needed to learn to play together instead of clickety clacking away in our own little cells, it’s ours, with families and small cliques disappearing like the night into webcams, avatars, and blu-ray tubes. As Gondry closes on the happy end result of this process — the screening — he observes that laughter comes regardless. “The actual quality of the film has nothing to do with the enjoyment of the film” (p. 67). You enjoy it because you’re in it, with your friends, and the creative process has helped you all forge a brand new communal myth. This book is the same way — you can’t help but love it because it’s about you; it’s a challenge, and a vote of encouragement, from the filmmaking processes’ number one new barefoot saint.