From the 20th floor of the St. Regis hotel, the San Francisco streets appear broadly drawn and toylike. At the same time, the bodies on the pavement can be seen in some detail. I can make out a man’s striped scarf, a woman’s red shoes, a child’s ballerina lunchbox. The contradiction of proportions is engaging and awkward, reminiscent of the sort of proportions present in a Playskool play set or a child’s drawing. Reminiscent also of many of the fanciful recreations of director Michel Gondry, particularly as seen in his recent feature Be Kind Rewind.
I’m waiting for him in the conference room, brie melting in a platter next to the picture window. While thinking through a question about perspective, Gondry walks in unceremoniously and sits down, no introduction, door wide open. Surprised and too rushed to fuss with details, I start my iPod recording device and head in with the questions.
“Tell me about your relationship to primitive cinema,” I ask. “It’s clearly an inspiration to you. You recreate the scratched or silent picture frequently in your work.”
Gondry begins to explain an appreciation for Chaplin and Melies and says he loves the process of silent film, the communal involvement that made those films possible. Referring to Gondry’s handmade aesthetics I say, “Both process and community are important to your films — handmade imagery figures strongly in your personal projects.” I ask something about Legos and Gondry’s eyes shift to my iPod. I follow his glance downward.
My iPod is off.
It’s fully missed the first two of my sacred nine point five minutes with him. I have a small heart attack and scramble for the record button. The first thing the iPod captures is:
Michel Gondry: This is the problem with digital.
Instantly I devolve into mild hysterics. Gondry, the man famous for his childlike whimsy, his ingenuity and wonderment, watches me laugh in stony silence.
You said you liked Chaplin and Melies and you like the idea of — oh dear, please correct me.
MG: I don’t remember what I said…
Could you swede it for me?
MG: But that is it. This is your whole article right here!
Well, let’s hope it’s not the whole article.
“Swede” is the verb Gondry invented for a rather specific process of reproduction. It’s the word Jerry (Jack Black) uses to describe the films he, Mike (Mos Def) and Alma (Melonie Diaz) have recreated to restore the library of demagnetized tapes left on the shelves of Mr. Fletcher’s Thrift and Video. Sweding also refers in part to phenomenon created by a video Gondry himself placed on YouTube a year or so ago.
“Michel Gondry Solves a Rubik’s Cube with his Feet” (since replaced on YouTube by the response video “Michel Gondry Solves A Rubik’s Cube With His Nose“) went viral quickly and was followed by a series of remakes and reinterpretations either spoofing or aiming to debunk what the fan videos refer to as “the puzzle Gondry leaves for us to solve.” As a principle, sweding is far-reaching. It touches the long legacy of YouTube videos (ex: “Crank Dat Soulja Boy Spongebob”), the history of fan art and the legendary inventions of groups like the Southern team of Indiana Jones fans who spent their puberty sweding Temple of Doom (the film version of this story is still in pre-production under the rumor-esque title Untitled Daniel Clowes Project).
Gondry’s sweding is visible in many more places than YouTube. Technically his video for the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl,” of which “absolutely zero is made in a computer, it’s all made with Lego blocks,” is a kind of sweding; a recreation built out of rudimentary parts. In the video, black white and red block semblances of Meg and Jack White play instruments, ascend stairs and swim with surprising accuracy of motion. The result is affecting and strikingly believable. It defies description in the same way that babies and epiphanies do, as if, by way of Lego, Meg and Jack are ineffably happening.
Gondry really likes “the basicness of [Legos].” Figuring more prominently in his crafty special effects than perhaps any other of his primary school tools (cellophane, felt, papier-mâché). Gondry says they’re are a “mixture of something that can be very sophisticated but there’s something that can be very universal about it.”
Gondry draws a lot of power from trusting his audience. “It’s important when you have an idea to put it out there. People can understand it.”
And we do. Though his imagery is surreal in many ways, his films use a logic closer to that of cartoons or slapstick, making them as playful as they are accessible. “I like the days when all the filmmakers had was a film roll, a camera and a gangster,” he said. “The Mack Sennett comedies were all like that. They’d create little teams to go out and shoot films.” Just as young Gondry did during his childhood in Versailles, just as his Be Kind Rewind protagonists do.
After the successful sweding of Ghostbusters, the video re-makers in Be Kind Rewind develop a fan base and the community comes en masse to participate in the development of this library of sweded videos. It’s poetic and sweet and nothing short of wonderful. It’s also prickly. The community’s reunion and cultural development are predicated on law breaking, and it seems everywhere this community turns they face the arbitrary restrictions of unfeeling corporate entities.
With such a plotline, it seems ideologically inconsistent for Be Kind to be made with the money, support and complicity of a major studio. Gondry explains, “I’m part of the consumer culture…I’m just using the space I am given to express something that is out of the space so I’m part of the consumer system but I’m advocating stepping out. Which is a contradiction but I could be part of he consumer system and say, ‘let’s consume even more.'”
Consumption, which Gondry thinks has wrongfully been appropriated to seem like “the goal of life,” has been transformed as such “because people who get to express their voice are paid by the people who make profit from it. So they’re going to make you believe you have to spend your money buying these products otherwise you won’t be happy. This is really wrong. Especially the implication it carries. What is the world becoming through this process?”
Though Gondry says he didn’t realize this until recently, philosophy is playing an increasing role in his work. “You need philosophy. It sounds a little pompous but I think when you direct a film, the only way to find a response to the questions you keep asking yourself is to have a philosophy.”
The tragic turn in Be Kind Rewind comes at the hands of a big studio lawyer (smartly played by Sigourney Weaver) who confiscates the sweded videos for violating copyright. As a solution to the loss of their sweded library, the town bands together to produce a fictional documentary about famous jazz musician Fats Waller and his upbringing in Passaic, New Jersey. (Waller is from Harlem). Gondry says this is very much “about American society where they can really reinvent their history [such that] it gets confusing [to distinguish] between mythology and history.”
What this ending also accomplishes is a statement about the purpose of history. In Gondry’s Passaic, the present will always trump the past, accurate or otherwise.
Gondry says this ending, which revolves around the community bonds, is a sort that “few films do because it’s kind of uncool to be human or lighthearted. Heaviness and cynicism are much more praised and easier to sell than something human but I believe in that, so that’s what I’m doing.”
Still, rallying a neighborhood to erroneously rewrite its history is not without some controversy. Gondry recognizes this. “I think it’s hard to defend this concept of recreating your own history, but more important is that they got together and did something. I don’t think that it’s damaging anybody.”
“When you’re walking down the street/And you see a little ghost/Who you gonna call?”
Like a fully indoctrinated American, I ask Gondry if this sort of reconstruction could be a gateway to harsher revisionism. “No. No. No. No.” He responded in his beguiling and opaque accent. “It is a subject they decide to treat to be creative. In the next film there will be something different.”
So there will be a sequel?!
MG: Yes! I will swede the sequel directly.
In the film Mike and Jerry swede Ghostbusters. There was rumor about Ivan Reitman and Robert Zemeckis —
MG: Reitman was nice all the way! He always let us use his movie. Well, it’s not that they [directors] aren’t nice, just that they can or can’t let us use their movies. Zemeckis couldn’t let us use Back to the Future.
I read that Reitman had plans to swede Be Kind Rewind.
MG: [With excitement] Oh that’d be great! I’m not sure about that, or who said it, but it would be totally great!
Be Kind Rewind opens Friday and has a Tomatometer rating of 71 percent. Below check out Michel Gondry’s sweded Be Kind Rewind trailer, for his own film, shot and starring…himself! You can have fun sweding yourself at the official Be Kind Rewind site, where fans can swede themselves into classic movies and even their favorite websites (thanks to user messenjahmatt for sweding RT)!