IT'S A pity that Michel Gondry's “Be Kind Rewind,” a movie rife with DIY optimism and analog nostalgia, arrives this week on DVD and not, as befits its premise, good old-fashioned VHS. Gondry has a reputation for technical wizardry -- he is credited with inventing the freeze-and-pan "bullet time" special effect that the Wachowski brothers borrowed for their "Matrix" movies -- but his work is often most magical when he draws on low-tech, even primitive methods. The French filmmaker that this Versailles-born fantasist most recalls is Georges Méliès, the turn-of-the-last-century creator of such handmade enchantments as "A Trip to the Moon."
Like many music video pros, Gondry began his feature-film career with a bump. "Human Nature" (New Line, 2001), from a script by Charlie Kaufman, wrestles with lofty ideas about the essence of the human species but devolves quickly into busy, strenuous farce.
He rebounded, though, with the trippy amnesiac romance "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (Universal Home Entertainment, 2004), armed with a knottier and more heartfelt Kaufman script and a roster of top-flight collaborators. Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey, as the love-struck but barely compatible odd couple, head a terrific ensemble cast (including Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson and Kirsten Dunst) and cinematographer Ellen Kuras devises a deft visual language to match the film's wild mood swings and abrupt shifts between reality and memory.
"The Science of Sleep" (Warner Home Video, 2006), Gondry's first self-penned movie, appears to revisit the "Eternal Sunshine" formula with another pair of ill-matched misfits (Gael García Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg). But this mournful fantasy -- Gondry's most underrated film -- is even more idiosyncratic, with its dreamlike digressions tipping toward stoner delirium and its hero's obsessive, regressive behavior bordering on outright pathology. The real surprise is its emotional punch; beneath the hyperactive whimsy and Rube Goldberg cuteness, its subjects are loss and loneliness.
While "Eternal Sunshine" and "Science of Sleep" derive a pleasingly abrasive edge from their flirtations with madness, this year's "Be Kind Rewind" (New Line), which Gondry also wrote, is pure fairy tale, a gentle slapstick fable set in the decidedly unmagical locale of industrial Passaic, N.J. Much of the action is confined to an as-yet-ungentrified street corner, the location of a shabby video store that its owner ( Danny Glover) claims to be the birthplace of jazz pianist Fats Waller.
When the store's inventory is demagnetized in one fell swoop, a bumbling duo played by Jack Black and Mos Def decides to "remake" every film with a VHS camcorder“Be Kind Rewind,”. This eventually brings the townsfolk together in a feel-good surge that some critics have compared to one by Frank Capra.
But the interest in community-as-utopia stems more directly from Gondry's sole feature-length documentary, "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" (Universal, 2005), a record of a high-spirited concert thrown by the comedian one fall in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Sweet-natured as it is, "Be Kind Rewind" never quite matches the good vibes of "Block Party," which brought together such performers as Kanye West and Erykah Badu before an audience consisting mostly of local residents. It's no wonder, though, that the main story line of "Be Kind" stalls and sputters; the re-imagined films-within-the-film, at once infantile and avant-garde, are the movie's raison d'être.
Even more than these mini-epics, which get funnier as the degree of difficulty rises (from "Ghostbusters" to "2001"), the most concentrated doses of the Gondry sensibility can still be found in his music videos (the best of which are compiled on Palm Pictures' 2003 set "The Work of Director Michel Gondry"). His most inventive videos -- a Lego meets Mondrian animation for the White Stripes' "Fell in Love With a Girl," a split-screen visual palindrome for Cibo Matto's "Sugar Water" -- are notably labor-intensive and process-oriented. And in a way, they sum up all that is delightful about Gondry, an artist who is as much artisan as magician.
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