08. Be Kind Rewind (2008)
Cast: Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, Melonie Diaz, Sigourney Weaver
Plot: After being magnetized, store clerk Jerry (Jack Black) erases all of his rental store’s tapes. Panicked, he and his co-worker Mike (Mos Def) opt to recreate all their movies in low-rent fashion, becoming local stars. We’re talking Ghostbusters, Robocop, Driving Miss Daisy, and more on a shoestring. Cuz fuck the FBI warning.
Music, Video: The shorts are music video-like in their expediency and rhythm. Like, the Ghostbusters recreation is more fun than the actual Ray Parker Jr. video.
Father of Invention: Dude, Gondry remade Kubrick’s rotational shots from 2001 with what looks like … the inside tube of a dryer???
Think Visual: “Sweding.” It’s the term this film coined for threadbare recreations of zapped flicks. It comes from an argument in the movie. A fib on Mike and Jerry’s part, as they exclaim that their knock-off films are pricier to rent because they’re allegedly from Sweden. Elaborate! But the term stuck. Go to YouTube in 2008 and you could find gallons of “Sweded” parodies of favorite films. Hell, go back two years:
Fair Use: The film exists in this curious gray area of fair and legal use between parody and homage. While films are directly mentioned, licensing and usage was still mediated and cased by a legal team. Example: Ghostbusters could be goofed, but Jack Black had to wing the theme song’s lyrics because the movie didn’t get rights to the Ray Parker jam.
Fanatic: Not only did Gondry Swede the trailer for Be Kind Rewind; he Swedes for fun. Just watch his ode to Taxi Driver.
The Gondry Eye: There’s something so crudely beautiful about Jack Black and Mos Def running down the steps of a library with tinsel and tin foil. Like kids playing make-believe, excited to pretend. Like, you know, the feel-good spirit of making movies and stuff.
Verdict: Easy-going and likeable, Be Kind Rewind is jolly (even if you wind up fast-forwarding to the good parts). A decent excuse for Gondry’s can-do, in-camera inventions – not to mention film fandom – the “Sweding” was this film’s accidental touchstone. It’s fun to love a movie, and Gondry’s reasonably sincere about that here. So even when the movie lags, or loses focus, we don’t feel rooked because Gondry pours a lot into his homages. –Blake Goble
07. The We and the I (2012)
Cast: Michael Brodie, Jonathan Scott Worell, Ladychen Carrasco, Teresa Lynn, and more in a diverse cast of non-actors
Plot: Last day of school. South Bronx. Kids on the MTA bus shoot the shit, confront one another, and learn a bit about themselves along the ride in a micro-portrait of youth. Cruelty to the elderly. Smashed guitars. Loves lost and found via poems and crude interactions. Micro vignettes in the vein of Breakfast Club or Dazed and Confused, but even more contemporary.
Music, Video: While this shares modest similarities with Gondry’s Earthier video forays, there’s something undeniably ‘80s about Gondry’s vibe here – and that has a lot to do with the soundtrack. Slick Rick, Run-D.M.C., and tons of Young MC appear and populate the atmosphere. We and the I is real 1985 like that. At least, hip-hop prevails until Boards of Canada show up.
Father of Invention: That boom box bus is so dope. Blasting Young MC? Radio Shack gonna sell these?
Think Visual: Even the surreal stuff – daydreaming about night clubs, beatings by grannies, yacht parties – feel rooted in the real. Gondry switches to cell camera as if to suggest social media culture and how these teens idealize their lives to maximum Like-potential. It’s a modestly nifty conceit.
School bus: There’s no set trickery here. Gondry shot guerilla-style with a camera and boom inside a real MTA bus. How verité.
The Real World: Gondry built this project over several years, accumulating actual stories from his amateur cast. For example, Brandon Diaz and Luis Figueroa’s heart-breaking relationship in the film? Really happened, and Gondry emboldened and shared this.
The Gondry Eye: There’s at least a three-hour seminar involved in unpacking this image of a teenage boy wearing a girl’s wig. Race. Class. Gender. Whimsy. Gondry’s socioeconomic lens of the world. Now accepting applications.
Verdict: Shot on location, using limited artificial devices, We and the I is very much an urban slice of life. Which comes with troubles for sure. The movie’s capable of being unpleasant and mean – teenagers are mean as hell – but it can’t be called dishonest. In 2012, this was likely antidote for Gondry after the highly commercial Green Hornet, and Gondry shows his chops for making nothing feel like everything. A bus ride. But it’s the most comprehensive, busy, and life-changing bus ride you ever saw. There’s drama in dates, drinking, beefs, kissing(!), and more in the life of teens. Friends swap. Feelings flatten and flip. And Gondry’s patient enough to stare. –Blake Goble
06. Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (2013)
Cast: Noam Chomsky, Michel Gondry
Plot: Linguistic/science/art/social critic/super genius Noam Chomsky sits down with Michel Gondry to discuss his life’s work, insights, and philosophies in conversational fashion. Well, a conversation inasmuch as Gondry refuses to simply share video of the talk. The director illustrates the entire conversation through illustrations on a slide transparency in doodle form. Try-hard (love it).
Music, Video: Off the top of the head – ever see Gondry’s Living Sisters video for “How Are You Doing?” Check out the opening illustrations for a parallel to his work on this doc. Then imagine him going whole hog with Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?.
Father of Invention: Gondry didn’t invent the movie camera. But he sure loves its power, and one of the secret weapons in his arsenal is his old home camera. It’s how he sees things, and helps the conversation here. At one point, he stops using digital video and insists on using an old home camera.
Think Visual: Imagine the most impressive handbook you ever did saw. The fact that Gondry hand-draws every last image in this documentary almost makes you feel guilty if you don’t pay it the attention it deserves.
Cheaters: In one of the film’s sweeter moments, Chomsky and Gondry admit to cheating as children and how it shaped their perceptions of honesty. Partners in crime.
French-born, Brookyln-bred: Gondry made this project in his free time while editing The Green Hornet. Shooting and chopping and illustrating out of his apartment in Brooklyn. It’s impressive what a guy like Gondry can achieve when some of us can barely muster the strength to clean our apartments.
The Gondry Eye: Mid-film, Gondry expresses frustration in his need to convey and communicate an idea with Chomsky, only for the scholar to refute and somewhat downplay Gondry’s words and efforts. This results in a maddening, hand-written confessional that only an individual like Gondry could get away with. Without being called ‘self-indulgent.’ It’s admirable.
Verdict: Every last college lecturer should see this. The act of conversation driven by curiosity and a need for understanding takes on this vivacious life through Gondry’s eager and honest eyes. Chomsky, as reading, is hard. Damn hard. And Gondry admits this. Especially as a Frenchman whose native tongue makes it harder for him to convey. It’s heady: social psychology, semiotics, tree branches and donkeys as metaphors ad-nauseum. But it’s so game and enthusiastic you actually come away feeling a little more learned and appreciative. Plus, Gondry’s animation of dogs running in circles or brains honey-combing though thoughts or just how much time Gondry spends illustrating trees to make a point is something to admire. (Or take LSD before watching.) Unexpectedly required reading. –Blake Goble
05. The Science of Sleep (2006)
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat, Miou-Miou, Emma de Caunes
Plot: A gentle animator (Bernal) with endless ideas and dreams of creating a “disasterology” calendar is met with continued disappointment when he returns home to France to discover that his new job is a tedious bore, nobody understands him, and he has no idea how to win over the attractive neighbor(s) next door. Soon, his daydreams and fantasies begin to collide with reality in increasingly uncontrollable ways as he tries to find love and stay sane.
Music, Video: Sure, his classic video for Kylie Minogue’s “Come Into My World” isn’t anywhere near as whimsically surreal as The Science of Sleep, but it’s one of those cases where Gondry was messing around with the razor-thin lines between fantasy and reality, years before he further explored those ideas in cinematic form. As the video loops in and out on itself, it forms a kind of narrative Moebius strip while remaining consistently playful.
Father of Invention: Bernal’s Stéphane is an inventor, albeit not one in the traditional sense. One of his most innovative, and poignant, creations is a “one-second time machine,” which allows the operator to travel backwards, if only for just one moment. It’s a microcosm of the film: constantly chasing something inarticulable, but which you already miss the second it goes away.
Think Visual: Where do you even start with the visual innovations of a film like this one? We’ll go with Stéphane’s giant hands, triggered by a fit of outrage and influenced visually by a recurring nightmare of Gondry’s. Like the best of Gondry’s work, the sequence takes an all-too-familiar sensation (insecurity about a burgeoning new relationship) and escalates it to cartoonish, hysterical effect.
Home is Where the Heart Is: Gondry apparently lived in the film’s central apartment building about 15 years before directing Sleep, which only strengthens the pervasive sense throughout that this may be the closest thing to a personal/biographical feature of a kind that we’ll ever see out of the filmmaker.
Get These Hands: Those giant hands we mentioned a second ago? They may be mined for a particular kind of emotional resonance here, but it’s not the first time Gondry has used that device, even in context of a dream. Jump back to his video for Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”, and you’ll see them pop up again.
The Gondry Eye: His visualization of Stéphane attempting to emotionally connect through a series of dog costumes and an infinitely scrolling script is both lovely and a pure visualization of so much of Gondry’s perception of how art is made. Start with raw, confusing, messy emotion. Add handmade objects. Continue to grow the scene until you can’t even remember what reality started off looking like in the first place.
Verdict: The Science of Sleep is the kind of Michel Gondry movie that people only loosely familiar with his work would immediately think about. From the childhood craft aesthetics to the occasionally painful explorations of male selfishness, Gondry uses some of his most fanciful imagery in any of his films to explore the ways in which falling in love with somebody can inhibit one from seeing the object of their desires as a person with their own feelings and needs and inner life. It’s every bit as scatterbrained a film as its protagonist, but therein lies the charm. It’s a film about how living inside dreams can’t become a permanent state, and more importantly, that it shouldn’t. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer