You shoot something in negative so to look positive you have to have the negative of the negative.
— Michel Gondry (Filmmaker, Winter 2008)
So much on my mind that I can’t recline.
Blastin’ holes in the night til she bled sunshine.
— Mos Def, “Respiration”
“Our past belongs to us,” lilts Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow). “We can change it if we want.” With this lovely, naïve and wholly insightful assertion, made near the end of Be Kind Rewind, you realize that what you’ve been watching is not only about videotapes, jazz, and real estate, but that it has indeed been a transporting, transcendent experience — even as it’s almost over.
The start of that experience is Fats Waller, or rather, an enchanting, strange reframing of Waller, playing the piano and played by Mike (Mos Def), with bowler and padding. The image is old-looking, a past reconstructed as a dream, but so sweet and spirited as to seem ethereal. Though “everyone” believes that Harlem was the capital of jazz, instructs narrator Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), in this past, that capital is Passaic, New Jersey, reimagined and revived. In Mr. Fletcher’s stories, told over years to his sort-of adopted son Mike, Waller was born in the very building that is now Mr. Fletcher’s video store, Be Kind Rewind (a place and state of mind as well as a film title). Beloved and remade in Mike and Mr. Fletcher’s minds, Waller is the perfect emblem of a past they like, a past that makes sense to them and helps to explain where they are now.
This set of relationships — father and son, past and present, fiction and something like history — forms the foundation of Be Kind Rewind, another gently antic film by Michel Gondry. The plot has Mr. Fletcher grappling with the imminent end of his business, owing to gentrification and the incursion of DVDs. As he heads off to research a way to salvage the store (and so, its made-up history), he leaves Mike in charge, not an especially daunting task, as business has dwindled to maybe one or two customers a day.
Mike’s best friend Jerry (Jack Black) brings the chaos. This despite Mr. Fletcher’s warning to “Keep Jerry out” (written on a train window, so it appears backwards and unfathomable to Mike, until he deciphers it, too late, a mini-saga of communication and storytelling, wherein Mike puzzles over the cryptic backwards letters he has memorized, trying multiple configurations and still missing the meaning). When a scheme to sabotage a nearby power plant leaves Jerry magnetized (and briefly adrift in a hilariously nearly silent-filmy bit of comedy), he stumbles into the store and erases every tape on the shelves. Afraid to disappoint Mr. Fletcher, Mike and Jerry devise a scheme by which they will re-record each movie, with themselves in all the parts. The first request, from Miss Falewicz, is Ghost Busters, and the boys, along with Wilson (Irv Gooch), spend an afternoon in the Passaic library and other locations, their memory of the movie accurate and not, the special effects an assembly of Christmas garlands on sticks, books on strings, and whipped cream, and the running time somewhere around 20 minutes.
Their ruse is discovered by Miss Falewicz’s nephew Craig (Chandler Parker), but his response, shared by his scary-looking, tattooed, t-shirted friends, is delight. Trying to cover up their scheme, Jerry gives the remake a name — it’s been “Sweded” (meaning it’s from Sweden, the version of “foreign” Jerry can come up with on the fly), thus its oddity, indeed, its perversity. The concept is full of possibility at once wholly original and more or less copied, new and old, past and present. Craig and company are les concerned with the allusions than the pleasures they’ve found in watching, and they want to see more. They tell their friends, who tell their neighbors and soon Mike and Jerry are remaking other movies, from Robocop (“I know robo-karate,” improvises Jerry as the hero) and 2001 (a black refrigerator as the monolith) to When We Were Kings (the contenders in trunks and wigs) and Boyz N the Hood (a pizza posing as splattered brains behind a shooting victim’s head). When they discover a need for a girl (Jerry being averse to kissing a man for his role as Lee in Rush Hour 2, they enlist a clerk from the dry cleaners, Alma (Melonie Diaz), whose own creativity and ambition only enhance Mike and Jerry’s concoctions.
Even aside from the essential charm of the Sweded tapes’ DIY look and the visible, very visceral satisfaction shown by both makers and viewers, they’re not only nostalgic. Be Kind Rewind makes clear as well the compromises and difficulties presented by history, by hierarchies of value. Mike is loathe to Swede Driving Miss Daisy (“I never really got this movie,” he sighs), but agrees to don freckles and Hoke’s cap to drive Jerry, unable to sit still in the back seat, even as his misbehavior can’t distract from the sad exasperation settling onto Mike’s face. The Sweded tapes look forward as well as back, reimagining a past as it might have been, projecting a future that its makers want to see and live. (Gondry has sweded the trailer for his film).
The process of Sweding soon becomes a community project, another glance back and ahead at the same time (think of Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, directed by Gondry). With viewers contributing to their stories (Alma calls them “stockholders in their own happiness”), Mike and Jerry are able to increase production, maybe even making enough money to be able to save the store. By the time the copyright lawyers arrive — headed by the ignominiously named Ms. Lawson (Sigourney Weaver) — the community is pretty much unstoppable, moved by the restraints to make still more elaborate art. It’s a parable of creativity in spire of duress and limits, the lesson embodied by Fats Waller. The community decides to remake his past as their own on tape. Waller lives on in diverse incarnations here, in footage, stills, an underpass wall mural and Mike’s performance (even in Jerry’s quickly rejected blackface version, Mr. Fletcher hustling him aside to explain the problem Jerry doesn’t see). As Be Kind Rewind celebrates his memory, it finds him again and again.