MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

The Science of Gondry

I’ve been a fan of Michel Gondry for quite a while, vividly remembering watching some of his early videos on MTV’s “120 Minutes” when I was growing up. Of course, at the time I had no idea who this Frenchman was, not bothering to look at who actually directed these videos for Daft Punk or Bjork. Later, I became more familiar with his work after watching his feature films. When his Director’s Label DVD came out, I eagerly snatched it up so that I could watch his video for Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water” over and over, so that I could study it and try to figure out how he did it. I found an embarrassment of riches on that DVD, including his remarkable video for Kylie Minogue’s “Come Into My World” and his now-classic video for the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl.” These music videos are proof that Gondry has a unique, original voice and an enormous amount of talent. He is a singular voice in modern cinema, a man who is capable of greatness but has thus far only scratched the surface.

Gondry’s new film, Be Kind Rewind, is his fourth feature-length film and it seems like the work of a man who is content to just be spinning his wheels without going anywhere. The premise of the film, that a man accidentally erases all of the VHS tapes in a video store and he and his buddy proceed to remake (or “swede”) all of those films, is an interesting one but, unfortunately, it seems derivative not only of other works, but of Gondry’s past films as well. But in order to appreciate where this film falls in the spectrum of Gondry’s career, let’s look at what has brought him to this point.

To say that Michel Gondry is indulgent isn’t an insult, just a statement of fact. Sometimes his indulgence works in his favor and sometimes it doesn’t. In his music videos, the barrage of ideas are contained in three to five minute works and the songs seem to give him a structure around which to build his vision. The marriage of the music with the images in videos like Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” show an uncanny ability to edit his wild ideas into a cohesive story. That video would foreshadow a lot of what Gondry would do in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but especially Science of Sleep.

The storyline of the “Everlong” video has a man and his wife/girlfriend (played by the band’s singer/guitarist Dave Grohland the drummer Taylor Hawkins, respectively) falling asleep and the wife has a nightmare. The husband wakes to his wife calling him from inside her dream, only to have him go back to sleep in order to save her from her nightmare. In the dream world, the husband turns to his hand which grows to an enormous size to dispatch the baddies. In the video there are multiple references to Evil Dead, but the whole video turns on this idea of being able to meld dreams with reality and the way in which our dreams (or nightmares) can become our reality if we believe them. It also is incredibly romantic, the idea that this man wants to save his wife from her nightmares and become – essentially – the man of her dreams. In this four minute video, Gondry creates something totally unique and unusual as well as something that is unbelievably compelling and heartfelt. It was this video, I believe, that Gondry proved he was able to meld his wild images with romantic ideals in order to fashion something that audiences might be able to watch for ninety minutes.

In 2001 he got the chance to show what he could do with his first motion picture, Human Nature, which was written by the equally zany Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich). The film itself was kind of an oddball take on Truffaut’s The Wild Child, dealing with a scientist (Tim Robbins) and his naturalist girlfriend (Patricia Arquette) who seek to humanize a man who has been raised in the wilderness (Rhys Ifans). The film is a nice debut and Gondry shows aplomb in bringing Kaufman’s loony sensibilities to life, although it definitely falters in both story and direction in comparison to Kaufman’s previous outing Being John Malkovich, which was directed by another first-time ex-music video director named Spike Jonze. Not only was Malkovich the better and more original script, but Jonze seems more comfortable shifting his aesthetic in order to fit the mood of the piece. In Human Nature, it seems as if Gondry is trying to fit Kaufman’s script into his own unique universe and the marriage is not always a pleasant one.

The film is based on a love triangle between Nathan (Robbins), Lila (Arquette) and Puff (Ifans) as well as a fight between Nathan and Lila for what the future of Puff is to be. It is the fight between nature versus nurture, about whether or not a person can be changed and whether that person should be changed to conform to society’s standards. It is easy to see where Gondry might be interested in this kind of story, seeing as he usually paints himself as something of an outcast because of his childish nature and his refusal to grow up. There is even a documentary on his Director’s Label DVD that he made called I’ve Been Twelve Forever.

Gondry also brings a lot of his past influences and work on music videos to Human Nature; specifically the parts in the forest where Puff lives and where Lila goes to live are very much inspired by his music video for Bjork’s “Human Behaviour.” In that video there are scenes of Bjork being chased by a bear in a forest, only to be eaten by the bear and ending up trapped in its stomach. It’s a viewpoint that is inherent in Kaufman’s script and that Gondry brings extra nuance to, the point that we risk being consumed by nature if we spend too much time trying to be a part of it. In Human Nature, Puff spends his whole life believing that there is nothing more to the world than the nature that surrounds him and is immediately corrupted when he gets a taste of “the good life.” The move ends quite cynically, with allusions to Adam and Eve being kicked out of Eden, with Puff feeling ashamed of his own naked body when he once had no qualms about appearing bare before people.

Overall the film is a mild success, but was a bit too in love with its own inventiveness. It’s hard to tell if the fault lies with Gondry or Kaufman, but there are a lot of “look at me” moments contained in the film, from the way the story is told (with one character narrating from beyond the grave) to various character tics (Lila is covered head to toe in hair which she has removed), it’s a bit much to take at times. The fact that it seems like a lot of offbeat things coming at you at once is probably more Gondry’s fault; in Malkovich, the storyline is inherently stranger but Jonze is able to ground it in a real world that is familiar. Gondry strains at times to figure out whether or not Human Nature takes place in our world or a different version of our world. Overall, it was a film that showed a tremendous amount of promise.

For his sophomore outing, Gondry came out swinging, directing another script by Charlie Kaufman (based on a story by Gondry and Pierre Bismuth), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film, starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as a couple who break up and have their memories of their relationship erased, was an unqualified success. Human Nature was too cynical for Gondry, it turns out; with Eternal Sunshine, Gondry is able to use the romance as a base for which he can take out his bag of tricks. From the beautiful images of a bed on a wintry beach or the lead actors being washed in a giant sink, Gondry gives us indelible pictures that are not only visually arresting but emotionally stimulating as well. These crazy situations actually signify important parts of these characters’ psyches and it makes the connection between us and them more powerful.

This is a film where dream and memory play a large part, as they had in Gondry’s music videos and as they will in his next two features. Jim Carrey’s Joel realizes halfway through the erasure of his memories of his relationship with Clementine (Winslet) that some of those memories are too good to let go. At one point he pleads to the heavens, “please let me keep this one” and it’s a touching reminder to every audience member who has ever suffered through heartbreak and has wanted to give up every good time to be rid of this lousy feeling; it’s a reminder that as bad as we might feel, we must always remember how good we used to have it. This is an extremely important thing to remember as we near the end of the film, where Joel and Clementine “meet” again after having their memories erased and decide to give things another shot. There is a note that tells them it hasn’t worked out for them before and it probably won’t work out again, but unless you have that memory, you will constantly make the same mistakes repeatedly. Our memories are our saviors.

The film was a moderate success at the box office and Gondry wound up winning an Oscar (he had a “story by” credit). The newly minted Oscar winner best known for his image manipulation decided to take a detour on the way to his next feature film, directing the concert film Dave Chapelle’s Block Party. I’m not usually a big fan of “concert” films, but Gondry’s fluid camera work really makes this film feel like a block party in a movie theater. How much you like the film ultimately rests with how well you like performers like the Fugees, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, The Roots, Dead Prez, Common, and Mos Def. For me, I enjoy some and dislike others, so I felt it was pretty good. I walked away thinking two things: 1) Dave Chapelle is extraordinarily talented and 2) Gondry is adept with a camera, even when he’s not manipulating the images and I felt this could be a massive leap forward to him, a maturity of sorts.

Alas, I forgot that Michel Gondry will be “twelve forever.” His next picture was a very personal project called The Science of Sleep, which he both wrote and directed. I call it personal not just because this was his first film as the sole credited screenwriter or because a lot of the filming was done in the house he used to live in, but because it feels like a pastiche of everything Gondry had done before. It truly feels like a “kitchen sink” movie, with references to everything from the large hand in the “Everlong” video to the strings of paper floating in the wind in the “Sugar Water” video. This film really laid bare all of Gondry’s fetishes: anything analog, rudimentary animation or claymation, lots of cardboard sets, and dreams.

Lucky for Gondry that he was able to find two leads like Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, playing characters who are as crudely drawn as some of the animations but are given depth and humanity by the actors. Stephane and Stephanie live across the hall from each other in an apartment complex in Paris. Stephane is a dreamer who often is unable to tell the difference between waking life and his dreams, which usually causes him nothing but trouble and consternation. But he can’t help it, his dreams are so much better than his life most of the time that he finds himself trying to sleep as much as possible so that he can dream. Then he falls in love with Stephanie and finds that his dreams are becoming a hindrance to their coupling.

Gondry plays a lot with the audience on this one, tantalizing us with sections that seem real but turn out to be dreams and vice versa. Some of the dreams are recognizable right away, like when Stephanie is the “host” of his own talk show with a card-board set, but others are not always easy to grasp. This is territory we usually find David Lynch treading in, but Gondry tries to bring a lighter touch to the proceedings. Some of the images are startling and fascinating, like Bernal floating through a card-board city, but the dreams are hard to decipher at times.

Alas, I find the film to be something of a failure in the end because the dreams become less and less interesting as the film goes on. If you’ve ever had a conversation with somebody who wants to tell you what their dream was last night, that’s what this movie ultimately feels like. It tends to be a bore at times and it’s hard to relate to a character who’d rather retreat to these meandering non-linear dreams than to live the life he has in front of him. It’s not a disaster and is enjoyable most of the time, but I walked away feeling like Gondry was starting to recycle his own ideas.

This brings us to Be Kind Rewind starring Jack Black and Mos Def as Gondry’s surrogate filmmakers trying to save VHS in Passaic, NJ. From the second the movie starts, it begins to feel derivative of films as diverse as Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo and UHF. It has a lot of the standard “problems” that occur in these kind of movies: the removal of a money-losing but beloved neighborhood institution, the race to make enough money to save said institution, the coming together of a town, etc. This would all be fine if it didn’t remain slavish to those conventions. As a result, this feels like the least original of all of Gondry’s films despite having perhaps the most inventive premise.

Gondry brings little of his visual acuity to the proceedings, content to allow the low-def style that pervades the remakes in the film to become emblematic of a theme of “it’s the message, not the medium.” Unfortunately the “message” is not very clearly defined and while the ending of the film is certainly affirming a love for film, it is also about maturing from low-def, analog and indie to high-def, digital and mainstream. That is the perfect way of looking at this film from Gondry’s viewpoint. This is Gondry’s stab at a mainstream comedy, but the truth of the matter is that he is not especially funny in a mainstream kind of way. His past films and music videos have made me smile at their inventiveness and the sly and dry wit he brings to the proceedings, but here it as if he told Jack Black to just ham it up as best as he can and hope that the premise is funny enough to carry them all. The premise is indeed funny enough, but it doesn’t carry them all the way to the finish line. Many of the remade films’ best parts can be witnessed in the trailer and the storyline around those remakes strains credulity when it’s not unbelievably trite.

Ultimately the film is the least of Gondry’s films as a director and I wonder if it is because it’s the only film that doesn’t have a traditional love story at its heart. It could be a love story between Mike and Jerry (Mos Def and Jack Black), but the chemistry really isn’t there between them and it’s hard to buy their friendship since they seem to have very little in common. A huge stumbling block for this film is that it doesn’t know which world it wants to take place in, the real one or Gondryworld. Passaic, NJ is a real place so I would be inclined to believe that it is supposed to take place in the real world, but I’m also supposed to buy thatJack Black’s character can get magnetized when he tries to destroy a power plant and that everyone in this real town only watches VHS tapes.

There are a lot of interesting things about the film, to be sure. For instance, returning to Gondry’s persistent theme of memory, it is interesting to note the difference between Mike and Jerry’s memories of the films they are remaking and the actual films. At one point when they are remaking Driving Miss Daisy, Jerry informs Mike that he hasn’t seen the film and so he’s his impression of what he remembers Jessica Tandy doing in the trailer. It’s an interesting theme, how our memory conflicts with reality, but it is given short shrift in Be Kind Rewind.

The bottom line is that this latest Michel Gondry film feels like a lark, something that he could just have fun with and stick to the conventions when he wasn’t trying to be offbeat. I just hope the next time out Gondry uses his considerable talents on a film that is not only worthy of his vision but that also will rein him in a bit. I would say that he should try to find a straight-forward drama or action film and see what he could do with that because I’d be curious to see what Gondry could do with, say, a Bourne movie. But, I also encourage him to stay twelve forever and keep trying to entertain himself while trying to entertain us. The last thing I want from him is to lose the passion that he clearly brings to each project, but I do implore him to be reminded that he needs to instill that passion in his viewers. He’s got a lot of great movies in that head of his and I just hope he’ll be kind enough to share them.

– Noah Forrest
February 26, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 24 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Frenzy On Column

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon