Be Kind, Rewind

Watching Wall-E got me thinking about another movie that takes the redemption of yesterday’s technology as its theme:  Be Kind, Rewind.  I loved The Science of Sleep, so I’ve been looking forward to seeing Michel Gondry’s newest for a while.


Be Kind is in many ways more restrained and less visually inventive than that earlier film, which took as its subject one man’s productive-yet-dangerous inability to distinguish between reality and dreams. Gondry’s newer concoction is about characters who similarly fail to live in the “real world,” but in this case their dreams are more communal. The challenge posed (or trespass committed) on the boundary between truth, illusion and delusion is more complex, involving our relationship to the technology of imagination – the “culture industry” writ large and small –  rather than the ruthless egoism of private fantasy.


Any plot summary will make the movie sound unbearably mawkish, and indeed, like Science, Be Kind poses the puzzling question of how Gondry can make a movie so hopelessly sentimental without making it feel unduly saccharine.  His movies trip along with an endearing goofy innocence, whimsical, as if made by a childlike figure drunk on the power of film – much like the one played by Jack Black here.  


In his movies, Gondry plays the part of Wall-E. In a world where, like the shiny hard surface of a DVD, cultural production has become impenetrable, we’ve forgotten that the magic of film is human-made. This point is driven home when Mos Def and Jack Black’s characters visit a Blockbuster-colored  DVD rental shop. The eye of a state-of-the-art projector lovingly cared for by the store’s owner is a dazzling and godlike figure.  Beware he who looks directly at the blazing countenance of this god.


But this movie is not an unreserved celebration of the small and archaic over the large and modern. (If it were, its nostalgia would be unforgivable.) In a poetic closing scene, the bright eye of this state-of-the-art projector, borrowed from the DVD rental, is what makes the beautiful, participatory imaginings of a small community visible to those outside, as it projected the film’s image both on to and through a white sheet hung in the video store’s window, showing the movie both to those within and to the crowd gathering in the street outside. Somehow, in a way the magical realism of the movie doesn’t quite make clear, the miracle of technology allows us to preserve and share our hand-made – or even invented – cultural heritage, projecting the safe interior into the street, and taking back ownership over unowned space by erasing the boundaries between interior and exterior.



Wall-E is an ode to the importance of garbage; not getting rid of it, or even recycling it, but just living with it. 

The movie begins on a 29th-century Earth full of trash, but emptied of life.  The sole inhabitants seem to be an improbably-tiny and dented trash-compacting robot, our eponymous hero, and his companion cockroach.  Wall-E spends his days building skyscrapers of compacted cubes of garbage, echoing the still-standing skylines of abandoned cities, and collecting an odd assortment of treasures from amongst the junk with which to amuse himself and decorate his little home – christmas lights, a rubix cube, an old iPod, and a tape of Gene Kelly’s “Hello Dolly!”

Ravaged by dust-storms and threatened by his own deteriorating body, Wall-E’s future looks bleak until he receives a visit from a shiny, hovering, white egg of a robot with blue eyes and impressive fire power. Our shy little friend, starved for companionship, is smitten. The ensuing chase takes us from the deserted Earth to one of the giant space stations in which humankind is whiling its time (700 years and counting) since Earth became uninhabitably toxic.

Wall-E is not quite perfect and a few moments strike a discordant note.  Both Wall-E and his crush are endowed with rudimentary signs of gender and the ovular Eve has a jarringly feminine scream. At a few moments the physical humor tips from the clever and Chaplinesque to the bone- and gear-crunchingly repetitive, but overall the film achieves a poetic brilliance rarely seen on screen. It is a captivating fable about the beauty of human visual culture.

Although most obviously a parable about stewardship of the earth, Wall-E is at its heart about the importance of preserving our cultural heritage. Armed with the instruments and ideas provided by a planet full of abandoned human culture, Wall-E is better equipped to save the world and care for its life than all the sanitized technological ingenuity of the auto-piloted space colonies above.  In one of the movie’s most memorable images, a solitary green sprout, sign that the planet has not been irreparably destroyed, is nourished neither in Eve’s shiny sterilized womb nor the soil, but in an old shoe.

Though he is as enthralled by the sleek and the new as anyone who has ever visited Best Buy “just to look”, Wall-E takes pleasure in all generations of technology, back to and including the entrancing dance of flame. And this, it turns out, is precisely what has gone wrong with the soft jelly-bean kind who have abandoned Earth for space ships fully equipped with virtual activities and hovering recliners with jumbo cup-holders. They’ve abandoned their trash. Garbage produced on these space ships is not lived with but shot into space; the surfaces aboard are shiny and depressingly uncluttered. Everything is the most recent model. (“Buy Blue; it’s the new red!” intones an advertisement, and the hundreds of hovering humans, with a press of a button, switch from red to blue outfits leaving no evidence of the change.) On the aptly-named Axiom, human life has become simply self-evident, with no genealogy, genesis or concept of growth.  Without garbage, all sense of the passage of time has been lost and without any broken pieces, there are no tools with which to escape.  Enter our hero, plucky, resourceful, and most certainly not the newest model.  

The closing credits play over a tableau vivant of the film’s (re)creation myth, first in the style of a cave-drawing and then in a succession of visual styles ending in Van-Gogh swirls of color. And so, Wall-E closes with an account of its own genealogy. In this story, Pixar is not simply the culmination of human visual culture; it is the redeeming angel, looking backward at the growing heaps of detritus left behind, salvaging the scraps, the cast-offs and the older models, reminding us of the whirs, the right angles (before Apple rounded them all off) and the pixelated images of yesterday, and offering the rusted skin of a material culture we’ve already shed a second life.