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.