The Future is Behind You:
The Reclamation of Place in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind
Perusing the latest reviews of Michel Gondry’s film Be Kind Rewind, I was surprised to find several references to Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life. Given Gondry’s status as one of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic directors, whose previous work with such iconic eccentrics as Björk and Beck secured him a prolific career centered on excavating the absurd, the comparison to Capra’s wholesome slice of Americana seems strange. What could Gondry’s bizarre, implausible story of two goofballs (Mos Def and Jack Black), who try to save a local video store from gentrification by creating their own weird, low budget versions of popular films (a process known in the film as “sweding”) have to do with the existential crisis of the straight-laced George Bailey?
The answer—if we are to trust these reviewers—hinges on the ending scenes. In Capra’s classic ending, the suicidal George Bailey is stitched back into the community when he realizes that, without him, the small town of Bedford Falls would have been sucked into the abyss of urbanization. Indeed, without his firm leadership, Bedford Falls would not even exist, becoming instead Pottersville, a decrepit city space filled with pawn shops and sleazy bars. Capra's contrast could not be starker: from the collective might of a pristine American town to a city strangled by social anomie, Capra’s tale is as much about the rapid process of modern urbanization as it is with the moral fate of a single individual. In fact, for Capra, the two are ineluctably linked: transformed by his glimpse into urban darkness, George Bailey finally realizes the value of the public good and in a final act of collective action Bedford Falls is saved.
At the end of Be Kind Rewind we are also asked to ponder the viability of collective action. While this time the culminating moment of civic pride involves the film’s two bumbling idiots, who slowly bring together an inner city neighborhood by including its people in their “amateur” film productions, the end result is no less moving or nostalgic. However, unlike Capra’s tale of “every individual ultimately matters,” what conjures up the collective good in Gondry’s film is not exclusively anthropomorphic. Rather, the unifying principle is architectural: since Mr. Fletcher’s video store is the supposed birthplace of local jazz hero Fats Waller, its preservation becomes the centerpiece for the neighborhood’s collective fight over urban cultural memory.
The comparisons do not end here. As with Capra’s whimsical solution to the dilemma of Bedford Falls (the dreamscape as the site of socio-political action) Gondry’s solution to the problem of gentrification centers on the creative use of media technologies. For by allowing the local residents to share in the filmmaking process, Mike and Jerry’s film business not only shows the ingenuity involved in marginal, low-budget projects, but demonstrates how cinema can form a collective tool in addressing social issues like gentrification. Indeed, with the entire neighborhood behind the film projects, Fletcher’s store seems destined to be saved from the cold hands of gentrification. Yet this is no Capra film. For as soon as the film approaches a happy culmination, a legal team representing several greedy Hollywood conglomerates appear, and all hope of saving the building quickly dwindles. The protagonists’ lucrative “home made” movie industry turns out to be in violation of numerous copyright laws and is terminated immediately.
Yet while Gondry does not provide us with the optimistic ending espoused by Capra, all is not in vain. Minutes before a wrecking ball sends Fletcher’s store into oblivion, a last glimmer of hope is witnessed, as hundreds of local citizens come out to lend their support to the noble filmmakers. Here in a final image of a cheering, jubilant crowd Gondry pays homage to collective action at its most nostalgic. Publicly united, firmly implanted in the streets, Gondry’s crowd seems destined to accomplish anything.
So does the comparison still stand? Certainly, on one level, both films tell the story of how collective action can be waged against a world sullied by greed and corporate aggression. And while, in terms of today’s political climate, Gondry’s collective fervor may seem like an impossible fantasy—a throwback to “simpler times” when the galvanizing force of the public could be felt through a unanimous spatial presence, it does nonetheless remind us of what shape collective action might take.
Yet, by focusing only on this general notion of the collective good we run the risk of evading some of film’s subtler differences. After all, whereas Capra’s tale is set squarely within a nostalgic framework, wherein the all-American small town is pitted against the demoralizing, noir-like features of urbanization, for Gondry it is the city itself which forms the backbone of the public good. Thus, while the spirit of these two films may be similar, their contrasting spatial environments tell different stories about which location—city or town—is best suited to achieving a strong public sphere.
It is this territorial question of differing spatial arrangements that foster alternative notions of the public good that I wish to consider in this essay, since it is crucial to understanding the counter-hegemonic concerns of the film. While many will undoubtedly find Gondry’s critique of mainstream cinema the most pressing concern of Be Kind Rewind , wherein the protagonists’ low-fi, creative re makes mirror Gondry’s own filmic experimentations, this critique, I believe, needs to be placed in context: as a highly spatial medium, the cinema not only possesses the ability to express the nuances of specific locations—from a city’s erosion into physical degradation to the preservation of certain architectural icons. But, as James Hay writes, specific territorial environments are equally needed to understand the cinema.1 Obviously, such a view no longer fits with a purely semiotic or formalistic understanding of cinema. Instead of forming a closed system of meaning, wherein cinematic signs refer to only other cinematic signs, Hay’s theory points to an expansive geo-political system, wherein meaning is made possible through the cinema’s constant contact with the built environment. As such, the cinema offers a unique position to reflect some of the very real physical and social changes affecting contemporary cities.
Indeed, for Gondry the cinema’s ability to document specific geographic territories could not be any more precise . Set in the city of Passaic, New Jersey, Gondry confines his film to a few key places, namely Mr. Fletcher’s antiquated video store, in order to highlight how a group of characters transform the outdated medium of analog video into a viable solution to the problem of gentrification. However, what is interesting about this acute use of a particular location (and an unheard of one at that) is not just its archival documentation of a forgotten city, but how the local is used to explore the global. That is, by contextualizing the film around the globally ubiquitous issue of gentrification, Gondry not only shows how global processes are experienced locally, but reveals how globalization can be responded to in unique, place-specific ways.
In order to unpack the significance of this question of territorialities, I will focus my analysis around three thematic areas. The first involves the status of peripheral or forgotten cities in the context of globalization. The second involves the relationship between prosthetic memory technologies, like architecture and the cinema, and the process of gentrification. And the final theme explores the role independent cinema plays in giving voice to local or regional issues, thereby acting as a counter-hegemonic force resistant to the myopic cultures of globalization.
Where in the World is Passaic, China?
In his article “The New World System” Joshua Clover asks the simple but deeply loaded question: "Where is China?"2 The question is strange, since it is not one that can be answered from a geographic point of view. Such an answer would provide a far too stable solution to a geo-political reality that is anything but solid. Rather, Clover’s question is pointed at the cinema’s ability to map the complex spatialities associated with globalization. As such, the question “Where is China?” becomes a rhetorical device pointing to the impossibility of the task . Where is China? It is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Specifically, Clover’s question is directed at contemporary Chinese cinema, which, according to Clover, has witnessed the unfortunate demise of important poetic visionaries like Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Whereas directors like Kar-wai once brought to life the vivid and nuanced features of places like Hong Kong, the trend today is the creation of various watered-down representations of generic global cities. This can be found for example in Kar-wai’s first English film My Blueberry Nights where the intensity, cultural tension, and uprootedness typical of a Kong drama is transposed to a mere romantic road movie. Thus, according to Clover, in place of specificity and uniqueness we have the non-place and the generic, a litany of interchangeable international destinations that are supposed to represent the shift to globalization.
While Clover is right to bemoan the rise of generic urban representations, it is when he makes the odd observation that the most acute depiction of contemporary China comes not from the East but is found in the industrial decay of Passaic, New Jersey that things become truly bizarre. The reference, as you will have probably guessed, is to Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, which Clover argues offers a fantasy scene of China at its most complex: “this is the China of our dreams: half cheap, fast, and out-of-control hyper-capitalist production zone…Here comes China” .3
Exactly what Clover wants to achieve by this unexpected observation is not entirely clear. Sure, the film’s reference to the problem of copyright infringement can be taken as a loose reference to Hollywood’s attempt to curb the problem of piracy in areas like China. We could also understand the comparison in terms of what Frederic Jameson calls mapping the geo-political aesthetic, a problem of representation Jameson observes in many complex film narratives, whereby appearances are always deceptive and the spatial boundaries between first and third worlds collapse into a nomadic zone of indeterminacy.4 Like Passaic, China would represent an extreme case of the way globalization works to diminish the specificity of national cultures through transnational practices.
However, instead of pursuing this line of argument, I want to take Gondry’s representation of Passaic at face value. I do so not in a spirit of naïveté, in which the complex spatialities associated with transnational cultures or multinational capitalism are avoided or straightened-out by a return to representational clarity. Rather, I do so in order to point out a persistent flaw in many depictions of global cultures, namely that the world system consists of a dispersed, dematerialized network of informatic cities, which usurp all local and regional significance in favor of endless circulations of information. One always gets the feeling from such depictions that everyone and everything is cast under the spell of a ubiquitous nomadism, that one cannot trust what is found in one’s own backyard, that everything must be understood in terms of an ever-elusive global elsewhere.
Ultimately what is lost in many of these depictions of the world system is the persistence of place, a phenomenon succinctly described by Marc Auge as the arrival of the non-place.5 Defining contemporary western culture as a state of supermodernity, Auge’s non-place refers to how places once experienced as local, historically-defined and context-based have been reduced to empty, homogenous spaces that spread easily and evenly across the globe. Stripped of local variance, we enter a phase of monocultures, context-free places that no longer depend on using local knowledge and variation to navigate the environment. Rather the non-place is a space open to all users, since it is dependent on technological codes that are near universal. What Auge has in mind here is the way many signs of global cultures, using an ATM machine or checking email, are the same no matter where you are from or where you are going. As such, in the supermodern world of rapid global navigation, the previous distinction between point of arrival and point of destination breaks down. Textured places become empty spaces and context becomes merely a slight variation in the universality of the techno-code.
What is deeply problematic about these depictions is how they neglect the means in which globalization can be experienced locally in many unique ways. Furthermore, while many important theories of globalization warn of the way local cultures bear the stress of being usurped by cross-global corporations or media giants, often times this picture of a global cultural calamity is deeply exaggerated. For as many new studies on globalization indicate, by attending to the way globalization is experienced at a micro level we begin to see alternative spaces that bypass the simplified image of a flattened global world overrun by global powers .6 Take as an example Manual Castells’s new study on the international consumption of ICT’s, where even globally dominant technologies like cell phones need to be understood in a cultural context.7 Or there is Mette Hjort’s work on how a small nation like Denmark has been able to challenge and compete with Global Hollywood by creating local/regional film partnerships with other Nordic countries.8 Finally, even Auge’s notion of the non-place is thrown into question by several recent sociological studies that demonstrate how diverse populations respond differently to the process of micro globalizations, and that people have learned to live both “here and there” without the experience of these places dovetailing to some grand idea of a ubiquitous non-place.9
When we turn to Gondry’s filmic exploration of place, however, it is not enough to simply discuss the ways in which the film questions globalization’s culture of invariant landscapes. For while the use of Passaic, New Jersey offers a marginal place to mediate how local places, like cities, still matter in the world system, this appraisal of place needs to be distinguished further. With the influential work of Saskia Sassen, for example, we have grown accustomed to talking about the rise of global cities, which act as control centers for the global economy.10 In this view, the geo-political landscape is not self-same or homogenous, but is plotted with various key nodal points that make up a hierarchy of important global places. A similar line of argument has been reached by some technology studies that show how the rise of a postindustrial society can be understood geographically. Whereas certain high tech regions, like Silicon Valley, have prospered due to its association with technological innovation, other areas, especially older industrial areas have fallen off the radar. As such, a battle between de-industrial lag and technological innovation can be mapped geographically as the uneven spread of high technology .11
What is crucial here is not only that place matters, but that any nuanced account of global cultures must deal with how the power associated with technological innovation and global finance is unevenly developed. For every prosperous global city, like New York or London, with its highly mobile corporate classes, its cultural centers and trendy tourist attractions, there are numerous forgotten cities, marginal zones on the periphery that continue on a fast path of degradation. Of course, it is common to think of these areas in terms of the third world. However, as many studies have shown, the polarization enacted through uneven development is felt within western nations, especially in those highly industrial urban areas that have not been able to take advantage of the burgeoning high-tech industries.
The immersion into such forgotten landscapes I believe is one of the most striking features of Gondry’s film. In an age when many key theorists, like Baudrillard, have based their postmodern theories on images of certain key cities, especially Las Vegas, it is refreshing to see an unknown, peripheral city like Passaic placed on the cinematic map.12 Indeed, by focusing on an area of the city which suffers from obvious neglect, Gondry enables us to view how marginal places experience and even reject the force of globalization locally.
Perhaps the most succinct visual example of this exploration of the forgotten side of urban places occurs in the opening scene. The scene , typical of many films set in urban places, involves a long aerial shot that begins from some distant place outside the city and then proceeds to move ever closer to the city center and its bundle of iconic, shimmering towers.
However, while Gondry sets out from the beginning to create an opposition between center and periphery, throughout the film this division or rivalry means different things. First, on one level, the rivalry between center and periphery is geographically specific: it tells the story of the historic rivalry between New York and New Jersey , a motif that continues to be particularly vocal in contemporary popular culture. The immensely popular crime drama The Sopranos, for example, not only tells the story of New Jersey mob-boss Tony Sopranos’ rise to power, but equally shows how the toughness, brutality and street smarts of his New Jersey team matches, even exceeds, the notorious antics of New York’s crime lords. Or, in a recent episode of the television series How I Meet Your Mother, the prospect that one of the characters may have to move to New Jersey leads the ultra-hip Manhattanites to unleash a full-fledged assault on the cultural mediocrity of their neighbors.
In Be Kind Rewind , the ongoing rivalry between New Jersey and New York rests on a canonical duel over a piece of American cultural history. As Mr. Fletcher enthusiastically proclaims in the opening voice-over-narration, whereas most people believe that the capital of jazz was Harlem, in fact the real hot-spot of jazz music in the 20’s and 30’s was the small town of Passaic, New Jersey. Each weekend, Fletcher continues, New Yorkers would venture across the river and spend all night partying to what would become one of the greatest musical movements in American history. And what was the reason for such a dramatic migration to an otherwise marginal city? It was due to none other than local jazz hero Fats Waller. Born and raised in the building that became Fletcher’s video store, the prolific Fats Waller was the town’s cherished son, who not only charted new avenues in music, but enabled the town to flourish culturally.
Of course, anyone with even the most trivial knowledge of jazz history will immediately apprehend the absurdity of Fletcher’s revisionist story of American jazz. Fletcher himself, near the end of the film, confesses that the story of Fats’ birthplace was entirely fabricated, a bedtime story he devised for the young, orphaned Mike. However, as everyone knows, even the most innocent of lies can spread like wild fire. With time Fletcher’s bedtime story moved from the private sphere of fantasy and entered the landscape of public legends. As such, Fletcher’s fabrication represents a myth of origins, a vital illusion that not only provided the young boy with a compelling reason to embrace his harsh surroundings, but helped organize a new mode of collectivity, as the story became a shared piece of cultural history that united the entire neighborhood.
What should we make of this fabricated piece of cultural history? For me, it is not the fact that Fletcher’s story of the birthplace of jazz is false that is most compelling; nor is it that fabrications are part and parcel of the formation of cultural identities. Rather, what interests me is how the simulacrum is physically enacted, how the virtual story requires a materialistic base from which to perform its social function. No matter how remote or intangible the story of the past may be, no matter if it is wrapped in a cloak of lies, it still somehow demands to take on the flesh. For Gondry, this flesh is understood in architectural terms. As a physical reminder of the past, as the materialistic ground of the vital illusion, Fletcher’s decrepit video store demonstrates how any architectural form can emerge as a sign of collective vitality. Thus, while Fletcher’s outlandish claim is of course a deliberate lie, it is a falsehood that is nevertheless necessary to helping collectivities affirm a sense of place. However, while Gondry will go to great lengths to demonstrate how a local architectural form provides the impetus for new collectivities, the film equally shows how such emblems of cultural identity are constantly under the threat of eradication. This brings us to the second definition of the centre-periphery rivalry.
Unlike the regional nature of the first rivalry, the second division between center and periphery questions the very notion that place matters: for whereas the jazz story formed a regional conflict between two neighboring cities, this second tension is far more spatially disperse and explores the kinds of conflicts that emerge through the process of globalization. Specifically, what I am referring to is the film’s treatment of both the ubiquitous reach of the media industry (aka the corrupt force of Global Hollywood), and the process of global gentrification or urban renovation (gentrification’s more politically correct term). However, unlike many films which attempt to tackle the complex webs of multi-nationalism through the generic global city, for Gondry the “elsewhere of global capitalism” is articulated via the local urban environment: as an old decrepit building that is perceived as impeding urban development, the fate of Mr. Fletcher’s video store is not only a question of the topography of Passaic, but its fate demonstrates how the local is embedded with forces from the global beyond.
Going Global: Gentrifying the City as Trans-Cultural Practice
In his article “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy,” Neil Smith relays another important story regarding the rivalry between New York and New Jersey. This time the subject matter considers late capitalism’s ubiquitous implementation of public-private economic policies. Specifically, the story surrounds a “Christmas gift” Mayor Giuliani offered to New Yorkers in 1998, involving a $900 million tax subsidy that would allow the New York Stock Exchange to stay in New York. Several months earlier the Stock Exchange had threatened to relocate to New Jersey, where it would receive a much more lucrative tax package. Whether or not the threat was real, however, is not the main point. Rather, according to Smith, what matters is how the notion of a ‘gift to the people’ disguised the way the public good is constantly used to service the global economy.13 That is, as the state was previously understood as an institution responsible for regulating the welfare of the general population, today its position is simply to keep the global economy running smoothly.
This story of economic policy may seem unrelated to Gondry’s film, but as Smith shows, what it illustrates is how the urban environment is increasingly structured to “express the impulses of capitalistic production rather than social production.” Furthermore it is an impulse that, for Smith, can be evidenced not only through strict economic measures, like tax cuts to big business, but in numerous strategies that combine to calibrate the environment to mirror the demands and needs of the global economy.
One of these imperatives, which relates to Gondry’s cinematic city, is the growing process of global gentrification. Of course, there is nothing new about gentrification. Indeed, the dirty work has been around since the 1950s and 1960s, when isolated working class areas in certain key cities like London and New York were transformed by an incoming middle class. However, for Smith this picture of gentrification is no longer applicable to the global era. For example, while no urban municipality would dare to group its policies under the banner of gentrification, for Smith, the many “re-constructive” or “redevelopment” policies of many cities throughout the world are using the same principles of gentrification to remake space in an image of capitalistic desire. Thus, one of the significant changes involving contemporary gentrification is the wide scope of its reach. Whereas previously only a few ultra-metropolitan areas like Paris, London and New York experienced gentrification, now virtually every city in the western world, even industrial centers like Cleveland or Detroit, are experimenting with urban re-branding and city clean up. Furthermore, in addition to the spread of these redevelopment projects throughout the globe are the ways in which urban development is consistently understood as a joint private-public initiative. It is no longer the self-interests of the real estate market that drive the redevelopment process. Rather, cleaning up the city in order to attract international investments, tourist dollars, and media spectacles are inscribed within official public policy. F or Smith, this is the most insidious aspect of the new gentrification: for when the public hears its local politicians use words such as “urban regeneration” or “urban renaissance” it fails to realize that this is simply gentrification by other means.
In the film this picture of the new gentrification is expressed first by a very brief scene in a public housing office. In the scene, Mr. Fletcher is confronted by two figures that succinctly represent the blurring of the public and private domains by contemporary urban policies. To the left of Fletcher we find a private developer, who, pointing to a glossy image of his proposed condominium project, insists that his only desire is to improve the living conditions of the people of Passaic. On the right we have the agent of the public good, a public works official who speaks, not in terms of urban regeneration or progress, but through the agency of the law. Unlike her counterpart, whose sentiments form qualitative judgments (i.e. Passaic will be better off without Fletcher’s building) the public official speaks in terms of a procedural logic: since Fletcher’s building is not up to the city’s building codes it must be destroyed.
Yet by bringing together both poles, Gondry, like Smith, suggests that the process of gentrification requires both agents to expedite the regenerative urban process. However, what needs to be remembered, and what makes this arrangement so difficult to apprehend, is that neither group overtly represents the evils commonly associated with gentrification. Instead, from either side, the regenerative process seems undeniably optimistic. Who, after all, would want to resist the developer’s promise of progress? Or, from the official’s standpoint, who would stand behind a governmental agency that turns a blind eye to the hazards of an unsafe tenement? Phrased this way, then, the combination of public safety and private progress forms an unbeatable concoction that very few would describe in term of your “yuppie” process of gentrification.
But, as Smith recognizes, disguising the social inequalities associated with gentrification through an official urban policy of urban regeneration does not magically eliminate the social injustices integral to so called urban beautifying projects. Rather, current urban policies, as Gondry effectively captures, are all the more deceptive, since the blatant social problems represented in earlier forms of gentrification are now promoted in the name of the urban whole. There are numerous ways in which one could explore how Gondry understands this process of urban renewal (one could, for example, tackle the obvious race relations posited in the film or the question of urban surveillance). However, I want to focus on two specific areas that I think are most pertinent: the first involves the matter of memory, especially the way urban renovation projects rarely consider the issue of marginal groups and their heritage sites when considering notions of urban progress; the second concerns the ways in which media technologies interact with the urban environment.
While no one would deny that gentrification involves physical erasure, Gondry insists that, alongside the physical changes brought on by urban reconstruction, is the more nebulous question of memory and forgetting. Already in his critically acclaimed film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry considered the issue of prosthetic memories through a damning depiction of technology as machines of forgetting. Whereas Gondry’s task then was to show how technologies could pull people further apart, Gondry now moves in the other direction , showing how the possibility of erasure brings people closer together, to create bonds where there was only distance.
Specifically, the issues of memory and forgetting are waged over the status of Fletcher’s blighted building. As we learn near the beginning of the film, unless Fletcher upgrades his building, the city will have no choice but to destroy the store, thereby eradicating the cultural memories housed within its walls. While this question of the fate of the store offers Gondry a typical narrative device with which to propel the action, Gondry’s unique approach to this dilemma allows him to articulate a geo-political statement regarding how cities are impacted by media technologies and how local modes of resistance are still possible.
Connected to this main narrative device is Gondry’s explicit attack on the film business, especially its ubiquitous myth of associating success with technological progress. Not only is Mr. Fletcher’s video shop behind the times in terms of building codes, but his entire approach to the movie rental business is also deeply antiquated. Carrying nothing but VHS versions of mostly older films, Mr. Fletcher clearly lacks insight into the technological innovations affecting the industry. Simply put, in Fletcher’s world neither the DVD revolution nor the rise of big superstore chains like Blockbuster exists. Instead, Fletcher lives in a pre-digital dreamscape, a baroque media world that does not valorize the digital as the most progressive or pure media form, but allows various media forms to exist in simultaneity, clearly evidenced by the museum-like status of Fletcher’s video shop. While, for many, especially the urban developer, Fletcher’s store is more a trash pile of media technologies than a successful neighborhood business, for Gondry Fletcher represents the cultural and historical value of embracing diverse media forms. Throughout the film, for example, Fletcher can be found playing old jazz records; he has Mike and Jerry paint a mural to promote an awareness of Fats; an early 20th century radio and many black and white photos can be found littered throughout the store. Yet for Fletcher this antiquated world works completely fine and he feels no compulsion to upgrade. As such, Fletcher stands in direct opposition to the industry’s demand to either upgrade or step aside.
However, in order to muster any legitimate attempt at saving his business Fletcher finally decides to come to terms with a technological present that is both strange and remote. To do so, Gondry has Fletcher pose as a kind of technological spy whose sole mission is to investigate other rental stores in the neighborhood in order to gain insight into the latest breakthroughs in the industry. These parodic detective scenes of Fletcher as “cold-war spy,” stealing secrets from the enemy, are some of the funniest in the film and offer an unappealing picture of the movie rental business. In one scene Fletcher describes point-blankly what is at the core of the new superstores: “must have many copies of a few blockbuster movies; must split films into two genres: action films and comedies; must have workers wear uniforms, with large, depersonalizing name tags; no prior knowledge of cinema required.”
Here we find Gondry’s critique of the movie industry at its most blatant. Yet while others have bemoaned the rise of the generic blockbuster, with its mass produced narrative conventions and frank predictability, Gondry’s uniqueness resides in seeing this cinematic shift in geo-political terms, for it is not just the level of content that changes with new technologies, but the social world – with all the everyday practices that surround the industry, like going to the movies or renting a film from the neighborhood shop – that change with it.
With this opposition between technological progress and social production, Be Kind Rewind shows how the built environment possesses a social role in organizing neighborhood activities. As such, the film tells what has become through a common story in urban history: just as Jane Jacobs saw the local neighborhood as the vital heart of the city, where the street forms a social playground allowing people of different backgrounds to intermingle, the rental shop in the film forms an important public space. With the threat of destruction looming, the question becomes not just the destruction of a local business that could not compete in a world fueled by technological change, but the destruction of important cultural memories and a hub of urban socialization. In the next section I will examine more closely how Gondry understands this threat, particularly in terms of the relation between media technologies and the built environment. As we shall see, for Gondry, the issue of memory is deeply connected to the cinema, which can offer a viable counter-hegemonic technology in a fight against the process of global gentrification.
?Sweding?, Or How Analog Video Was Used To Fight GentrificationThe issue of media experimentation has been at the forefront of Gondry’s expressive content and critical reception. And while his career can be understood as the perpetual desire to redefine the technical nature of many new media formats, from his experiments in music videos to his work in social documentary, perhaps Gondry’s most pertinent concern involves the shift to digital technologies; While many of Gondry’s works appear to utilize the latest computer generated effects to create a dizzying array of virtual worlds and image manipulations, what is most interesting about Gondry’s work is the way he consistently avoids these innovative technologies. Working in the tradition of Georges Méliès, Gondry’s approach consistently demonstrates how many of the novel visual displays exhibited throughout his oeuvre can in fact be produced without the aid of high technology.
This is not to say that Gondry’s work represents some anti-digital approach, since many of his works still feature the latest computer generated effects. Rather, what Gondry’s work exemplifies is the ability for media artists to create interesting new sensations and narrative forms by relying on many media formats while also building upon the rich history of cinematic techniques. Thus what counts for Gondry is not some cult of high technology, wherein the latest digital effects are designed to engulf the viewer in a seamless hyper reality, but the ability to engage the audience with innovative techniques that emphasize the playfulness and creativity of the medium. In previous films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, this element of play involved a range of innovative practices, from basic animation techniques and unique set designs to sophisticated CGI effects and in-camera montage effects that pull the viewer into the strange but vivid world of memories and dreams.
With Be Kind Rewind , Gondry opts for a more minimalist approach, as he resurrects the obsolete world of analog video to create a lo-fi homage to the beginnings of cinema technology. I nstead of having his protagonists’ use highly accessible digital technologies to create their “recycled masterpieces,” Gondry opts for a deeply amateur setup consisting only of an older, analog video camera and a series of average, everyday props (cardboard cut outs, pipes, marshmallows) to recreate some of Hollywood’s most technologically sophisticated popular films. As such, what is charming about their amateur films are obviously not their mind blowing special effects or ability to immerse the viewer in a hyper reality, but the way these films demonstrate how even the most rudimentary technologies can be ingeniously transformed into a celebration of artistic artifice. When Jerry and Mike attempt to recreate the high octane action scenes from Rush Hour, for example, it contains neither the technical proficiency of the original nor the superhuman action stunts of Jackie Chan that compels us. Rather, what is interesting about these films is their transformative capabilities, the way they enable a different aesthetic experience by rearranging the official filmic discourse. From visual excess to minimalistic artifice, from star power to kitsch, the power of Gondry’s remakes resides in their approbation of the cinematic status quo.
Given that many of Gondry’s previous cinematic experiments favored much more sophisticated modes of story telling, what should we make of his bare bones use of an abject, outdated technology? Certainly, from an initial perspective, Gondry’s discourse with older video technologies, like VHS, could be taken as a naïve belief in the democrat ization of the medium. Or, given the highly globalized status of digital media, perhaps Gondry is suggesting that VHS technologies are somehow more regional and open to collective arrangements. However, v iewed in terms of media history, neither of these arguments gets us very far. While we may look back on older VHS technologies with a hue of folkish nostalgia, there is nothing to suggest that analog media, like VHS, are any more conducive to collective sharing or the promotion of regionalism. Thus I do not believe that Gondry’s explicit use of analog technologies sets up an opposition between which technologies—analog or digital—offer the best route for contemporary cinema. Rather, I think a more productive way to look at the implementation of older technologies involves their contextual usage and their relation to temporality.
To illustrate, throughout Be Kind Rewind , Gondry features numerous media formats—graffiti, glossy placards, analog video, DVD’s, high tech projectors, record players – that are embedded in the social world of Passaic. However, for Gondry, these technologies should not be categorized according to a binary logic in which the old (analog) is simply replaced by the new (digital). Rather, what matters is how a technology is put to use, how it works in conjecture with the social reality around it, especially in terms of how technologies are intertwined with ethical judgments about progress: is Passaic better off without Fletcher’s store? Is the so-called digital revolution truly libratory if it helps destroy all the historical riches previous media have to offer? Is cultural heritage worth more than architectural progress?
To show the tension between these notions of progress, Gondry again relies on a few poignant scenes that bring into focus what is at stake in the introduction of new technologies. One of these scenes occurs in the public housing office and involves the urban developer’s speech about the optimistic future of Passaic. To make his point, the developer constantly makes reference to a glossy placard that features a before and after image of how his urban development project will improve the city. The picture, of course, belongs to those standard architectural displays which give the prospective buyer an image of what the future building will look like, even giving details to the kind of community that will emerge through the urban project. In this case, what is striking is how both the present and the future are condensed within the same visual plane. In the first image we find a partially completed utopia. All the new buildings are in place, except for an old decrepit corner area, where Fletcher’s building stands in strong contrast to the monotone ambience of the rest of the buildings. But, then, to visually display how easily this partial utopia can be fully realized, the developer peels back the image of Fletcher’s building revealing underneath it the remaining part of the architectural whole.
The gesture is quick but poignant. As if progress were simply about “updating” or calibrating an area to the temporal rhythms of the modern world, the developer’s enthusiasm negates all possibilities of remaining behind or outside this narrow view of progress. Indeed, the past here is treated as merely an impediment to change, a form of temporal lag to be overcome by a vigorous streamlining of all other senses of temporality.
In contrast to these glossy, architectural images of the future, Gondry positions a entirely different reading of media technologies, one in which past technologies still play a vital role in achieving some level of social resistance. However, nothing about this form of counter-discourse is to be expected. For example, given the current discourses surrounding digital technologies, wherein the medium’s promotion of greater accessibility and distribution are said to enable greater levels of participation in the production of media events, Gondry’s decision to have his noble filmmakers use analog technologies is interesting. Likewise, since most of Gondry’s work continues to fall outside the mainstream, it is odd that his filmic community does not promote a more radical form of independent filmmaking, but instead simply recycles some of Hollywood’s most expensive and technically sophisticated popular films. Clearly, if we are to understand this filmic practice as a form of oppositionary politics we will need to go beyond the film’s plotline and seek out another explanation.
One such explanation involves the radical potential of time. From this perspective the counter-discourse offered by the community film initiative has nothing to do with the level of content, but has everything to do with the construction of a unique temporality. For if one of the goals of the contemporary technosphere is to calibrate all places, so that the entire global moves to the same rhythmic beat, then the return to an antiquated technology allows at least some freedom from this technological procession. Thus, if the people of Passiac are unable to ward of the spatial threats represented by global gentrification, at least it has the ability to retreat into its own temporal media world. In this sense, falling behind the times becomes an antidote to a technosphere that requires all places to perpetually upgrade to the present moment.
A second way to understand Gondry’s counter-discourse is through Michel de Certeau’s notion of poaching. For de Certeau the practice of the everyday world does not involve a simple all-out battle between organizational structures of power (the state, technology, etc.) and the average populace. Rather, each person is constantly engaged in minor acts of appropriations, acts of poaching, wherein official rules and procedures can be challenged by the consumer’s decision to use a product or resource in an unexpected way. The key here is that micro-discourses can be produced both from limited resources, (the consumer can simply use whatever is at their disposal), and participation can occur from unexpected sources, such as using an outdated medium to produce something new.14
In Be Kind Rewind the notion of poaching upon another’s property is made quite explicit. After all, the community’s film business is eventually terminated as a result of breaking numerous copyright laws. However, what is perhaps not as clear is the way their utilization of VHS technologies to create a community- based film company emphasizes the way even the most rudimentary technologies can be utilized to escape the temporality of the mainstream. For, as the film makes clear, it is not the technical mastery of the films that matter, but how the creation of artifice can become a way of enabling local participation.
For example, when a few local hipsters see Mike and Jerry’s version of Ghost Busters, it is the local quality (or lack of quality) of the films that is most appealing. Attracted by the ability to request their own sweded versions of films, the group even decides to pay Mike and Jerry to have some new films produced. With time, this local desire for the home grown quickly spreads throughout the community, transforming the video store into a hub for film enthusiasts, who request copies of their own home-made films. Yet, this level of participation is still is not enough. While the ability to choose your own sweded film offers a far greater degree of media freedom than simply selecting from a row of pre-designed films, the ultimate move would be to star in your own films. This is the route the film explores, as the local neighborhood becomes entranced by the ability to see themselves immortalized on the silver screen. In an age when the media circuits provide most of us with predigested versions of the world, this is media liberation at its most grassroots. Everything from production and choice of content to acting styles and consumption is placed in the hands of the local residents.
However, while many may object that the recycling of some old classics by a neighborhood film collective merely represents the entertainment tastes of a niche audience, Gondry insists that participation in the media universe, no matter how trivial, can provide people with important tools in acting in the social world. This capability is dramatized in the film when the neighborhood realizes that Fletcher's shop – the center for the new film collective – is about to be demolished. To answer this prospect, the town uses its new experiences with the cinema to revitalize the community, using the fable of Fats Waller to create a documentary about the early life of Passaic. These are some of the most visually gripping scenes in the film, as Gondry demonstrates how artistic vision is neither dependent on technical gadgetry nor big budgets, but just needs a story to tell and someone passionate enough to tell it.
In the end, the documentary film, which blatantly reclaims Fats Waller as the town's local jazz hero, fails to save the building. Yet, while the neighborhood loses an important land mark, it does gain a new form of cultural memory: with their film not only are the city's stories revitalized, but the town gains a new sense of its collectivity. And while throughout the film Gondry’s gentle appraisal of the problems of gentrification often results in a nostalgic yearning for some earlier period of collective life, it does at least allow us to see how some part of our technological past can resurface to challenge the rampant temporality of the present.
2. Clover, Joshua. “The New World System.” Film Quaterly Volume 46, No 4: 6, 7.
3. Ibid., p. 7.
4. Jameson, Frederic. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Bloomington: Indiana University Press; London: British Film Institute, 1992.
5. Auge, Marc. Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London: Verso, 1995.
6. Krause, Linda (Editor) Global Cities: Cinema, Architecture, and Urbanism in a Digital Age. New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, 2003.
7. Castells, Manual. Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007
8. Hjort, Mette. Small Nation, Global Cinema: The New Danish Cinema. Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
9. Donald, James. Imagining the Modern City. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. pp. 180-81.
10. Sassen, Saskia. Cities in a World Economy. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 2006.
11. Castells, Manual. High Technology, Space, and Society. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1985
12. Baudrillard, Jean. America. London: Verso, 1988.
14. de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkley: University of California Press, 1988.