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Monday Magazine | February 20, 2008
Even if you haven’t seen one of the small handful of features French director Michel Gondry has made, chances are you’ve still seen some of his handiwork. Gondry has an extensive resume of heavily rotated music videos for some of music’s biggest names and award-winning commercials for some of the world’s most recognizable brands under his belt. And even though he’s already earned an Oscar for his script of 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which he also directed), this week sees the release of what is likely to be his biggest commercial success to date, Be Kind Rewind.

Starring Jack Black (School of Rock) and Mos Def (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Be Kind Rewind may on the surface appear to be Gondry’s goofy ode to the spirit of independent filmmaking, but there is something more important at work here.

“Although you could say it’s a movie about the love of filmmaking,” Gondry explains while battling a cough on the phone from Toronto, “it’s more about how I believe community could spend time together and create their own activity, their own entertainment.”

This spirit of community shines brightly in Rewind and the result is, for lack of a better word, Gondry’s most “normal” and accessible film to date. (See sidebar.) There’s little in the way of fantastic leaps of imagination that made The Science of Sleep or Eternal Sunshine such escapist pleasures to watch. Black continues his long string of roles of hyperkinetic goofballs, so his box office draw alone assures a fairly decent success. Add in Def’s subtle even keel to Black’s freakishness and nice supporting turns from Hollywood A-listers Danny Glover and Mia Farrow, and you’ve got a great cast ready to tackle Gondry’s charming script. The basic premise of Black and Def recreating some of filmdom’s most recognizable efforts will be instantly appealing to casual movie-goers and cinephiles alike. And even though Gondry has stressed the importance of community, one thing Rewind is not is a serious film.

“The problem I see in being serious about film is everybody becomes a film critic,” Gondry explains. “I wish film was just an activity that people would embrace. It could be terrible and it doesn’t matter. It’s just something that reflects who they are and some good times they spent. I don’t want to sound too critical about movies, but I’m not so much into the film culture, but the community culture, the ability to organize something with a bunch of different persons who have nothing to do with filmmaking.”

Gondry says it’s important to step out of the film system and think of film as an activity. “What’s great to me in my belief is that people would appreciate some things they do with themselves, with friends or new friends, with neighbours.”

At age 44, the Versailles-born Gondry started making his own short films back in 1986 and was shortly creating surrealistic videos for his own band, Oui Oui. These early clips were seen by the likes of Björk and before long, Gondry was creating dream-like videos for a who’s-who of the early ’90s alternative rock set. Gondry was then tapped to direct his first feature, 2001’s Human Nature, when Steven Soderbergh dropped out of the project. This was his first time working with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and the two went on to greater success with Eternal Sunshine.

As a director, Gondry believes it’s important that each of his film projects reflects who he is, because ultimately he wants to share his view of the world to the world. “It may sound a little pompous, but that’s what you want to do if you are a filmmaker or an artist,” Gondry says. “You want to express what you believe in the world and find ways to convey those ideas.”

Gondry says the only way to go through the process of being a director, which he says is solving problems at every level, at any given moment, is to have a philosophy that can answer any and all questions . . . sort of. “This doesn’t mean you have a yes or no for everything and you know exactly what you are doing,” he explains, “but you do need to develop a belief in what you are doing.”

But while some directors find that answer through exact knowledge and their references, he says, Gondry believes he has to find the answers in himself—through his previous experiences in life, what he believes or even his friends. Gondry says when he’s faced with a filmmaking dilemma, he will interrogate himself and find the answer in himself. “And that’s how I get reflected in the films,” Gondry says.

To get a glimpse of how true this last statement is, those interested in Gondry’s works should most certainly check out the double-DVD set, The Work of Director Michel Gondry. Not only does it compile Gondry’s commercials for the likes of Levi’s and Smirnoff and music videos for Björk, Beck, Daft Punk, the Chemical Brothers, the White Stripes and Oui Oui, it also contains a very telling two-part self-reflective documentary entitled I’ve Been 12 Forever. Through interviews with Gondry, his mother and most of the artists he has worked with, you begin to see just how much of himself the director injects into his work. In the short film, Gondry and his mother talk about the young Gondry having to have his hands massaged to help him sleep—and hands come up repeatedly (and enormously) in Gondry’s work, including both the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” video and in the dream sequences of The Science of Sleep.

Through these pioneering music videos and his film successes, Gondry’s notoriety as a filmmaker has not only allowed him to continue to work with the cream of the musical crop, but he’s also recently been able to connect with some of his non-cinematic idols. “Two days ago, I met Professor [Noam] Chomsky, who has been very important for me in my readings lately,” Gondry says. “The other night, he was kind enough to talk to me for 40 minutes and it was just amazing. It’s a luxury I have because I’m making movies and people know them.”

Though Rewind is just fresh in theatres this week, Gondry is already working ahead on a few other projects, including Tôkyô, currently set for release later in 2008. “Tôkyô is a triptych with two other directors,” Gondry says of his collaboration with Joon-ho Bong (The Host) and Leos Carax (Lovers on the Bridge). Each of the three directors did a 30-minute story based in Tokyo and Gondry’s own story is taken from a comic book he has written in collaboration with comic book artist Gabrielle Belle (Lucky).

“It’s a story of a couple who move to Tokyo from the countryside,” he explains. “The girl finds herself isolated because she doesn’t have the drive that most of the people do in those big cities to succeed. She becomes isolated and loses her mind.” Watching back through Gondry’s entire body of work, one notices that the losing of one’s mind—becoming detatched from reality—comes up again and again.

Gondry himself has lost a bit of his mind lately, as he has been watching his own 16-year-old son Paul come into his own as an artist and director. The junior Gondry has already directed a music video for buzz band the Willowz and he’s now working with his father and comic book artist Dan Clowes (Ghost World) on an upcoming animated feature based on Paul’s characters.

“It’s challenging but really great as well,” Gondry says of working with his son. “But there’s a lot of interference with his homework and his behaviour. It makes things complicated. I’m trying to keep him on the good tracks with his future.”

Though Gondry makes light of Hollywood’s neverending cycle of rehashing old movies in Rewind, Gondry’s own future will certainly not include any big-budget remakes of his own.

“I don’t want to stimulate people to do copies,” Gondry says. “I want to stimulate them to do their own thing. I think it would be much more fun if the stories are original. What I’m trying to say in Be Kind Rewind is that people should shoot their own film and watch it together in a physical space. It’s not the same as everybody watching in their own time, with their own privacy; you don’t have a community this way.”

Like the central characters in Be Kind Rewind, Gondry sees the internet as a great medium for folks to help tap into their own creative vision. “I think the internet is good because you have access to tonnes of information and you can communicate and do all sorts of things,” Gondry concludes. “To shoot a movie and put it on the net, it’s something different. Obviously, I have my vanity and I want people to know who I am—then they are going to see my movies.” M

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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