Friday, May 20, 2011

Movie Night #9 Director's Edition: Michel Gondry

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That being said, today I am going to look at three films from Michel Gondry. Gondry is a French director and contemporary of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, knowing this you can see how they all have similar styles and interests. Similar....definitely not the same. Gondry seems to be the most interested in aesthetics with his absurdly unique visual presentation in everything he does, as well as being the most optimistic of the three. All of his films take place in a sort of heightened reality where cars can have missiles and movies can be made with stuff found in a junkyard. I want to take a look at some of his more polarizing films. So that means no Eternal Sunshine, no Science of Sleep, and no Block Party. Instead I am going to look at Human Nature, Be Kind Rewind, and The Green Hornet.

Gondry's first feature film was Human Nature written by his friend and all around brilliant screenwriter Charlie Kauffman. This film tells the story of Nathan, played to repressed perfection by Tim Robbins, a behavioral scientist who finds "Puff" a man raised in the wilderness and attempts to teach him how to be civilized. The movie plays with the duality of the rigid structure of "civilized living" and the passion and chaos of giving into to natural desires. By the end of the movie one can reach a few conclusions as to the point Gondry was attempting to make. First off, human nature is deceitful, no matter who you are in this film you are involved in some sort of a lie, even to the end when you think Gondry is telling us that the "naturalist" point of view on life is the right one, he squashes that with the last scene. Two, sexual desire is the most powerful force in our lives, and as a race we are unable to avoid its natural pull. We see this in Puff's first decisions once he is "free" and also of course in the many indiscretions that Nathan succumbs to.

As a film I feel this is much more of a success from a screenwriting standpoint. Upon viewing it for this article I realized just how smart the screenplay is, of course not expecting anything less from Mr Kauffman. This being Gondry's first film we definitely see the beginnings of his signature style. He constantly creates worlds that exist in an alternate reality and here is no different but rather than create a dreamlike experience that we see in everything from Eternal Sunshine with his reality bending with the memories of his characters to Green Hornet where people have pistols with two barrels and names like "bloodnofsky", he instead keeps his world very recognizable aside from the shock collars and cages for humans. As silly as it sounds rewatching this film I miss the whimsical nature of his other films. It's not everyday that you see two people ride a fabric horse, or fight ghosts with streamers.

That's not to say the film isn't a succcess, he still manages to create a world in which each setting represents the character within it. We have two people essentially in prison, Puff and Lila. They both are trying to be a part of a normal civilized world, but in order to do so they both must change who they naturally are. They are also the two characters who essentially do not have homes. Puff lives in a box and Lila lives in Nathan's home. Nathan and Gabrielle both represent the civilized world, but of course underneath it all they are deceitful people. Gabrielle transforms herself at will from twenty something American girl to slutty French scientist, even going as far as switching her apartment at a moments notice. Nathan lives in an absurdly structured home, but as the movie progresses we see that more and more he finds reasons to escape from his life and give in to his natural desires. By the end we see that we are all caged by our own desires and deceitful nature. We all have animal tendencies and are capable of horrible acts on each other, manners and etiquette are a facade abandoned whenever desire seems to overtake their necessity. This is a great introduction to Gondry and perhaps his most nihilistic in terms of commentary on the human condition, again that's probably due to Kauffman. This next film I'm going to look at it is perhaps his most optimistic and would make an awesome double header.

Be Kind Rewind is the most optimistic and uplifting film on the importance of independent filmmaking and it's importance to the community that I have ever seen. Sure 8 1/2 might be the best movie on the art of making movies but nothing touches my heart quite like this(for the record 8 1/2 is in my top five of all time..this however is not). I know that I'm probably in the minority here when it comes to this film but I love it. The creativity is busting out the seams of this film.

Mmos def works in a struggling vhs rental store, he is left in charge of the store while his boss goes away for "research." His friend, Jerry, has become magnetized since he tried to break into the local power plant and upon entering the video store he manages to erase all of the tapes. Not wanting to arouse suspicion when people come to rent movies, Mos Def decides to film the films himself with Jerry and call them Swedish Imports or "sweded". The films catch on and soon the whole community begins to take part.

The big message here is that film should be about community and bringing people together and instilling joy in everyone. That is what should dictate how films are made not a studio system only interested in profit, represented here in a brief role by Sigourney Weaver. My favorite scene in the film takes place in a coffee shop where Jerry, Mos Def and their new actress Alma are talking about their favorite films. Someone overhears and chimes in with their thoughts, soon everyone in the coffee shop is involved in the conversation. So for me personally that represents an ideal PERFECTLY. That is what these articles mean to me. The ability to create discussion with strangers through the medium of film is amazing, and we see here how much joy these people take in discussing there favorite movies. Everyone in that shop has a favorite movie or scene and can chime in, just like everyone reading this I'm sure has a favorite movie that they can talk about forever or watch over and over and share with their family. For me one of my favorite movies is Jurassic Park and when I brought my son home from the hospital one of the first things I did was sit in bed with him and watch that movie. Gondry captures the universal love of movies here in a quick two minute scene.

By the end of the film the whole community has come together to celebrate and collaborate on these homemade films. This begins to show us the other side of the story. Not only does film bring people together by watching them, it brings people together by feeling like they are part of something. Gondry shows just how much respect he has for collaboration while they are making the last film about Fats Waller, he shows the discussions that go into editing and how everyone can provide some insight into how to make the film a reality.

Gondry is at his playful whimsical best here. His homemade dreamlike special effects lend themselves perfectly to the story he's telling. You see his own creativity mirrored in Mos Def and Jerry as they come up with different way to bring a myriad of films to life, from the use of a cardboard tv for the commercial in Ghostbusters to a refrigerator for Hal in 2001. Seeing them make the films allows us to share in the same kind of joy that they are bringing their own community and is of course one of the highlights of the film.

I could go on and on about the depiction of what happens when corporations get involved in film, which we see in the scenes at "blockbuster". I could spend hours dissecting each movie they "swede", or how we see the progression of discovering your passion occurs with Mos Def. Don't worry I won't, I still have one movie to get through after all. I know a lot of people love Eternal Sunshine, but this movie resonates with me far more than any of his other films. Is it my favorite? maybe...his best?...well I don't know yet, definitely his most unique.

I didn't know a whole lot about The Green Hornet but I knew enough that when Seth Rogen became attached as writer and star that this was going to be a departure from the original series. Then Gondry was signed and the movie really had my interest. Much like Ang Lee and Hulk I had no idea what would compel Gondry to choose this as his next film. So needless to say I now was at least curious to see what would happen when Seth and Michel met.

The result? An incredibly fun and playful take on the superhero genre with little going on besides the surface. And you know what that's ok. This is not the masterpiece that The Dark Knight showed comics could achieve, but rather some nice escapist entertainment which Gondry is suited for surprisingly well.

First and foremost this is a comedy and not just any comedy a Seth Rogen comedy. He wrote the film with longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg and the slacker improvisational humor that we've seen from him in the house of Apatow is scattered throughout with man child characters and villains who wax intellectually on the lack of terror they instill. Seth plays the titular character as a spoiled rich brat angry at his dad for destroying his dreams of being a hero. After his dad dies mysteriously he meets Kato and one thing leads to another and they end up drunk vandalizing statues. Somewhere in the middle of that they stop some bad guys and Seth feels that sense of selfworth he felt when he believed in heros as a kid. The rest should be pretty selfevident...fight crime...clash with crime boss...etc etc. The skeleton of the story is relatively cookie cutter but Gondry and Rogen's collaboration make it something special.

Gondry brings his standard sense of whimsy to the table, this time backed up with special effects rather than the homemade quality we saw in Science of Sleep or Human Nature. He manages to not let the special effects drown out his voice and still manages to create this slightly surreal world. The best example for me is the transformer like complexity of the espresso machine, or them chopping the black beauty in half and luckily having "front wheel drive"

Ultimately this is a much more vapid and empty film than his other work. Again that's fine, because it is still an amazingly fun piece of work. I was talking to everyone's favorite tyrant Manny Funkowitz himself and I told him that I felt like this was to Gondry what Panic Room is to David Fincher. They both represent a journey into genre filmmaking for the directors and I would love to see more of this type of work from them since the joy they have is felt on screen, but in the long run when we study Gondry in school people are going to look at his other works rather than this. He will forever exist as visual genius who brings his unique visuals and homemade special effects to life through his dreamlike films with a childlike enthusiasm


One last thought - I feel bad for not mentioning Christophe Waltz in The Green Hornet. He is amazing as a crime boss struggling with his own insecurities about being scary enough. The guy brings as much charisma here as he did to Hans Landa. Waltz would be an awesome Norman Osborn, or Doctor Doom.

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