Friday, July 04, 2008

More Monuments of Passaic: Gondry in New Jersey

Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind takes place in Passaic, but the set seems more like a mix between Williamsburg and Sesame Street. Even though the film uglies-up the smooth edges of CG Hollywood by celebrating a DIY folk-media aesthetic, it’s not beyond the reverse operation of prettying up an unbearable reality. Where do these thin uptight white girls come from? I didn’t know the L went out that far. Strangely, however, Mia Farrow’s role as the slightly cracked lady stuck in a dying town is more plausible than the Mos Def character (protected from nihilism by the haze of a nostalgic fiction) although the latter was better acted. Yet this notion of “better acting” or “ugly/pretty,” as well as the notion of the real falls away in Gondry films. If the more seasoned actors in this film (Farrow, Glover, Weaver) act like they are in a school play rather than a Hollywood film, they are perhaps resisting the pull towards verisimilitude and embracing the Brechtian message at the film’s core. Similarly, and like in Williams' work, in the drive to create beauty out of the disrupted fragments of a defunct city, we are also asked to see the traditionally beautiful as bankrupt. Or perhaps it is merely disavowed, like a tony hipster playing the nerd. This is where Gondry gets to play it both ways, because while he is interested in model-esque beauty—lending all his films the patina of youthful 90s-style techno-affluence—he makes these perverse script choices that only make sense if we are asked to imagine a character ugly who is obviously beautiful. When we are introduced to “Alma,” the situation unfolds as if she is the “ugly sister” (when she’s the hotter one): the two filmmakers suddenly become uninterested, they don’t want to use her for the kissing scene. Similarly, in The Science of Sleep, we are asked to imagine that Charlotte Gainsbourg is a homely slob who can’t compete with her much plainer friend, and that Garcia Bernal can’t get a date! What’s this all about? Fables of ideology and aesthetic brainwashing? The puppet-theatre squint that asks us to see Moby Dick in some pop-tops and string, turned on its ear so that we see neorealism in the corners of a well-worn celebrity face? A way to avoid the self-perpetuating cruelties of realistic casting (“OK, fatso, you’re playing the fat loser. Again”)? Or is Gondry, in the end, an unrepentant aestheticist, merely interested in the pretty?

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