With Jumper, director Doug Liman has practically completed the transformation from indie-sensation to mainstream-pulp-dealer. It is a common and enviable trajectory that many young directors fight tooth and nail for (whether they admit it or not). What’s not to like? Spielberg did it. Jackson did it. Raimi did it. Hell, auteur du jour David Gordon Green is directing the next Judd Apatow comedy. The transformation is a good one.
Liman’s first picture, Swingers, is a cinema landmark – if not something like a masterpiece – that launched the career of not only its director but also its writers and actors. It is one of those movies that will always have a place in any discussion about what it is to struggle at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain.
Then Liman made Go, which is a departure, but not a huge one, from his indie roots. It is not nearly as big as the jump from Go to The Bourne Identity. But Liman made the Bourne picture work. The indie community kinda let it slide, since he directed the picture with an unusual lead, Matt Damon, cast as a hero. Plus it appealed to all sorts of cynical perspectives on the American government that the Swingers and Go loving crowd could get into. Liman was still an indie darling.
Then came Mr. And Mrs. Smith. To many people this picture blows. It is “over the top” and there’s “no story” and it’s not “realistic” and blah blah blah. Find me someone who likes Shawshank Redemption and I can almost guarantee they hate Mr. And Mrs. Smith. Mr. And Mrs. Smith is a great picture. It is a great picture because it refuses to provide the audience with motivation, probability, explanation, or any sort of grounding in reality. It is steeped in the spectacular, and the spectacular is its subject. I would argue Mr. And Mrs. Smith is no less absurd than a work by David Lynch. And arguably, just as well crafted. But movie snobs hate on Mr. And Mrs. Smith because it’s got Brad and Angelina and a shitload of gunfights, making it really difficult to see “cinema” when there is so much “movie” happening.
Jumper is Liman continuing in this pulp absurdist direction. I think it is telling that two of his major films have titles that explicitly evoke action and movement, while Bourne and the Smith are characters constantly on the move. Doug Liman seems to be a director who takes the “motion” in Motion Picture extremely seriously. And god bless him for it.
Is the narrative in Jumper clunky? Yes. If one is going to the movies to see a story unfold, will they be satisfied? Highly unlikely. Is the art of cinema fully on display in Jumper? Yes. If one is going to the movies to see an action-packed, fast-paced, well-shot, well-cut, ably-acted pop motion picture explosion will they be satisfied. I can only hope so.
Jumper reminds me of those 80s movies where any premise was plausible. Teen Wolf? Mannequin? The Goonies? Vice Versa? Robocop? Big? Like Father Like Son? Short Circuit. Back to the Future? Ghostbusters? E.T.? Evil Dead? Dead Alive? Gremlins? Jumper would fit quite snugly into this list. These movies defined the 80s, and it wasn’t because the subject matter is Oscar worthy.
It is precisely this type of filmmaking that is celebrated in Michel Gondry’s touching, if it at times awkward, Be Kind Rewind.
Gondry’s primary interest seems to be those characters that are born losers, outcasts, misfits who don’t fit into mainstream society. In his music video work for Bjork and The White Stripes one sees a mind bursting with creative energy. The music video form is an almost perfect venue for Gondry to practice his craft. It seems that the narrative is an aspect of film that hinders more than helps his vision. So it is that his feature films are often characterized by multiple storylines, dream (or dreamlike) sequences, and a pronounced reliance on episodes as opposed to fully fleshed out scenes. These techniques are crutches for the storyteller that is more visual than literary.
Beyond all of those things, however, Gondry is primarily a designer of sets, of worlds within frames. Gondry is essentially not a “cinematic” filmmaker. He is a “theatrical” filmmaker, like Baz Lurhman, or that guy who did The Cell. More often than not, Gondry would prefer to carefully design a space filled with meaning into which he can introduce a camera. He likes costumes and props and manipulating perspectives. He is not really one for long steadicam shots or complex editing. His performances tend to be more or less natural, because any sort of exceedingly dramatic acting would take attention away from his darling sets.
Be Kind Rewind sees Gondry embracing all of his usual tools. What is surprising, however, as well as refreshing and heartwarming, is that Gondry takes his decidedly modern, MTV-generation aesthetic and uses it to craft a love letter to pulp fantasy films of the 80s. Many of the films I listed above are re-made by Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black) in an effort to save the neighborhood video store where they work.
The duos no-budget videos are at once a nod to recent film history and a high-five to the YouTube generation that has the technical skill to do practically everything Gondry does in Be Kind Rewind. It is undeniably a movie of the moment, as cinema is currently trapped somewhere between the summer blockbuster and the viral video.
Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind is a fitting release in a year that has already seen the return of Rambo, but can also look forward to the return of Indiana Jones. It is nostalgia as artwork.