New York

Michel Gondry

Why should we have cared about “Be Kind Rewind,” film director Michel Gondry’s second exhibition at Deitch Projects? Were we starved for a marketing tie-in to the nearly simultaneous release of the movie of the same title? Or were we concerned that Gondry was not being taken sufficiently seriously as an artist? Well, neither. Gondry is an inventive, indie neoauteur, who crafted a poignant tale in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). But he is hardly a revolutionary filmmaker, and this charmingly participatory, bricks-and-mortar rearticulation of his new cinematic effort was enjoyable, if hardly radical. Arguably, however, it doesn’t even need to be considered as art.

The premise of Be Kind Rewind the film: One of two clerks at a New Jersey video store mistakenly erases the stock of VHS tapes; to save the business, the pair begin cobbling together (“sweding”) DIY versions of mainstream films, in the process becoming anti-Hollywood-establishment local heroes. The film is a harmless, breezy entertainment about dilettantes remaking the mainstream that suggests a kind of postpolitical populism, with Gondry deploying technical wizardry to revisit the cinema’s primal myth—that is, the idea that anyone with a camera and a little imagination can be an auteur.

It is this ethos (already a cliché in the history of cinema) that Gondry sought to convey at Deitch. Here, within the material conditions of a real physical space, Gondry conjured a kind of doppelganger, remodeling the exterior of the gallery to replicate the storefront in the movie. Inside were rentable video cameras, various props, and a sequence of prototypical sets representing various locations, including a forest, an old VW beetle, a film-noirish corridor, a café, an escalator, and a train compartment. The last two of these allowed one to select different background images.

Visitors to the gallery could peruse the environment voyeuristically, but the installation had been set up primarily to facilitate a hands-on engagement in the filmmaking process. To do so first required sending an e-mail to the gallery to make an appointment; respondents then participated in two workshops in which a series of instructions involving a rudimentary filmmaking grammar and structure (genre, title, story line) required the groups to work collaboratively to prepare and execute the staging and shooting of a movie. The resultant footage, edited in-camera, then became part of the faux video store’s stock, and was available to watch in the screening room.

This all invoked the atmosphere of a film school, and attracted a good number of students of the medium. Gondry, though, denies a pedagogical motive: “I don’t intend nor have the pretension to teach how to make films. Quite the contrary. I intend to prove that people can enjoy their time without being part of the commercial system and serving it. Ultimately, I am hoping to create a network of creativity and communication that is guaranteed to be free and independent from any commercial institution.” Disingenuousness or naiveté? Gondry expresses faith in moviemaking as a socially transformative and emancipatory creative act, while seeming to ignore the political contradictions inherent in claiming to democratize filmmaking practice through the dissemination of video technology to the public. Yet people have been making home movies for decades, and cultural hierarchies have not been overturned, even if recent video convergences with online media (YouTube, for example) suggest a more effective mechanism of proliferating social networks comprised of supposedly individuated creative utterances. We can’t all be gifted auteurs, and it’s difficult to imagine that this presentation was really designed to instantiate a no-brow populist school of cinema. Ultimately, Gondry might be better off not seeking or accepting art-world legitimation by aspiring to a conceptually based, socially participatory, relational art practice, but instead approaching the gallery as just another location.

Joshua Decter