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Whirlwind whimsy

Here’s hoping sweding sweeps the nation

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“Dude, you know what movie we should swede?” I overheard a guy enthusing to his friends in the Carmike parking lot after Be Kind Rewind let out. “The Wrath of Khan. I’ll be Ricardo Montalban, and we gotta do that one part where…”

The guys got into their car and I headed for mine. I was happy to hear just a piece of a conversation like that, and I found myself thinking about a movie I’ve wanted to swede for a long time: Dune, in silhouettes. Volumen even have an epic instrumental that would be the perfect ready-made soundtrack for a 12-minute version with only the cool parts. One advantage to sweding is that the work of telling the story is already done for you. Sometimes I’m one impulse away from stealing off and cutting a third-stage guild navigator or a floating Baron Harkonnen, but then common sense prevails. That’s six months of my life I just don’t have to spend on sweding right now.

You know: sweding. Taking a movie and doing your own condensed remake of it. The way this guy in the parking lot was going off about it, the phrase could be this year’s “jumping the shark,” even if most would-be sweders never make it past their dream-list chatrooms.

There might be no topping Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, the ultimate sweded movie, a $5,000 shot-for-shot remake of the original by three childhood friends.  The boys were 11 and 12 when they started, high school graduates by the time they finished, and in their mid-20s when the movie had its belated world premiere. In the interval, bootlegged copies made it as far as Steven Spielberg, who glowingly approved, and megaton producer Scott Rudin, who bought the rights to the boys’ story. Due out this year, it’s currently kicking around in cyberspace under the working title Untitled Daniel Clowes Project, which is another juicy endorsement right there.

And does Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho count as sweding? Not a terrible movie, that—maybe just 10 years before its time. In my book, Van Sant’s biggest transgression was asking us to find ratty Anne Heche in her scraggly red bra a fair swap for Janet Leigh. Wes Anderson I could see announcing a sweded French New Wave movie as his next feature. He delights in nostalgic exercises like recreating ’70s science movies, and all of Max Fischer’s plays in Rushmore are essentially pastiches of movies sweded for the stage.

But if a movie about sweding truly needed to be made, video-director-turned-feature-director Michel Gondry was certainly the guy for the job, at least on paper. Gondry–who made up the term Swede for the film–has built his career on a uniquely extruded creative process, the clockwork of his vast imagination yanked out for the audience to admire. More than any other director, Gondry seems to go fishing for compliments in his filmmaking, but then it’s also true that the filmmaking urge—like most creative urges, perhaps—is really only half a creative urge and half a narcissistic urge to be adored and admired. At least Gondry is up front about it. He even spelled out his secret formula in dialogue from 2006’s The Science of Sleep: “kind of retarded.”

The problem with Be Kind Rewind, starring Jack Black and Mos Def as a couple of video store hangabouts forced to make their own versions of movies for regular customers after a magnetized Black accidentally erases all the tapes in the VHS-only store, is that Gondry expects his signature whimsy to do all the heavy lifting. The movie itself is only window dressing for the exercises in sweding, which include Ghostbusters, Rush Hour and Driving Miss Daisy. In a way, Be Kind Rewind is just a feature-length promo vehicle for the sweded versions touted on the movie’s website. Since everyone is going to catch the visual references to the originals, it remains only for Gondry to deliver remakes with the appropriate admixture of childlike enthusiasm and ambitious ineptitude. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

Be Kind Rewind is a step down for Gondry just for complacency. Granted, the sweded scenes are amusing—though not sidesplitting, and a eventually a bit wearisome for all the self-conscious cleverness. A lot like Amelie, in fact, another movie that lays the whimsy on double-thick. The whole premise is incredibly self-serving, even for this director. Actual performances are thin on the ground, maybe because there’s nothing to cling to in the skimpy script. Jack Black is Jack Black—on paper, again, the perfect zany collaborator for an offbeat movie, but in practice an enormous presence who simply obliterates directors admired more for their subtle quirks and eccentricities. A marble-mouthed Mos Def doesn’t leave any impression at all.

On the other hand, Gondry exudes such a spirit of generosity in his work, it’s hard to be too critical. In Be Kind Rewind, with all its other flaws, this spirit is clearly infectious. I hope sweding turns into the next big thing; if those guys ever make their Wrath of Khan, I’ll be the first one in line to see it. And looking around at posters for coming attractions—oh, gee, Will Ferrell in another ironic sports sendup—I can tell you there are worse ways to spend eight bucks.

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