Before any Hollywood royals had the thrill of clutching Oscar to their breasts last night, tens of thousands of commoners beat them to it. For the last week at the ABC Studios in Times Square, the home of Good Morning America, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted its second annual Meet the Oscars promotion, putting on display 50 of the little gold beasts and giving any member of the public who wandered in a chance to get their picture taken hoisting a genuine Oscar.
You know what? The sucker is, as they say, heavier than you'd expect: In my hands, it felt like a murder weapon, a 24-karat-gold-plated tool with which to club everyone else in Hollywood.
But maybe that's just me. Because an hour after I had my brush with Oscar, I was down in SoHo being reminded that most people don't make movies to win awards; they make them for the joy of sharing the way they see the world.
As if to reinforce the democratization of the medium (and perhaps the irrelevance of the Oscars), the French-born filmmaker Michel Gondry has constructed a paean to homemade movies to coincide with his latest feature. In Be Kind Rewind, which opened in theatres over the weekend, Mos Def plays a video-store employee who discovers his friend (Jack Black) has accidentally erased all the VHS tapes. (The store has failed to join the DVD revolution.)
Desperate to save their hides and the business, the buddies make a series of raw, low-tech versions of the store's films: Ghostbusters, Driving Miss Daisy, Boyz n the Hood.
These new versions - called by their creators 'sweded' films, for no apparent reason - prove more popular than the originals, attracting the attention of the copyright cops.
If you stroll up Wooster Street these days, you might think you'd somehow wandered into Passaic, New Jersey, where Gondry shot his film. For there in SoHo, just north of Canal, Gondry has installed a simulacrum of the ramshackle video store at the pop art gallery Deitch Projects.
Inside, past a mock-up of the video store's beat-up front and its dowdy retail space, the gallery has been transformed into a movie factory featuring more than a dozen small interior and exterior sets, closets full of props and costumes, and workshop areas where members of the public are given two hours to sketch out and then shoot their own films on digital video cameras, all free of charge. Editing facilities aren't provided, so the films must be shot in sequence.
When I dropped by on Thursday afternoon, about a dozen 19- and 20-year-old students from Manchester were erupting in giggles as they raced around from set to set - street scene to doctor's office to café to forest - shooting a nutty romantic-comedy zombie flick.
Gondry's installation is an exercise in concrete nostalgia, not only for the days before DVDs but also, in more fundamental ways, for the cultural phenomenon of the video store itself. After all, when home video spread in the early 1980s, more than a few social-trends pundits predicted the end of the communal movie-centred experience. They failed to predict how video stores themselves would become hubs for film lovers. (Neighbourhood video stores, that is, not the faceless national franchises specializing in mainstream movies, where high staff turnover precluded any sense of community and made it clear that film expertise was a quaint but worthless commodity.)
If aficionados no longer gathered in the dingy corners of rep houses to dissect Scorsese's problems with plot, or the French New Wave, they still did occasional aesthetic battle across the front counters of video stores. (Sometimes those stores coughed up new talent into the professional filmmaking ranks, like Quentin Tarantino and his friend Roger Avary.)
Gondry's store mockup is as rough-hewn as they come, with faux pressed-tin walls painted a battered chocolate brown and grey shelves dotted morosely with the available videos. The project indulges in a nostalgia for the era of handmade films, when everything seen by an audience actually occurred on a soundstage in front of a camera rather than being generated in an edit suite or on a computer. Gondry's sets are tactile and versatile: in the living room set, you can insert a card into the window frame to change the view from an urban street to the countryside.
And while there are a few clever trompe l'oeils, they are proudly low-tech, like the bunch of tiny model cars rolling by on a hand-operated conveyer belt against a moving city background that makes a stationary car appear to race forward. There's a similar train exterior, too. You can imagine Alfred Hitchcock using the same methods for North by Northwest. Ed Wood would be in heaven.
Bypassing the usual curatorial process that grants some artists access to exclusive galleries while denying it to others, all of the videos made at Deitch will be stored there for the duration of Gondry's installation, accessible to anyone who wants to view them in the front room.
Last Thursday, as I was watching the group from Manchester prepare to shoot its epic, Gondry quietly slipped into the Deitch space to see how people were using the installation. I asked him if he was going to watch the films being made, and he shrugged.
"I will be interested to see them more like a social researcher, but as a filmmaker I don't judge them," he said in his halting English. "My only goal is that people laugh and they have a good time doing it. When there is good laugh, good discussion going on, that's all that matters."
He waved his hand toward the screening area at the front. "This is important for the exhibition, people watching the film together, because there is going to be laughs, and a sense of community, people gathering together. Hopefully when they watch, they're going to laugh. The end result only matters for them, not for others."
Most critics have been less than kind to Be Kind Rewind (the film), especially to its sentimental final scene, in which the townsfolk of Passaic cheer on a film they have all had a hand in. The quality of the film they've made is irrelevant; the only value is its local origin and appeal. Perhaps the critics are missing the point.
After Gondry left, the budding Truffauts from Manchester huddled in the front room to view what they had just made. Watching it was akin to visual wakeboarding: the barely audible dialogue was limp and obvious, the story non-existent, the camerawork worse than a wedding video taken by your drunk cousin. Calling the acting cartoonish would be insulting to Mickey Mouse. And the creators from Manchester were eating it up.