Quickies: Spike Jonze in Short
In the class of directors who made the leap from music videos to feature films, Spike Jonze stands uniquely as one of the most accomplished and successful. Through over 60 music videos and 4 major motion pictures, he’s achieved rarified success and acclaim from the most notable bodies of filmmaking, and even won a Grammy for Best Music Video (R.E.M.'s 'Star 69') that many filmmakers have never obtained.
He’s also uniquely prolific in visual mediums, with eight short films over various genres, and an impressive body of work as a producer and director for the Jackass franchise. This prolific work in short film and video is important to understanding the development of the Spike Jonze worldview, and how it’s influenced his feature work.
Spike Jonze’s work can be categorized in two classes. The first is a reality that is informed by a fascination with fun and meaning; one that precludes the harshness of the ‘real world’ and pushes back on the expectations of how the world ‘should’ be. This worldview can be found in John Cusack's puppeteer in Being John Malkovich, or Nicolas Cage’s struggling writer in Adaptation. The other is a fantasy world, free to the exploration of the id and what gives you joy, that is often intruded upon by realities harsh light. Realities harsh light takes many forms, such as the expectations of a new lover in 2013’s Her, or the truth that Max can not live with his beastly friends in Where The Wild Things Are.
Spike’s first worldview, of a reality that focuses on our desires and joy, is fully on display in his 1998 short documentary, Amarillo By Morning. Over 30 minutes, the soft spoken North Easterner interviews a group of aspiring bull riders in rural Texas. Rather than focusing on their time as competitors, Jonze focuses on their preparation process, which is less about the dynamics of bull riding and more about the social lives bull riding gives them away from their families and school. It echoes many a coming age story on film, from The 400 Blows to The Girl Next Door; but to me, it feels like a real life, ‘Country Mouse’ prequel to Larry Clark's Kids - not as dangerous, and more a product of a lack of things to do outside our cities than an overabundance like they have in urban areas. It’s not about the moral decay that makes the world of Kids turn - it’s the truth of modern adolescence.
Spike Jonze often bumps up against the arrested development of the Gen X age group and after. His earliest videos, such as those for Velocity Girl’s ‘I Can’t Stop Smiling’, have the push back on tradition that is symbolic of youth movements. It’s symbolism that embraces the fears of concerned parents and newspaper editorials about how the latest generation is shunning the knowledge that all civilization before them accrued.
His bristling reached its first apex with a one two punch of music videos. For Weezer’s ‘Buddy Holly’, enhancing the ingrained message of the TV series 'Happy Days' and it’s false vision of American idealism from the 1950’s with the latest threat to the culture, 90’s alternative rock. His other peak brush back is with the Beastie Boys ‘Sabotage’, another music video peddling in the nostalgia of 60’s and 70’s police shows, but with heightened (if comical) violence like that being seen on Cops or the burgeoning 24/7 news of the mid-nineties. Spike lifts the banner to say to the viewer that the kids are alright, even if parents just don’t understand.
Spike’s ‘reality clapback’ phase pinnacled in the late 90’s, with his participation with the Jackass crew. While not typically thought to be a core member, his producer and directorial hand was vital to the group's inital communication with MTV to overcome the unease they had at the shows extreme content. Spike brought the DIY, action oriented ethos of skater culture to reinvent the Candid Camera format, pushing the boundaries of decency for ‘Middle America’, and providing a friendly mirror to the boredom of youth, albeit with a better budget for more fanciful gags. This guerilla aesthetic was applied to the Grammy Award winning music video for Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You’, a cringe worthy premise that is executed with the confidence only those lacking self awareness could engage with.
Fatboy Slim and Jonze were so enamored with their concept, they turned it into extended performance art, and captured the results for the mockumentary short film Torrance Rises, a improv depiction of the Torrance Dance Team’s trip to the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards. Featuring camera work from Roman Coppola and Jonze’s then wife, Sophia Coppola, stealthly filming a chunk from the seats of the New York Metropolitan Theater, Jonze showed a commitment to acting on screen and a flexible joy as a creator that enables him to connect with actors and stretch their capabilities.
During this evolution leading up to his second feature film, Adaptation, Jonze used his opportunities in music videos to explore the full catalogue of what can be captured in images. His first huge leap away from standard captured performance was the accompanying video for Weezer’s ‘Undone (The Sweater Song)’, utilizing a backwards playback for the band's performance while the rest of the studio operates forward, in theme with the songs chorus. Jonze would utilize a similar method in ‘The Pharcyde's ‘Drop’, with the achievement being even more impressive as they utilized real world locations and outdoor environments.
Jonze frequently comes back to the slow motion technique, first exploring it with the impressive image of a man on fire in Wax’s ‘California’, and continuing it with his work with Kanye West in one of my favorite music videos of all times, the Jonze/West collaboration for ‘Flashing Lights’. Jonze combined the slow motion motif with the classical aesthetic of a Busby Berkeley musical in Bjork’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’. In a video that transitions from the filth of a tire store bathroom to the fantastical overhead image of Bjork ascending as the song plays out, with a brief moment for a mailbox to come alive and shimmy with Bjork on the street. As Jonze approached feature films, his ideas became much more fantastical, and while he explored music videos less, the need to create outside the long form process of feature films brings him back to short work more and more frequently.
Jonze's very first short, How They Got There, features this whimsy with just a little fantasy, as a couple flirts from across the road and their movements seem to be closely tied together. What at first glance seems like your standard ‘Meet Cute’ ends in an absurd crescendo of comedy and violence. As Jones continued his work in shorts, he never seems to lose a taste for the absurd, but seeks to find meaning in it’s depths, such as the felt doll inspired book covers come to life co-directed Mourir Aupres de Toi (To Die By Your Side) with Simon Cahn and the solo directed I’m Here from 2010.
I'm Here feels like a first draft of Her, featuring a male protagonist in Sheldon (Andrew Garfield) who can’t see any joy in his life until he meets a special woman, Francesca (Sienna Guillory), who breaks out the bounds of what is expected of her - the difference is, both the man and the woman in I’m Here are robots. Sheldon is an older but studier model to Francesca’s more stylish frame, but Francesca’s lust for life and the normalcy of the people around her leads to situations where her body is damaged and broken. Awaken by his feelings for her, Sheldon sacrifices first his arm, then his leg, and finally, the bulk of his frame to Francesca to be left as just a disembodied, sentient head that Francesca cradles and shares loving glares with as they leave the hospital. Drawing a dual image of a lover and a mother in a relationship that can now focus on the most important thing they could provide one another, dreams, I’m Here fully embodies the Jonze story of a dreamer that wishes to hide from the world, forsaking one’s self for the comfort of an uncommon love.
All filmmakers are collaborative, but Jonze engages in collaborations differently than most directors of his caliber. From fellow directors like Lance Bangs and Simon Cahn to Jeff Tremaine and the producers of Jackass, the credit doesn’t seem to be the most important thing for Jonze, the art does. This collaborative effort of Jonze’s lead to one of his most interesting pieces of art existing within reality, while learning the harsh truth of who we are.
In We Were Once A Fairytale, Kanye West steers into the curve of public perception. He is loud and oafish, frantic in his behavior as he vacillates between enjoying his own music, and making sure others around him know he’s responsible for the rhythm of their night. Following awkward interactions with a server, a group of women, and his own friends, West retreats to the bathroom and becomes sick in the sink, but rather than expelling vomit, he expels flower petals and a frightening scream. He passes out on the floor, and wakes to a knife in his grasp, that he uses to cut his abdomen and spill more flower petals to the floor. Reaching into the wound, he pulls out a small, hideous creature, covered in wire hair and with pointed ears and sharp features. West produces a smaller knife from the hilt of his knife, and provides it to the creature who, after some hesitation, slices his own abdomen and dies on the sink. Faced with his own inner demon, West silently stares at the results of his actions as the film cuts to black.
Produced in 2009, there’s an intersection here between Jonze and West in We Were Once A Fairytale, of an eagerness to explore the demon inside and stop it from running your life. Both Jonze and West confront the demon, be it the strain of creativity or the effects of public breakups, and in the ensuing period, produce arguably some of their greatest creative work. But the piece stands as a barometer for the perception of West in the ensuing period as well. These questions haven’t left West or Jonze afraid of working together - Jonze’s most recent music video is a simple short of West and his daughter North for the song ‘Only One’, in a slow stroll using the slow motion techniques and blending tracking music with live audio. It’s a gorgeous moment between a father and daughter, and it’s more poignant being captured by a friend and respected artist.
I feel like a completionist in Spike Jonze's work, having spent the time with his shorts, seeing his complete filmography, and having grown up with and seeking out all his music videos. If I had to pick one piece of work that I feel best exemplifies Jonze, I would pick his music video for Daft Punk’s ‘Da Funk’. Rather than focusing on the music, he has the video take the role of a short film, featuring an anthropomorphic dog who travels his neighborhood in New York City, enjoying his music on a boombox and running into a childhood friend at a bodega. It inverts the two ideas I find at the heart of Jonze work - it’s fantastically detached from reality, but grounded in the real world that the antagonist doesn’t want to escape, he desperately wants to be a part of it. It doesn’t go to the technical lengths of his other work, but in his feature work, I find Jonze to be best when the effects are minimal (or we don’t recognize them as being effects). Jonze’s desire for connection cuddles up against the need to belong instead of bristling against it. He goes against everything that defines him, and makes a memorable oddity combining his most beloved methods of art.
Jonze is currently on an unspecified hiatus from director work, working as a creative director to the Viceland television network. What his direction following this tenure will be is unknown, but I feel safe in saying that I expect it to be odd, but lovely.
(Notes: We Were Once A Fairytale is available for purchase on iTunes. In preparation for this list, the author created a playlist of all available Spike Jonze music videos on YouTube; if you’d like 55 videos of mind blowing throwback visuals, he recommends you view it here)