erasing clouds

DVD Review: The Work of Director Spike Jonze

by john wenzel

Spike Jonze, the enigmatic director behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, has let loose his inaugural (and long overdue) collection of music videos, rarities and documentaries. The Work of Director Spike Jonze is the first in his ambitious Director's Label series, with additional releases in the coming months from label co-conspirators Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry (Bjork, Aphex Twin, Chemical Bros.)

This DVD is essential viewing for anyone the least bit intrigued by Jonze's stylistic schizophrenia and brilliantly off-center logic, and a fitting archive of some of the most important music videos of the '90s.

If you're looking for insight into Jonze's underlying personality, there are few answers here. Is he crazy? Deadly serious? An eccentric rich kid with a juvenile sense of humor and sublime grasp of symmetry and color?

None of these fully describe Jonze, though they do get at his sensitive nature and unique, confrontational visual style, painting a portrait of a contradictory, experimental artist in his prime. From the relatively straightforward video for The Breeders' "Cannonball" (co-directed with Kim Gordon) to Pharcyde's stunningly complex "Drop," Jonze exhibits an unfailing integrity that places ideas before visual style, and often, visual style above coherence.

Jonze fares best when he follows concepts to completion. Pharcyde's "Drop," for example, is filmed backwards then reversed, though this fact is only apparent when liquids and clothing fly eerily through the frame, the performers perfectly lip-synching the words in reverse. The forethought and practice required for this must have been excruciating. Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet" (in which she was reportedly nine months pregnant) and Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" (featuring a dancing, debonair, floating Christopher Walken) also attest to Jonze's intricate planning skills and bizarre sensibilities.

Jonze is also the master of straight-faced absurdity, as anyone's who's seen Fatboy Slim's award-winning "Praise You" video can attest. Under the guise of Richard Koufay, the fictitious leader of the Torrance, Calif. Community Dance Troupe, Jonze stages a guerilla boombox performance in front of Mann's Chinese Theater. As patrons wait in line, Jonze and his troupe of talentless, '80s workout-gym hacks writhe hilariously to "Praise You," nearly running into the traffic and pedestrians around them. The building's security shuts them down briefly, (to the dismay of the crowd) but Jonze persuades them to let his crew finish. It's an inspired piece of performance-art-meets-practical-joke, blurring the distinction between parody and abstract art.

On the other hand, Jonze takes the joke light years beyond its logical conclusion and into the realm of the conceptual. Head-scratchingly conceptual. He makes a fake documentary of his troupe's journey to perform their interpretive farce on the MTV Music Video Awards. Of course, the performance is real, at least in the sense that Jonze and his friends actually go onstage to re-enact their guerilla video. But Jonze stays in character to a fault, alternately confusing and pissing off those around him -- those who can't understand it's all part of an elaborate hoax.

He breathlessly pants to a hand-held video camera about the exciting moment, unnervingly convincing as a small-time loser with a shot at stardom. Cut to reaction shots of Madonna and Eminem's faces (as seated in the audience), illustrating the scattered disgust felt when "Praise You" wins multiple awards. "What's this crap?" you can almost hear them thinking. "I worked my ass off to get that 40-person dance routine down in MY video, and I didn't even get nominated!"

That's when you realize some people just don't get it, and never will. Even if they have a sense of humor about themselves (as Eminem obviously does), they'll never understand the harsh self-deprecation that is Jonze' bread and butter. Face it: this is the guy that produced Jackass, a show that either alienates or endears viewers to its infantile (and frequently side-splitting) brand of comedy. He was weaned on skate videos and SoCal punk. He directed the mind-warping film Being John Malkovich. He trades in deflated egos and ambush tactics. What did you expect?

This contradiction - taking a joke so seriously as to harm oneself in its telling - exposes the exceedingly fine line Jonze walks. He deifies nothing and everything. His style is defined by its willingness to try whatever comes to mind. It's frequently hard to discern whether his aim is imitation or parody, or some sublime mixture thereof.

Most tellingly, he's fascinated by average, down-home types, as his short documentaries on the DVD attest. An impromptu afternoon spent with precocious Texan bullrider-wannabes feels eerily like a sanitized version of Harmony Korine's disturbing paean to white trash, Gummo.

Is he mocking his subjects or capturing them in their element? It's hard to tell, and endlessly entertaining to watch.


Issue 16, October 2003

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