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The Work of Director Michel Gondry

Palm Pictures Home Video

Directed by Michel Gondry

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

Since the early 1980s, the symbiotic relationship of music and video has become something that most of us take for granted — bands cut albums, studios lay out money for big-budget videos to accompany one or two of the better songs, then sometimes we get to see them on TV — if only when they receive awards at the end of the year on the so-called "music channels" that barely acknowledged the videos' existence before so honoring them. These art/commerce hybrids weren't always so difficult to come across — in fact, during the heavy video-rotation years of MTV many of us discovered new music primarily because of the videos, and the images they presented (Robert Palmer's stone-faced übermodels, leather-clad Michael Jackson morphing into a werewolf) are still, for better or worse, what we inevitably envision whenever we hear those songs. But, as an art form and a marketing tool, the music video's cultural influence has shriveled over the years — ironically, while teens and twenty-somethings used to watch MTV and VH1 religiously for the latest, most innovative new music, these days those channels only seem to make programming time for videos during the rare moments when there's no celebrity-focused infotainment shows to run.

Whether or not anyone's actually watching them, however, a handful of canny directors have taken advantage of the training ground offered by the short-form video to hone their cinematic chops. Big-screen auteurs like Spike Jonze (Adaptation), David Fincher (Fight Club) and Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) mastered their craft on the job, creating small works of art on the music companies' dime. Among these directors, Michel Gondry (Human Nature, the upcoming Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) stands out not only for his idiosyncratic, thickly laid symbolic visuals but for his technical audacity as well. Gondry's videos for Björk, the White Stripes, Kylie Minogue, the Chemical Brothers, Beck, and others are highly intelligent and sometimes unrelentingly goofy, combining a giddy sense of wonder with visuals that inspire how-the-hell-did-he-do-that? awe.

The Work of Director Michel Gondry, part of Palm Pictures' "Directors Label" DVD series (other sets showcase Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham), is essentially a two-disc set presented on one platter — Side A is a sampling of the director's newer videos, short films, and commercials made from 1996 to 2001, with Side B offering works from 1987 to 1995. Bridging the sides is a two-part, 75-minute featurette, "I've Been 12 Forever," a nice overview of the director's life and work combining artist and family interviews with behind-the-scenes footage, storyboards, commentary, and Gondry's drawings. The videos on the disc range from his straightforward work on the Rolling Stones' 1995 cover of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" to his earlier experiments in animation for Oui Oui (his own band, for whom he played drums). Naturally, the set includes his more lauded videos — the intense creepiness of Björk's "Human Behavior," the Foo Fighters' fever-dream "Everlong," and Gondry's intricate Lego-animation for the White Stripes' "Fell in Love with a Girl." A handful of ultra-short films are presented as well, their eclectic themes and visuals serving to illustrate the breadth of Gondry's facile, experimental talent.

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Stumbling upon Gondry's work during standard TV rotation, his videos are awe-inspiring — technically dazzling, they not only assume a level of intelligence in the viewer that most videos never presume, but they also avoid the cheap, exploitive sexuality that practically defines the genre (in the set's extensive 52-page booklet, Gondry scoffs, "It's like, to get artistic recognition for a female artist, you have to get dirty and show it all. Pornography is more honest, and the shots last longer.") In viewing the director's body of work in one sitting, though, Gondry's personal obsessions and leitmotifs become apparent, especially in the more recent videos presented on Side A. The most prominent recurring themes are that of dreams and multiples, from the dual fantasy worlds of Dave Grohl and his sleeping girlfriend (played by bandmate Taylor Hawkins) in the Foo Fighters' "Everlong" to the kaleidoscopic shopgirl's dream of the Chemical Brothers' "Let Forever Be," in which seven identical dancers slide in and out and around video footage of the dreaming woman's "reality." Kylie Minogue multiplies over and over again as her doppelgangers prance through the same-but-changing cityscape of "Come Into My World" (a piece of filmmaking that practically begs the viewer to watch it again and again to try and figure out just how the effect was achieved) and the split-screen of Cibo Matto's "Sugar Water" presents two women going through the same actions — one forward, one backward — and finally changing places in a mind-boggling piece of cinematic legerdemain. Gondry's most impressive work is, arguably, on display in the videos he made with the surreal Icelandic songstress Björk, whose input in plotting their six videos' intricately symbolic and almost impenetrable visuals Gondry freely acknowledges. Easily the artistic equal of the justifiably lauded "Human Behavior," Björk's "Bachelorette" is an unfolding story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story, visually presenting the creative path of writing to publishing to play to film as a deconstructive process that ultimately destroys the original work (at least that's what this reviewer thinks it's about).

Throughout the catalog of Gondry's visuals and short films other touchstones pop up, like skeletons and light bulbs, but the most notable distinction between his work and that of other directors is his percussionist's understanding of rhythm — rather than just providing pretty pictures to accompany songs, Gondry literally scores his videos, with the visuals playing out the rhythm of the music and reflecting the melody lines of various instruments used in the compositions. His ingenuity and technical acumen raise these works from mere promotional tools to cinematic art.

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Palm Pictures' one disc, two-sided Work of Michel Gondry DVD offers 27 videos plus short films in either anamorphic widescreen or full-frame, depending on the ratio of the original piece. The transfers are good and very clean, although the color seems less than vibrant on some of the videos. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is solid, yet not spectacular — clean, but the mixes on the videos have less depth and complexity than hoped for. The disc's design is clever — besides running in backwards chronology from oldest to newest, each side offers the option of viewing the videos in either chronological order, "shuffling" them, or by artist. And, as a sort of quasi-Easter egg, the set starts with an introduction by Gondry that changes with each subsequent playing, offering more to see every time you start it up.

Besides the videos, the disc offers three of Gondry's award-winning commercials, for Levi's, Smirnoff and Polaroid — these are excellent, making one despair over the dreariness of most American advertising. Several very short films are included, like "Pecan Pie," in which a pajama-wearing, Elvis-channeling Jim Carrey drives his car-bed into a gas station for a fill up and tuck-in; the clever (and very French) "La Lettre," about the fickleness of adolescent love; and the scatological, baffling "One Day," which stars Gondry as himself, followed around town and harassed by a piece of his own excrement — played by comedian David Cross, who wears a giant turd suit (yes, it's as strange as it sounds). The enclosed booklet is a nice addition as well, featuring drawings, anecdotes and interviews.

— Dawn Taylor

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