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The Work of Director Spike Jonze

Palm Pictures

Directed by Spike Jonze

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

When MTV began attaching a director's credit to their music videos sometime in the early 1990s, once-oblivious viewers were suddenly able to place names with the many distinct styles that had, for better or worse, been shaping the collective pop cultural consciousness for over a decade. Some of these directors — e.g. David Fincher, Russell Mulcahy, Phil Joanou — were already known quantities thanks to their well-publicized forays into film, but, at the time, the most interesting work was being done by relative unknowns who were linking up their distinct sensibilities with some of the day's most musically adventuresome artists. Chris Cunningham created indelible nightmarish landscapes out of Aphex Twin's ambient techno compositions, while Michel Gondry crafted fairy-tale-like flights of fancy to match the unfettered childlike imagination of Icelandic pop genius Bjork.

But it was Spike Jonze who would become this movement's dorky, but engagingly impish, superstar through his rambunctious collaborations with hip-hop pioneers, The Beastie Boys, two of which are featured on Palm Pictures' The Work of Director Spike Jonze, one of three initial collections being released under the company's newly established "Directors Label," which also feature tributes to Messrs. Cunningham and Gondry. Showcasing 16 of Jonze's more memorable videos, and complemented by enough supplemental material to sate the director's most rabid fans, it's an exceedingly well-selected reflection of a boundless imagination forever in pursuit of new and elaborate ways to simply have fun. As such, this eclectic anthology is like digital cotton candy. Most importantly, to paraphrase the subtitle at the beginning of Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, it should be played loud.

Starting off the collection is the video for Wax's "California," which is appropriate since many consider the ne plus ultra of the Jonze canon. Boasting the startling, slow-motion image of a man calmly running down a Los Angeles street while literally on fire, it's a perfect marriage of the director's fascination with shocking stunts and carefully choreographed tracking shots, punctuated by a brilliant final pan of the camera revealing that the whole spectacle has been lazily observed by a young girl in the back seat of a car. This stands in marked contrast to the frenetically edited "Sure Shot," a busy Beastie Boys video notable for its casually imprecise lip synching and hastily dropped-in still images bravely attempting to keep up with the boys' non-stop barrage of pop-culture references. Though the sensibility is undoubtedly Spike, the style — overcranked clowning in front of a fisheye lens — is all Beasties, so while it's not necessarily the director's most groundbreaking work, it's still pretty irresistible.

Lip synching is also a challenge for the Pharcyde's "Drop," where Jonze insanely filmed the bugged-out rap quartet performing the song in reverse. What's most amazing about this video is not so much the complexity of the stunt, which recalls the conceptual comedy of Ernie Kovacs (not to mention the Swedish bookstore sequence in Top Secret), but the enthusiasm that clearly went into its filming. By all means, this should've been a frustratingly tedious undertaking, but one never once feels as if they're watching these guys struggle to hit their marks (as can often be the case, given the typical rush of shooting a video). It's also a refreshing change of pace from the boring bling-bling showiness that was then settling into hip-hop videos like rigor mortis, a lame cliché that Jonze would later brilliantly subvert with the gentle parody of "Sky's the Limit" by The Notorious B.I.G. Filmed after the beloved emcee's murder, the video takes its cue from Alan Parker's Bugsy Malone, with adolescents playing the parts of Biggie, Puffy, and the other members of their entourage as they prepare for a glamorous night out at the club. What's so wonderful about the video is the way the play-acting of the young actors exposes the lifestyle of these supposed adults as little more than kids' stuff. It's all a carefully constructed ruse that's done seemingly irreparable harm to a once forward looking musical form; ergo, watching these children "live the life" is almost as depressing as it is humorous.

Meanwhile, Spike is at his broadest with the madcap video for The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," which plays like the opening credits to the worst '70s cop show that never aired, where police work is reduced to chasing down perps sans sidearm and jumping on them. Being that this was the first single off of Ill Communication, the group's hotly anticipated follow-up to their wildly popular creative rebirth, Check Your Head, this is the video that established Spike as a hipster icon, a cachet that the director would in turn use to launch the low-fi grunge band Weezer. Having already worked with the band on "Undone (The Sweater Song)," yet another overcranked tracking shot finished off with a last-second flourish of galloping dogs, Spike devised the ultimate exercise in '70s nostalgia for the catchy "Buddy Holly" by placing the group in an episode of Happy Days. Crudely intercutting scenes from the show with the band playing on the rebuilt set of Al's Diner, Spike brazenly eschews the technical seamlessness of Forrest Gump, and the video is all the more charming and memorable for it.

It's arguable that Spike's work is most enjoyable at its least polished, and it doesn't get any more amateurish than "What's Up Fatlip?", a solo effort from a former member of The Pharcyde that's a collection of blown takes, humiliating acts, and very bad dancing. Filming the rapper as he interacts with the public dressed up as a clown and a flasher, this video very clearly presages Spike's involvement with Jackass. As Fatlip makes a perfect ass out of himself while musing over what an absolute failure he's become, the video is an irredeemably silly bit of self-flagellation. One could almost accuse Spike of taking advantage of the poor guy were it not for the director's fearless on-camera antics in his video for "Praise You" by Fatboy Slim. Playing the choreographer of the "Torrance Community Dance Group," Spike leads a group of unglamorous, sweats-clad dancers as they perform in front of puzzled folks queuing up outside of a movie theater. It's a great prank that works because of Spike's thorough immersion into the character of "Richard Koufey." He's so convincing that many people never questioned that the whole thing might be a sham, a phenomenon the director would exploit when he accepted his MTV Video Music Award for Best Video in character.

As Spike slowly attained celebrity status in his own right, he became more interested in the subversion of identity, playing off the public's preconceived notions of the famous by placing them in unlikely circumstances. The first instance of this is his video for The Chemical Brothers' "Elektrobank," which features Sofia Coppola performing in a high school gymnastics competition. Having crashed and burned so notoriously in her feature film debut, Sofia is generously given an opportunity for redemption by Spike, who does for her what her father could not: i.e., make her likeable. Again, Spike isn't as interested in making the routine look realistic as he is with nailing the feel of a high school sporting event, which he does fairly effortlessly through his unerring knack for costume and set design. This attention to atmosphere helps sell the rough edits from Sofia to her double (who isn't even close to the actress's body type), and the viewer goes along with it, cheering for the gal no matter what she did to the Godfather franchise. But Spike's most winning tweak of a celebrity's image (i.e. outside of Being John Malkovich) remains Christopher Walken's ebullient hoofing in "Weapon of Choice" by Fatboy Slim. Though he had previously shown off this talent in Pennies From Heaven, this light-footed expertise came as quite a shock to MTV's younger viewers, who had come to know the actor as an eerily menacing character player. Already an icon for his performances in such hipster classics as True Romance and King of New York, this video didn't exactly humanize Walken — not even Spike could work that miracle — but it smartly toyed with the common perception of the actor as an embalmed eccentric.

The way Spike Jonze toys with form and content while simultaneously trying to pull one over on his audience, he winds up coming off as a bizarre melding of Jean-Luc Godard and Allen Funt. Happily, his two excursions into feature filmmaking have been just as prankish and unconventional, suggesting that the director has no intention of playing it safe for the foreseeable future. And while it would be nice to report that Spike has influenced a whole generation of younger filmmakers to indulge in like-minded whimsical invention, his music video oeuvre has, if anything, sadly been overshadowed by his popularization of Jackass, giving way to the mean-spirited (not to mention criminal) shenanigans of crap like "Bum Fights." Meanwhile, music videos have only become more obsessed with celebrating wealth and reveling in cliché sexual imagery. Only occasionally does one happen across a video with more on its mind than selling this transparently counterfeit ideal of cool. Not surprisingly, the director's credit usually belongs to Spike Jonze.

*          *          *

Palm Pictures presents The Work of Director Spike Jonze in an outstanding, mostly full-frame (1.33:1) aspect ratio ("Da Funk," "Sky's the Limit" and "It's Oh So Quiet" have been preserved in their original 1.85:1 ratio) with crisp Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Supplements on the first disc include audio commentaries on most of the videos from the musicians, and, in some instances, the actors, too. Best of all (at least, for fans) is The Beastie Boys running commentary through a number of the videos, most of which is spent trying to remember what Ohio rock group Adam Yauch tried to start an altercation with on the Lollapalooza '94 tour (answer: the very non-confrontational Guided By Voices). There is also an interview segment (13 min.) in which the musicians discuss their working relationship with Spike (why Fatboy Slim was interviewed taking a bubble bath is anyone's guess). Rounding out this disc is "The Making of 'Drop'" (6 min.), trailers for the other selections in the Directors Label series and the Adaptation Special Edition DVD, and weblinks to the websites for the various bands featured on the disc.

Side "B" first features a collection of five "Rarities" (17 min.). The first of these is "How They Get There," in which "meeting cute" abruptly becomes "meeting windshield". Next is "Mark Paints," featuring artist Mark Gonzales finishing a painting only to have a kid come along and deface it. This is followed by "The Oasis Video That Never Happened," a series of interviews conducted with random British Oasis fans that was supposed to tie into a video for the band until the mercurial Gallagher brothers decided they hated all of the ideas. The groundwork for the "Praise You" video is seen in Spike's one-man performance as Richard Koufey outside of Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles to Fatboy Slim's "Rockafella Skank". Lastly, there is "The Woods," a short film shot for Girl Skateboards.

Next up are the documentaries, which kick off with the uproarious "What's Up Fatlip?," a portrait of emotional desolation that features the rapper, recently ejected from The Pharcyde, walking around in a virtual daze after slamming into the wall of his creative limitations. Fatlip is phenomenally candid, which leads to an incredibly cringeworthy story that he claims he has related to anyone else. Suffice it to say that when Spike asks "Why would they think you were gay?," you'd best buckle up. The second documentary is "Amarillo By Morning," a sterling example of Spike's natural curiosity in which he hangs out with some kids training to one day make the professional bullriding circuit. Finally, there is "Torrance Rises," a very funny record of the "Richard Koufey" practical joke that culminates in the dance group's performance at the MTV Video Music Awards.

— Clarence Beaks

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