Spike Jonze: A Closer Look

It’s time to get excited, because the release of the highly anticipated Where the Wild Things Are is just around the corner. As if the captivating trailer and heart-warming childhood nostalgia weren’t enough to get me there, it’s directed by one of my absolute favourite directors, Spike Jonze. For someone who’s only previously directed two full-length films, Jonze has quite an impressive body of work. One could not make a proper list of groundbreaking music videos without multiple Jonze entries, if you ask me. He’s also behind some of the few truly inventive TV commercials out there, and he gave the amazing Charlie Kaufman a forum to share his writing skills with the world.

In anticipation of Where the Wild Things Are, I’ve decided to take a look at Spike Jonze’s already impressive career. This isn’t a comprehensive guide – it’s just some of my favourite work he’s done. And hopefully I’ll be able to give a little insight into why his work has inspired me so much.

 

The Movies

Being John Malkovich

1999

Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Starring: John Cusak, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, and John Malkovich

After directing many seminal 90’s music videos (his sheer output alone in 1994 is impressive), Jonze got his first chance to try his hand at a full-length feature with Being John Malkovich. The movie has a bizarre premise about a portal that allows civilians to crawl into the mind of actor John Malkovich (playing himself in a brilliantly twisted performance). Of course, everything goes haywire. John Cusak plays a struggling puppeteer married to a considerably less glamorous Cameron Diaz. Everything about this film is inventive and a marvel to watch. Kaufman’s script is brilliant, and unexpectedly accessible (a trait that he would later dismiss with 2008’s Synecdoche, New York, his directorial debut. But that’s a different discussion.) Jonze’s vision is so clear, and he executes the concept flawlessly. Even though the movie is kooky and unconventional, it’s told in a disarmingly honest way. Both Jonze and Kaufman earned Academy Award nominations for their work here (as did Catherine Keener, for a supporting role), and what better way to start your film career than with a Best Director nomination?

 

Adaptation.

2002

Written by: Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper

Jonze and Kaufman’s second project together was 2002’s Adaptation. Once again showing his love of blurring fiction and reality, Jonze’s film is about a writer named Charlie Kaufman, and his struggle to adapt a non-fiction book about orchids into a dynamic screenplay. Susan Orlean and her book exist in real life. Charlie Kaufman exists. His twin brother, Donald, does not. Nicholas Cage plays dual roles as Charlie and Donald, and I love how the film takes that concept of the twins all the way (I believe Donald Kaufman was the first fictional person to be nominated for an Academy Award.) Being John Malkovich is a cinematic feat, because of its inventive concept, and the world that Jonze created. But I think that I actually enjoyed Adaptation. more. It’s incredibly funny. Kaufman’s script is so sharp, and Jonze’s direction matches the tone perfectly. It’s a much more understated film (well, until it hits its wonderfully ironic third act), but it still has so much of Jonze’s signature off-kilter charm. In a film dominated by fantastic performances (all three leads were nominated for an Oscar, with Cooper winning Best Supporting Actor), it could be easy to coast on their charisma alone. But Jonze is just as much a part of this film as they are. Every scene is infused with his voice, without it dominating. His films are stylish, but the direction doesn’t take over. It’s sarcastic and biting, just like much of Jonze’s work, but still so much fun.

 

Where the Wild Things Are

2009

Written by: Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers

Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, and voices of James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Forrest Whitaker, and Paul Dano

To be honest, I don’t actually know a whole lot about this film. I’ve watched the trailer a few times, and I know basically what it’s about. But I’m trying not to build my expectations too ridiculously high. The fact that it’s co-written by Dave Eggers is reason enough to be excited. His beloved 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was inventive, and much more enjoyable than one might expect, given the potentially grim subject matter (Eggers parents both died within months of each other, and as a young adult, he was left to essentially raise his considerably younger brother). I hope that this movie won’t suffer from the hype surrounding it, and hopefully audiences and their very high expectations won’t be let down.

 

The Music Videos

I am by no means an expert on Jonze’s music video career. There are still plenty that I haven’t seen, but these are just a few of his works that have really caught my attention. I tried to give an overview of the span of his career, somewhat chronologically.

Weezer – “Buddy Holly” (1994)

This is perhaps one of Spike Jonze’s best known and most beloved works. The members of Weezer perform at choice Happy Days hangout, Arnold’s, and they’ve been seamlessly inserted into old footage from the show. They interact with Joanie and Fonzie, and flirt with the girls – pissing Ritchie Cunningham off in the process. The concept is foolproof, and Jonze executes the video perfectly to give it the right look and feel. The Weezer guys have a lot of fun hamming it up. But in a song about Buddy Holly, why isn’t Rivers wearing his own famous, Holly-esque specs?

 

Beastie Boys – “Sabotage” (1994)

Another one of Jonze’s classic videos came from 1994. This time, it’s an ode to old cop TV shows. The results are hilarious, and pretty epic, too. If any band knows how to not take themselves too seriously, it’s the Beastie Boys. They look like they’re having so much fun here. The editing is really quite amazing, and Jonze’s direction keeps the video fast-paced and fun. Some might say that Jonze’s work is respected in spite of its goofiness, but I think his light-hearted touch is exactly why he succeeds.

 

Wax – “California” (1995)

This is definitely more conceptual than Jonze’s more popular works (it’s also the image on the cover of the DVD boxed set of his work…it’s on my Christmas list.) Not a lot happens, but the whole video is weirdly captivating. The visual is so simple, but beautiful, in a stark kind of way.

 

Bjork – “It’s Oh So Quiet” (1995)

Here, Spike Jonze takes a rather inaccessible artist, and creates a video that’s lovely and fun, but still very artistic. I think the video captures the general whimsy that seems so come along with Bjork’s persona. And I’ve recently realized that no one does a seemingly impromptu dance number quite like Spike Jonze (“Praise You” music video features a similar theme). That seems a little odd, but considering that he got his start with skateboarding videos, I guess it makes sense that he is so naturally drawn to movement. Perhaps Feist’s famous “1234” video took a cue from Jonze’s work here?

 

Fatboy Slim – “Weapon of Choice” (2000)

It’s three minutes of Christopher Walken dancing and flying around. If this doesn’t make you smile, you don’t deserve to be watching a Spike Jonze video. I especially like the scene with the mirrors. And the part where he gets in the elevator, and waits until it opens to resume dancing, is classic. It’s all so well done.

 

Weezer – “Island in the Sun” (Version 2) (2002)

Alright, maybe I can forgive you for not smiling at the Christopher Walken video. Maybe. But if this doesn’t make you feel all warm insdie, then I hate to break it to you, but you have no soul. Just in case Bjork and Christopher Walken weren’t cuddly enough for you, why not take a moment to admire puppies chasing a baby chimpanzee? Even Rivers Cuomo’s occasionally curmudgeonly heart has been warmed, clearly. Oh, and I feel like an idiot saying this, considering the plethora of baby animals running around, but how adorable is Weezer’s guitar player?

 

Phantom Planet – Big Brat (2003)

Spike Jonze’s music video output has dropped off since 2000 (for obvious reasons), but clearly he hasn’t lost his touch. Phantom Planet is probably best known for their song “California” (aka the theme song to The O.C., just in case you’re over the age of 25), but this is actually a pretty cool song, and an even cooler video. It starts out as a laid-back hangout video, and then turns into a make-shift zombie production. Zombies always go over well, and it’s a blast watching them come up with creative, low-budget ways to make blood and organs.

 

 

Kanye West – “Flashing Lights” (2007)

I first saw this video just a few days ago. My first reaction was something along the lines of “…”, but as I thought about it more over the course of a few hours and days, I realised that it had a weird kind of impact on me. It’s deceptively simple, and the ending is really jarring (I know everyone hates Kanye now, because he – once again – confirmed that he was a dick during this year’s annual VMA water cooler moment, but I doubt Taylor Swift would wish that upon him). I think that this will probably hold up well over time, and be yet another entry in Jonze’s cannon of groundbreaking videos.

 

The Commercials

These are just a couple of ads that helped Jonze to receive a nomination for the “Outstanding Achievement in Commercials in 2005” award from the Directors Guild of America. They’ve definately got his signature style and humour.

Ikea Ad – Lamp

 

Gap Ad – “Pardon Our Dust”

 

Miscellaneous

The multi-talented Jonze has also worked as an actor in films like Three Kings. He was a creator and executive producer of the MTV hit show, Jackass, and helped to produce both of the movies. He was an executive producer for the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, and helped to produce Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. He also has several short films to his name, and multiple alter egos (including “Spike Jonze”. Believe it or not, that was not, in fact, his birth name. Try Adam Spiegel).

With the upcoming release of Where The Whild Things Are, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is hosting a 10-day event to honour his work. In a fascinating piece in the New York Times published last month, they note that the costume department for Wild Things was larger than the entire crew of Being John Malkovich. It’s obviously his biggest piece yet. At the age of 39, Jonze’s accomplishments are quite impressive, and it looks like Where The Wild Things Are is only going to bring him more recognition.

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