Thursday, May 06, 2010

Modern Maestros: Spike Jonze

Robert here, continuing my series on great contemporary directors. This week an interesting director who doesn't necessarily fit into the mold of most modern directors. After all, how many current maestros cut their teeth making skating videos?

Maestro: Spike Jonze
Known For: darkly comic visually striking independent films about the contents of people's heads.
Influences: of all the directors I've featured, Jonze seems least likely to list other filmmakers as influences and more likely to name songs or literature. And although I've seen no evidence of it anywhere it wouldn't surprise me if he was a fan of, say, Alejandro Jodorowsky
Masterpieces: Being John Malkovich
Disasters: None.
Better than you remember: The dissenters for Where the Wild Things Are have some good points, but the film is far better than many people think.
Awards: Oscar and DGA nominated for Being John Malkovich. Globe nominated for Adaptation.
Box Office: Over 77 mil for Where the Wild Things Are.
Favorite Actor: Catherine Keener in all three of his films (if you don't count her tiny cameo in Adaptation she still beats out everyone else, provided you don't count Chris Coopers voice work for Wild Things).

There has always been an intersection between feature films and music videos. Since the popularization of music videos, feature directors have been jumping on board to make them. Less clear was whether directors who worked primarily in video could make the leap to feature films. As one of the few directors to gain name recognition from directing videos (thanks to several that became cultural bright spots) Spike Jonze has come to represent a generation of filmmakers who came through music videos or were at least heavily influenced by the endless possibilities the medium offered at a time when mainstream film was bogged down by Hollywood formulas and indie cinema was bogged down by an endless stream of copycats riding the coattails of a few talented artists making films about hitmen and slackers. Spike Jonze's first feature film blew the doors wide open and according to myth was only made after it fell through the cracks (past the eyes of skeptic producers). Having already proven himself a master of the limitless possibilities of the music video medium, Jonze was perfectly paired with Charlie Kaufman (who himself would gain name recognition in a field that usually doesn't) to explore the inside of John Malkovich's head.

The life of the mind is a topic well suited to Jonze, and he conveyed the world of Being John Malkovich in a manner allowing the viewer to venture into Craig Schwartz's mind through his cluttered, crowded, living apartment, his oppressively small workplace and conversely Malkovich's breathable world while never overwhelming the film with these details. Similarly, Jonze knows just how much pressure to apply when (fictional) Charlie Kauffman's mind spirals down the rabbit hole in Adaptation and the line between reality and fantasy is no longer clear. After parting with Kauffman, Spike Jonze stayed inside the realm of the mind, specifically that of wild boy Max, demonstrating that even in the imagination we cannot escape the pathos of life. Some people criticized Where the Wild Things Are as dark, anticlimactic, and lacking in whimsy (and it is all those things). But as soon as a director whose idea of whimsy is a flaming man running down the street signed on, those anticipations were probably best dropped. Perhaps a different director would have satisfied a larger audience, but as a Spike Jonze picture, subject to his hallmarks, Where the Wild Things Are is just about the best possible version of itself.

What goes on in a child's head.

That movie, Where the Wild Things Are marks Jonze's return to feature film directing after six years. But I don't think we can accuse him of being lazy. In that time he's continued to make short films, music videos and commercials, founded Directors Label DVDs, partook in the Detour-Moleskine project, and acted as creative director for Recently Jonze purchased the rights to the novel Light Boxes, though is expected to produce. His next directorial project is still unknown, and while it may (hopefully) not take him six more years to get there, whatever it is, it will be highly anticipated as any film should be by a man whose come to represent all the endless possibilities that modern cinema has to offer.


Unknown said...

Nice piece Robert. I always thought Adaptation was a little underated if anything. Its such a difficult, crazy subject for a film and he makes it work. People say the ending lets it down but actually, if you think about it, its virtually impossible to end that screenplay.
Also think it shows how good a director Jonze is that he makes a great fist out of Kaufman's two scripts and Charlie K himself gets into a mess imo on Synecdoche, when he had no Spike to frame his vision.

Volvagia said...

Synecdoche a mess? Yeah, it's not as clean, not as polished and certainly not as framed as all of his other film scripts, but I think we got the best possible movie out of Synecdoche because of it. If it was clean, if it was polished, if it was framed, it would have seemed even messier. The movie was supposed to be RAW. The "directorial" instinct, from Murnau, to The Archers to Kubrick to Gilliam and beyond is about avoiding "raw." And, well, Jonze hasn't shown that he's fighting that instinct.

Anonymous said...

Is something amiss if I think all of his films are (minor) masterpieces? Of the Kaufman films, I think ADAPTATION is the stronger of the two. I was surprised by how much of a humane character piece it was, but how it still had fun with that twist. Also, and with all due respect to Miranda Priestly, features Streep's best performance of the decade. Not too shabby if you ask me.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was my favorite film of 2009, and right up there for best of the decade. Sad, beautiful, weird, and really gets how scary and schizophrenic childhood can be. Lovely film that I think will only grown in esteem with time.


Greg Bennett said...

I remember reading about Adaptation online way back in 2002 and becoming a little obsessed with the premise. When it finally came out, my local cinema had decided not to get it and I was devastated.
However not long after this I went on a trip further north to visit some family and saw that it WAS still playing at their local.
I went and saw it in the middle of the day in an empty cinema... the film I was obsessed with became a film that was screening just for me... Bliss.

Jason H. said...

I'm kind of saddened by how many people were disappointed by Where the Wild Things Are. I thought it was one of the most poignant, beautiful, and brilliant movies of 2009. I would argue that it's Jonze's most underrated film, but as you said, Robert, true to his aesthetic.

verninino said...

For me, no one fuses character absurdity with plot contrivances as marvelously or compellingly as Spike.

I really hate growing to adore his revoltingly flawed protagonists. He films make me gnash my teeth with affection.