Friday, July 09, 2010

Modern Maestros: Michel Gondry

Robert here, back with another entry in my series on great contemporary directors.

Maestro: Michel Gondry
Known For: Quirky, visually fantastical films and documentaries.
Influences: Cartoons, silent comedians and their films, and (as is evident from Be Kind Rewand) 80's comedies.
Masterpieces: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Disasters: They're most definitely not all perfect, but no disasters.
Better than you remember: Nope
Box Office: $34 mil for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Favorite Actor: He in fact doesn't reuse actors. The closest candidate for this category is Mos Def who was a featured performer in Dave Chappelle's Block Party and then starred in Be Kind Rewind.

We might as well begin with the elephant in the room. Your opinion of Michel Gondry probably depends entirely on your opinion of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I've heard tell that there are people who believe that the film is wildly overpraised and overrated. If you're one of those people, you should probably just skip the next two paragraphs. I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the great films of our time. Is it the brilliant, original miracle of a concept that many fans think it is? Probably not. As the world's unified naysayers love to remark, there really aren't any new ideas. The basic message of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is essentially the same as the joke Woody Allen uses to close Annie Hall. Romance is bizzare, unpredictable, and often miserable. But in the end "we need the eggs." What Eternal Sunshine does do is present these themes and ideas in a wonderful package, beautifully combining the sentimental with the sarcastic, the romantic with the realistic. It do so with such cleverness, how could its director not be considered among one of modern cinema's greats?

The quick and common answer to that is the claim that the majority of credit for Eternal Sunshine goes to writer Charlie Kaufman. While I love Kaufman (including his much debated Synecdoche, New York) it's unfair to write-off the contribution of Gondry. Was Kaufman's script responsible for the surprisingly pared-down, career-best performance of Jim Carrey? Was it responsible for Kate Winslet's deserving Oscar-nominated turn as Clementine? Of course not. Nor can Kaufman be credited with decisions like filming the house destruction finale with flashlights for lighting, maximizing the intimacy and emotional impact. If Charlie Kaufman's script is the reason that the film is, then Gondry's direction is the reason the film works and if Gondry had made no other films, this one may still alone qualify him to be a Modern Maestro. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has moments of such visual inventiveness and such bittersweet profundity that to watch it is to be reminded why I fell in love with the movies.

Nothing like using up two paragraphs on the same film to underline what I'm sure Gondry already knows is the downside of the success of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It may indeed be the greatest film the man ever directs. It will also likely be the film that overshadows all of his other efforts. But there's something admirable about how Gondry soldiers on, attempting to stay as prolific as possible. He's produced four (and a third?) films since 2004, not a record, but in today's indie film climate, not a bad pace either. With The Science of Sleep, Gondry's most notable film aside from Eternal Sunshine, the director continues to fish around in the lovelorn mind, pondering if any logic can be applied to the wondrous workings of the heart. Here, as in Eternal Sunshine, in fact as in all of Gondry's films, his characters are perpetual man-children, lacking the maturity and sensibility that could win them the girl. And yet good sense can't possibly coexist with the ludicrous impulsiveness of love, can it? Gondry mocks any such notion with the title The Science of Sleep just as he did in his first film Human Nature (Where scientists displayed and discovered anything but clear though in mankind's quest for love).

Along the while, Gondry has found time to make films about his family, cultural phenomena and homaging his favorite movies. His next film, slated for release next year will be The Green Hornet, a film already facing a mixed reaction. Whether it will be good, I can't say, but I'm sure it will be interesting, arresting, unconventional, as can be expected from the director of... let's say, "many good films."


Volvagia said...

I really would believe it if the idea of using flashlights was in Kaufman's script. (Remember how anal he portrayed himself as in Adaptation?) Although, you're right that no screenwriter can ever take credit for a great performance.


Thank you thank you for calmly pinpointing what's terribly wrong about giving all the credit to Kaufman. One only has to look at Kaufman's directorial debut to understand how important visual style is in making complex ideas accessible and fascinating.

i love eternal sunshine and the rest of his filmography often show him to be of nimble mind. No he hasn't made a movie as good as eternal sunshine and probably won't again. But then again... what filmmaker HAS made a movie as good as eternal sunshine more than once. Not too damn many.

/3rtfu11 said...

He doesn’t intend to make Hornet in the vein of his previous directorial efforts. You can expect something generic as though his name isn’t attached. He wants to shed his ties to want makes him a big deal between the critics and the art crowd.

I don’t care for his masterpiece however it’s my favorite Kate Winslet performance.

Janice said...

Now why is it that normally scriptwriters are completely ignored in favor of the contributions of the director - but not in this instance? I'm really puzzled - what did Gondry do to piss people off, exactly?

That said, ESOTSM is one of my favorite films of all time ("what he said" to Jose and Nathaniel). The Science of Sleep is - not. I think that was an instance of the quirkiness not really leading anywhere (it felt like quirkiness for its own sake) and the man-child central character not being nearly as endearing as Jim Carrey's Joel. Too much child, not enough man. (Hmm, maybe I have figured out the issue people have with Gondry...)

Robert said...

Janice - I also think that Kaufman is that rare screenwriter who puts such a personal stamp on his scripts that it's easy for him to overshadow his directors.

Kyle said...

As much as I loved Eternal Sunshine, I could barely pay attention to Be Kind, was that dull to me.

Josh said...

it's especially silly re: Eternal Sunshine because Gondry collaborated with - and is credited alongside - Kaufman and another writer on the story of the film! brilliant though he is, it's not like kaufman wrote the script by himself in a cave and delivered it whole to Gondry, and then Gondry just faithfully translated the script to screen.

all that aside, it's of course understandable why you emphasized ESoTM and Science of Sleep, but i wish you had more room to go into Dave Chapelle's Block Party. for me, it's Gondry's second best film (after ESotSM, of course), and - aside from being a gangbusters concert film - also a deeply insightful look into the creative process. and it's emphasis on the virtues of community and shared experience also definitely laid the groundwork for the charming, if uneven, Be Kind, Rewind.

interesting that with both of his best (well, in my opinion) films, he's followed them with, well, spiritual sequels, sort of. i look forward to attempting to find the correspondence between A Thorn in the Heart, his doc about his aunt, and The Green Hornet.

Anonymous said...

In the "Shooting Script" book series, Kaufman was interviewed and his interpretation of Clementine was that of a bitch. Winslet does have a hand in reversing that, and I'm stretching here, but Gondry might have something to do with her humanization too.

Two years ago I would watch that movie every day, even at 4 in the morning. I haven't seen it in a while because I overwatched it.

Volvagia said...

You're strong if you could watch it that much. The characters are depressing, the implications of Lacuna are depressing, it's shot in a style meant to depress. I haven't watched it in at least a year.

Rose said...

"to watch it is to be reminded why I fell in love with the movies."

Precisely. Eternal Sunshine (I can say with a reasonable amount of certainty) will probably always be my favorite movie, simply because it introduced me to how wonderful movies could truly be. I caught it on HBO at 2 am in the morning about 5 years ago with no intention of watching the whole thing (I'd never even heard of it before). But I was so mesmerized I stayed up until 4 am just to finish it. I couldn't stop thinking about it, so I had to go out and buy it the next day to re-watch it. Thus began my love affair with movies.


Rose -- stories like that are so beautiful to hear. Especially if you've just watched a bad movie or written about one ;)

Dylan said...

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned Tokyo! I netflixed it last week and loved all three short films in it, but Gondry's especially--an altogether normal portrait of a moribund relationship, at first, with a surprising and memorable Kafkaesque ending.

Also, I'll jump on the Eternal-Sunshine-of-the-Spotless-Mind-is-my-favorite-movie bandwagon too.


Dylan -- i need to watch that. i have the DVD but haven't tried it yet.

Nick Duval said...

Michel Gondry, as you say, is in total control of the visual aspects of "Eternal," like the fence disappearing piece by piece or other things being erased in quite the same way they do. And yes, he does wonders with the actors. Try putting Kaufman himself in charge of Carrey, Winslet, etc., and it wouldn't be nearly as effective. Just think of how he treated Seymour Phillip and Catherine Keener in "Synecdoche," and you can imagine what he would have done here. "Synecdoche"'s even better, IMO, but "Eternal Sunshine" is right up alongside it as a masterpiece.

I've seen "Eternal" around 5 times, and it wasn't until I had warmed my mind up with the first viewings that I truly understood what a freaking amazing achievement it was. I haven't seen "Block Party," "Human Nature," or "Science of Sleep," but I really didn't like "Be Kind Rewind," which was somewhat miscalculated and slight. Parts are nice in it, but it shows that Gondry is best with a script by Kaufman, not himself (although his story input is good).

You didn't mention his short "Interior Design" from "Tokyo!" which has nice touches again, but is not that good and very, very slight. It didn't exactly stand out to me (or, it seems, many other critics). Gondry, as you say, is defined by "Eternal Sunshine," which is a complete masterpiece that truly warrants viewing after viewing.

Anonymous said...

"Be Kind, Rewind" was a much different movie than I expected, but I find myself thinking about it time and again and its colorful community.
I feel like much of the (extremely frustrating) tonal problem is due to the casting of Jack Black.