The short films of Spike Jonze11 September, 2012 11:31am
Meet Spike Jonze - a hardworking, eccentric director who doesn’t keep his fingers in the same pie for too long. He was the co-founder and editor of Dirt Magazine, editor of Grand Royal Magazine and senior photographer for Transworld Skateboarding. He’s made countless skate videos, directed commercials for Adidas, GAP and IKEA and co-created and produced Jackass along with the three subsequent movies. Some of the most iconic, memorable music videos in recent memory are his doing. Sabotage by The Beastie Boys? Buddy Holly by Weezer? Praise You and Weapon of Choice by Fatboy Slim? They’re all his. And he’s even found time to direct three wonderfully imaginative, critically acclaimed films; Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and of course, his biggest film to date, 2009’s instantly lovable interpretation of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, the result of ten years work. Oh, and he starred alongside George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube in David O. Russell’s Three Kings.
But the main reason we’ve taken such an interest in the career of Spike Jonze here at Virgin Media Shorts? Yep, you guessed it. Amongst his music videos, commercials and feature films, he’s found time to make some cracking short films too. Yay!
The early days
Not content with already directing music videos for R.E.M, Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers and Puff Daddy in 1997, he found time to take his first steps into film making with the two and a half minute short film How They Get There. Have you ever spotted a single shoe lying on the side of the road and wondered where it came from and how it got there? Well Jonze answers this age-old question with his wonderful oddball short. It begins with a man drinking a carton of milk spotting an attractive woman walking on the other side of the road. As he walks off, the woman begins mimicking him. As he continues to walk along, discarding his milk on a fence, she keeps copying him. Thinking this is a bit of fun he joins in. However, too caught up in it, he fails to notice he’s about to walk out in front of an oncoming car. She tries to warn him but he thinks she’s still playing. Struck by the car, his shoe flies off, landing at the side of the road. While this is probably a far-fetched (and depressing) notion as to how shoes end up discarded on the road, How They Get There is so simple and effective in its delivery with not a single word uttered throughout. It also illustrates Jonze’s unconventionally dark sense of humour - a trait that has followed him throughout his career.
The following year, Spike made the half-hour documentary Amarillo By Morning which came about by chance. Jonze befriended a pair of teenagers who aspired to become cowboys and rodeo kings while he was filming professional bull riders for a commercial in Houston. The documentary follows an afternoon in the lives of John Wesley McJunkin and Bryan James Bowden as they go about their day and take Jonze to their ‘training’ facility (an old barrel suspended from a tree on rope they call the ‘barrel bull’). The documentary differs in tone greatly from anything else Jonze has made. But there’s a very personal feel to it as you genuinely believe the two boys are grateful for the attention and that Jonze is enthusiastic about telling their story. There’s a very Louis Theroux feel to the film, uncovering a subculture not many would know exists let alone be too bothered about, and Jonze allows it to play out with minimal interference as he holds the camera and chimes in with the odd question.
It’s a known fact that Spike Jonze has an alter ego named Richard Koufey, the lead choreographer for the Torrence Community Dance Group – a troupe that specialises in public performances. If you’re familiar with the Fatboy Slim video for Praise You then you’d have seen them at their best. Jonze’s 1999 mockumentary, Torrence Rises follows the group as they prepare for a live performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York City after the Fatboy Slim video receives four nominations. The film chronicles the troupe as they prepare for the show, have various ups and downs and disagreements, and eventually travel to New York and cast more dancers for their big show as ‘the size of the stage demands at least 25 dancers’ according to Koufey. This film is an excellent companion to the Fatboy Slim video. It allows the audience to get to know the dancers and makes everything feel more personal. But there’s that recognisable Jonze tone at play here - subtlety funny without being laugh-out-loud raucous. We see Koufey try and get a conversation out of his clearly camera-shy neighbour, practice his dance moves in the aeroplane aisle on the way to New York, and have a dance-off with some break dancers in Times Square. Impressively though, the film does feature Norman ‘Fatboy Slim’ Cook. But the joke is that the Torrence Dance Group really aren’t all that good, and Koufey has his own delusions of grandeur.
Jonze took a ten year break from short films, in which time he directed the Oscar nominated films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. He returned in 2009 with the 11-minute short We Were Once A Fairytale. Set in a nightclub, it stars Kanye West playing a drunk, belligerent, embarrassing, and very out-of-character version of himself. He makes a scene after refusing to accept drinks on the house and demands he’s allowed to pay for them. He quickly gets distracted when the club begin to play one of his songs and he excitedly tells as many people as possible that this is his song. Jonze follows West around the club with a shaky, slightly blurry handheld camera as he staggers from room to room, dancing alone to his own song, tries in vain to chat up women, and hit on girls while they’re with their boyfriends. Everything then takes a psychedelic turn. Forget everything you knew about Kanye West because this short shows him a totally different light. For someone who usually seems very arrogant and self-obsessed, it’s a joy to see him not take himself too seriously. This is the Spike Jonze effect in full force. He has the ability to make one of the most famous rappers in the world put aside their ego and comfortably let their hair down and have some fun, changing people’s misconceptions of himself in the process, all in the name of smart, well-made original film.
After the success of his critically acclaimed Where The Wild Things Are died down, Jonze began work on his next project, the 2010 half-hour short I’m Here, starring Spiderman himself Andrew Garfield and Sienna Guillory. The film, set in a world where humans and robots coexist, is a love story about two robots, Sheldon and Francesca, who live in Los Angeles. As Sheldon, a lonely bored robot who works in a library waits at a bus stop he sees Francesca drive by, making eye contact with one another. The next day, she drives by again, this time with a car full of friends. She offers to give Sheldon a ride home. After hanging out a bit, they begin to date and Sheldon learns there’s so much more to life. It’s a fascinating, beautifully shot, engaging, uplifting feel-good film. Similar in tone and style to Where The Wild Things Are, I’m Here would work wonderfully as a feature film as you feel there’s so much to tell about the two central characters. The short made its debut to much applause at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Following his trend with working with musicians and bands, Spike Jonze’s most recent short, Scenes from the Suburbs was made in collaboration with the band Arcade Fire and is based on their album, The Suburbs. The film made its debut at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival and was also screened at the SXSW Film Festival the same year. The film follows a group of care-free suburban teenagers struggling to find their footing in an increasing militant, heavily armed world. It’s a coming-of-age tale with darker overtones. There’s a real Super 8 feel to the film as the teens discuss inane issues such as why you shouldn’t wear a trench coat and when it’s the perfect time to kiss a girl.
Next up, Jonze is working on the animated short film Mourir aupres de toi in which he both stars in and directs. However, he’s recently begun work on his fourth feature film, Her. In keeping with his trademark unconventional tone, the films tells the story of Theodore, a lonely man played by Joaquin Phoenix who falls in love with a new operating system that’s designed to grant all the users commands. It’s like beginning a relationship with Siri on your iPhone. Marking Jonze’s first solo effort writing a feature film, it’s set for release sometime in 2013 and co-stars Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams and Samantha Morton. We at Virgin Media Shorts have already added it to our ‘Must See’ list of 2013.
It’s safe to say then that Spike Jonze remains one of the most original, captivating and imaginative movie makers working today, and shows no sign of changing his style in the near future.
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