"Spike Jonze: The First 80 Years"
October 8-18 at MoMA
The time has come to stop taking Spike Jonze for granted. A casualty of the many talented writers and players with whom he has collaborated, Jonze, as a director, never quite seems to share any of the credit. A case in point: Adaptation (2002), Jonze's widely admired second feature, earned Oscar nominations not only for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, but for its three principle actors�€”Meryl Streep, Nicolas Cage, and Chris Cooper (who won). And yet the Academy ignored Jonze altogether in 2003, treating him like a junior journeyman who had been lucky to hold the megaphone. Later that year, adding insult to injury, Jonze's ex-wife, Sofia Coppola, wrote a barely veiled parody of him for Lost in Translation (played with callow fervor by Giovanni Ribisi). Guess who was nominated for an Oscar?
When Jonze's third feature, his much-anticipated adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are, opens next week, it will likely bring him the critical appreciation that has so far escaped him. (Let's at least hope it's not chalked up as un film de Dave Eggers, who co-wrote it).
But as a timely retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art shows, Jonze has already assembled an enviable body of work as a director and producer. The problem has been that much of this work remains unknown to mainstream moviegoers.
MoMA's series, Spike Jonze: The First 80 Years, has a playfully misleading title chosen by its subject himself. Jonze, née Adam Spiegel (and, no, he's not the "heir" to the Spiegel catalog "fortune"), will turn 40 later this month, and he has been making movies of one sort or another for less than twenty years. But in that time, he has completed three unusually inventive features (Being John Malkovich was the first, also scripted by Kaufman) as well as distinctive music videos and short films. Jonze is also, hands down, the supreme auteur of the skateboarding video genre, and the co-owner of a revered team and board manufacturer.
If those credits strike you as feeble, then MoMA's series is intended for you. A recent profile in GQ described Jonze's rise "from BMX kid to skateboard photographer to innovative music videographer [...] to filmmaker," with the implication that his non-theatrical work was somehow inferior or peripheral. The irony of this error is that Jonze's videos for musicians and thrashers tend to be every bit as cinematic as his feature films. Mixing the DIY ethos of his BMX/skaterat roots with digital video's technical chicanery, Jonze's uniquely effervescent style celebrates the possibilities of the moving image�€”not just what is possible through the use of special effects or editing, but what is possible through sheer creative ingenuity. Purportedly, one of Jonze's battles with the suits at Warner Bros. was over the look of Wild Things' titular creatures. While the studio wanted to use CGI for cost cutting and convenience, Jonze insisted on live actors wearing (pricey) costumes. It's a quintessential example of the way his visual style strikes a balance between low and high fidelity, not to mention low and high brows.
That nimble style is discernible in this clip from Mouse (1997), where Jonze has Rick Howard appear to skate, impossibly, through the woods, using nothing more than some masonite boards camouflaged by leaves. That same style is also noticeable in the headtrip mis-en-scene of Malkovich, embodied by the hilarious orientation video explaining the Mertin Flemmer building's 7 1/2th floor. Kaufman is generally credited as the real mad scientist behind Jonze's first two films, but as last year's bloated and exhausting Synecdoche, New York suggested, Jonze's ability to keep the lid tight on Kaufman's lightning in a bottle has been underestimated.
As capable as he has been of taming Kaufman's chaos, Jonze, conversely, can inject the simplest conceits of his music videos with a frisson of anarchy. The result is Bjork breaking out into song ("It's Oh So Quiet") after visiting the loo inside a tire store; a man with a dog's face and a broken leg running errands to the beat of Daft Punk's "Da Funk"; and, of course, J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.'s "Feel the Pain") playing a fearless game of street golf across Manhattan.
In addition to Malkovich and Adaptation, MoMA's series includes two excellent features Jonze produced: Heavy Metal in Baghdad (2008), Suroosh Alvi's and Eddy Moretti's unexpectedly poignant tale of an Iraqi rock band forced into exile, and Jackass: The Movie (2002), the flagship of the disreputable franchise often marshaled as evidence by Coppola-partisans that Jonze is the dim-witted cutup Ribisi portrayed.
Also screening is Carroll Ballard's long-forgotten Black Stallion (1979), which Jonze cites as an inspiration for him and Wild Things. Shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father of Emily and Zooey), this adaptation of Walter Farley's beloved children's book relies on a savvy blend of objective and subjective shots to establish its young protagonist's POV.
The heart of The First 80 Years, though, is MoMA's two-part sampling of Jonze's shorter work. All of his best music videos, including those aforementioned, are represented (plus, you haven't lived until you've seen Christopher Walken dancing to Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice"); I only wish the same could be said of his skateboarding videos. Sadly, MOMA has ghettoized the bulk of these works into a separate event that's already sold out. Still, the main program of shorter works includes, among other things, the Magic Board sequence from Yeah Right! (2003), featuring a promiscuous pink skateboard roaming on its own from one rider to the next. Later in that same film, Jonze imagines the exact opposite�€”that is, dudes grinding handrails without the aid of boards.
As a fan, I would have preferred MOMA had included this scene from Yeah Right!, in which actor Owen Wilson does a spot-on imitation of a trash-talking pro skater; or this scene from Mouse, in which the legendary Eric Koston mimics Charlie Chaplin, but on four wheels. Still, why complain? It's remarkable at all that, for the next two weeks, MOMA will be visited by a horde of kids wearing tattered Dickies, there to honor one of their heroes. The respect of serious cinephiles hasn't come easily to Jonze�€”and some still begrudge him�€”but belated recognition does seem finally to have arrived. Expect the second 80 years to be just as fruitful.