Spike Jonze - Film by Film
Filmmaker Feature by Joseph Banham
You may know him as the eccentric visionary behind offbeat music videos for artists such as Fatboy Slim and the Beastie Boys, you may also know him from being submerged in prosthetics as the bad grandma in his co-created TV series Jackass. Most reputably, however, Spike Jonze (born Adam Spiegel) is known as the director behind some of the most critically acclaimed independent films in recent memory, including Being John Malkovich (1999) and Her (2013).
Despite only helming four main features to date (he does a lot more commercials, music videos and producing work) Jonze has managed to establish one certainty: whenever he is behind the camera, the end product is to be an ambitious, daring film rich with imagination and intelligence. His synthesis of gloomy realism and fantastical elements give his worlds a unique ambience that feels entirely original and yet incredibly familiar; his work is always heavily grounded in the true emotions of his characters, be they exotic monsters or an operating software.
The following is an overview, a sort of brief guide, of Jonze’s small but significant contribution to cinema, looking at all the four features. So get ready to journey through a hidden portal into the mind of an unremittingly creative genius (if you didn’t get that reference, bear with me, it will make sense in a few seconds).
Being John Malkovich (1999)
On paper, the synopsis for Being John Malkovich is one of the most unusual you could ever expect to read- a struggling puppeteer gets a job in a corporate building where he discovers a small portal which leads into the actor John Malkovich’s mind- it’s certainly a far cry from your conventional Hollywood comedy. Everything about the film strives to be as offbeat as possible, almost to a recalcitrant degree. The film’s visual style opts for low lighting and handheld camera, bearing a resemblance to the guerilla style filmmaking Jonze exhibits in several of his music videos, which exudes a dismal tone matching the malcontented depression of the main character Craig Schwartz (John Cusack). Then there is also the appearance of Cusack as well as his co-star Cameron Diaz, playing his animal-enthusiast wife Lotte. These are two stars who, especially in the late 90’s, were known for being stylish, hip and beautiful (just look at Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) for Cusack and There’s Something About Mary (1998) for Diaz). In this film, their characters have been placed at the opposite end of the glamour spectrum; Craig sports a weary unshaven look with a scruffy ponytail whilst Lotte’s face is enveloped by a wild mop of frizzy hair. Then there was the choice of who to use as the eponymous star, who himself was quite an odd pick. Though John Malkovich is no doubt a recognised and critically-acclaimed actor, he is more well known among the niche audiences of art-house cinema rather than general movie-goers, thus limiting the film’s appeal.
These may all sound like negative criticisms, but they’re not in the slightest. They simply demonstrate a key feature of Jonze’s filmmaking: his penchant for taking bold risks with his storytelling. His unorthodox style beautifully compliments the ideas present in the script.
Being John Malkovich is a film that is built on strong foundations of absurdism, which are evident as soon as Craig applies for a job as a file clerk. Jonze infuses the most boring place imaginable, a lifeless office block, with a magnitude of ridiculous humour; the company Craig is applying to is actually situated on floor 7 and a half, uncomfortably squeezed between the 7th and 8th floor leaving very little headroom. Then there is his new boss who is constantly apologetic over his “indecipherable” speech impediment, despite seeming perfectly articulate. The characters just seem to accept the farcical events and locations without much question, and in turn so does the audience, allowing the film to run with its peculiar premise without having to worry about over-explaining its logic to the viewer.
As you may expect with a film that is about jumping into the mind of another person, the film explores many themes of identity crisis. In many ways the film is extraordinarily tragic; focusing on an angry, self-loathing individual (Craig) who leaps at the chance when he realises he can be someone else- someone better. His discontent for his own being slowly drives him into a mad obsessiveness. When Lotte has a turn at being John Malkovich, she experiences a sexual reawakening; she realises she wants to be a man, and soon starts an affair with Craig’s attractive co-worker (Catherine Keener), using Malkovich as a surrogate body. When Craig starts up a business allowing people to pay to be John Malkovich for 15 minutes, the office is soon full of similarly dejected individuals who are unhappy with themselves and wanting some form of release from their own bodies, even if the body they are entering is doing something completely mundane such as showering or eating breakfast. The fact that the person they become is a famous film actor ends up being near irrelevant; the characters aren’t concerned with being John Malkovich, they are just concerned with being somebody- anybody- else. The issues of loneliness, confusion of identity and gender dysphoria make the film profound but also very dark in its ending, which eerily lingers in the memory.
Jonze’s flare for inventive directing paid off, earning the film three academy award nominations, including best director for Jonze. Within his debut, he had already set down a trademark style and themes which he would go on to revisit in his later work.
In order to talk about Adaptation, we must first discuss its writer Charlie Kaufman, who also wrote Being John Malkovich. Kaufman’s whole persona is so imbued into every aspect of Adaptation to the point where it feels more accurate to associate the film with him more than with Jonze.
The film is basically meta to the absolute max. It’s based on Kaufman’s own struggle to adapt the book The Orchid Thief into a screenplay, which was to be his next script after writing Being John Malkovich. After becoming so frustrated with trying to adapt the novel into a structured film, he gave up and instead started writing a film about himself trying to write the film. On screen Kaufman is played by Nicolas Cage, who gives him a socially anxious, dysfunctional disposition. The film also features the events of The Orchid Thief as a subplot, with Meryl Streep playing author Susan Orlean, focusing on her own encounters with the orchid poacher John Laroche, which served as the basis for writing the book. So, in short, it’s a self-referential film on the writing process, the sort of cinematic equivalent to a video feedback loop.
Kaufman’s writing is the perfect source material for Jonze, it’s no wonder the two chose to collaborate for a second time. The nature of the film allows for a lot of blurring between fact and fiction, fabricating relationships and whole characters, such as the jovial Donald, Kaufman’s fictional twin brother who is also a screenwriter. The result is a surreal mixture with the same level of absurdity and bleakness as Being John Malkovich.
It’s interesting how the film examines the idea of standard story structure and conventional ideas about writing, mostly through Donald’s devotion to the teachings of real life screenplay guru Robert Mckee (played by Brian Cox). Mckee’s principles of script writing are legendary among the industry, and seem to be exactly what the defiant Kaufman wants to avoid; he doesn’t want to end up with another cliched blockbuster movie that follows a template. As a consequence of sticking to his guns and following his own rules, however, he is left with insurmountable writer’s block as he tries to adapt an unadaptable book- one in which “nothing much happens”. Donald, on the other hand, attends one of Mckee’s seminars and treats his words like gospel, leisurely knocking out a trashy, unoriginal crime thriller that he sells for a hefty sum. A distraught Kaufman gives up and agrees to attend one of Mckee’s seminars and lets his brother help him finish the script. It’s at this point that the film itself morphs into more of a generic action thriller, delivering a frenetic third act; it matches what Donald’s idea for a finale would be, liberating itself from any restraints of fact and diving off into the realm of ludicrousness. At first the ending may seem entirely melodramatic and even a little bit flippant, until repeat viewings bring you to realise that that was kind of the point.
I believe that the film is representative of the entire ethos of not just Kaufman but of Jonze as well, who purposefully aim to create work that is outside the norm regardless of what mainstream studios may want them to make for the sake of mass appeal; even if the films they make are less commercially successful they still are brimming with originality. Moreover, the film is an intelligent look inside the frantic head of a talented writer cracking under pressure.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Jonze was attached to this live-action version of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book for almost a decade before it was finally released. The very short original story concerns a young disobedient boy named Max who ventures into his own chaotic imagination where he encounters an island of wild beasts. Jonze’s vision of the story led to concerns from studios, causing the original distributor, Universal, to drop the film where it was then picked up by Warner Bros, who themselves delayed the film, which was speculated to be due to their unhappiness with the footage. Whilst watching the film, it’s easy to see why the studios felt trepidation over the project; this is not a children’s film, it is a Spike Jonze film. The wild thing’s do not inhabit a brightly coloured, vibrant world; they are instead painted in murky colours and dim lighting, with a sombre tone pervading every frame of the film.
It was a film that polarized audiences, as well as some critics, on its initial release. I have to admit, I can understand why some viewers may have felt averse to it. This is mostly due to the expectations audiences have with a PG rated film about large, furry, talking animals. Where the Wild Things Are sees Jonze once again not compromising his visual style for the sake of appealing to a broader audience, creating a film which is just as dark and sophisticated with communicating its central ideas as his first two. It’s as if Jonze made a list of all the conventional family film tropes and deliberately tried to eschew them as much as possible. This unyielding creativity was probably what drew author Maurice Sendak to him in the first place, who personally picked Jonze for director after meeting with him, praising his energy and ambition. The two remained friends until Sendak’s death in 2012.
The film is really about all the joy, fear, excitement and frustration of childhood. The wild things can be seen to embody all different aspects of Max’s personality, burdened with his angst; there is an air of melancholy that surrounds the exotic island,- it’s a place that feels strangely desolate of humour. Once again, Jonze is exploring a dysfunctional male character, this time in the form of a child, and deconstructing his psyche with thought-provoking results. The island resembles a huge playground full of the same volatile relationships and social hierarchy that causes so much upset and anger during schooldays. The most eruptive character comes in the form of Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini). Best known for playing the troubled mob boss Tony Soprano in HBO’s The Sopranos, Gandolfini brings a similarly mercurial performance to Carol, the leader of the wild things. At times deeply heartfelt, and at others fiercely tumultuous, Carol’s behaviour is reflective of Max’s own, leading the two to form a strong yet unstable bond, giving the film it’s main emotional weight.
If you have never seen Where the Wild Things Are, I strongly recommend it, as long as you don’t go into it expecting a fun, light-hearted romp. It remains to be a love/hate film, with some finding its morose tone a little too much. However if you are already a fan of Jonze’s work, chances are you know exactly what you’re going to get.
A love story set in the near-future, Her is one of the most honest romance stories to ever hit cinema screens and is arguably Jonze’s finest film. The film is about Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who is in the process of divorcing his wife. Feeling lonely, he finds companionship with a new cognitive operating software that is designed to learn and evolve, as well as appear sentient. Theodore names the OS Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and soon begins to dote on her sweet, understanding personality. What may on the surface appear to be a futuristic satire on the reliance we have on technology, actually turns out to be more of a sincere study on relationships.
Even though it has its fair share of heartache, Her manages to be Jonze’s most uplifting film, partly due to it having the biggest sense of emotional gratification at the end. This is echoed in the film’s brighter cinematography and colour scheme, led by Theodore’s choice of vivid red shirts. The film boasts beautiful scenes of its urban setting, especially at night time, where the skyline is illuminated by dots of city lights creating an idyllic surrounding. It still features the same handheld indie rawness of Jonze’s earlier work, but this time, aptly so, it’s much more romanticised. The mood is further emphasised with a soothing piano-based soundtrack by Owen Pallett and William Butler, serenading the viewer with soft, gentle melodies.
It’s ironic that a film dealing with a relationship between a man and technology feels way more human than the majority of romance films in recent memory. The film is very performance driven, and both the leads are at their impassioned best. Johansson gives a mesmerising performance as the charmingly funny Samantha, probably causing the audience to feel as much as they could possibly ever feel for a disembodied voice. Phoenix is equally brilliant as Theodore, fitting the awkward, meek male type who so often take the spotlight in Jonze’s work. The film also fortunately has a very strong supporting cast in the form of Amy Adams, playing Theodore’s long term friend Amy, and Rooney Mara, playing his soon to be ex-wife Catherine. The wonderful chemistry between the actors allows for some truly real, intimate scenes; flashbacks of Theodore and Catherine’s relationship are overwhelmingly poignant, especially as the audience knows the relationship is doomed.
Jonze’s script, his first sole writing credit on a film, features monologues and montages about love without coming off as schmaltzy or pompous; it all flows naturally and feels innate to the story. It’s one of the most insightful films I have ever seen on a universal subject that has been around as long as there have been stories. Her remains Spike Jonze’s most critically successful film, winning him his first oscar for best original screenplay at the 2014 Academy Awards. This feature has only looked at Spike Jonze’s contributions to cinema, which is only a percentage of his overall work. I would recommend seeking out his music videos and shorts across the web, including the fantastic half-hour short I’m Here (2010), which acts as a sort of prelude to Her, in that it involves a love story in a technological world. It’s hard to think of another filmmaker who presents their ideas in such an imaginatively effective way as Jonze, making him one of the most unique talents in the film industry. He is proof that sometimes the best ideas come from thinking outside the box.