Salute Your Shorts: Spike Jonze Skate Videos

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Salute Your Shorts: Spike Jonze Skate Videos
Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

Back before he was directing feature films, Spike Jonze was best-known as one of the few auteur music-video directors. But before he was directing music videos, he was directing skateboarding videos (and if you go even further back, he was first a photographer then an editor for skateboarding magazines). His first time behind the video camera was filming skaters, and regardless of whatever else he’s worked on since, it’s a topic he continues to return to time and time again.

Spike Jonze’s first video, at least so far as anyone has documented, was “Rubbish Heap” for World Industries, put together back in 1989. Even as a first completed video, the film shows a lot of promise, if not too much execution. Jonze’s camera is incredibly fluid and seemingly everywhere, with some difficult angles and creative framing. Another Jonze trademark, the use of rather esoteric music instead of a more typically punk or pop-rock flavored stuff usually featured in skate vids, also comes into play. Otherwise, it’s not a particularly noteworthy skate video, and though it looks pretty good for the time it was made, for the most part it blends in with everything else that was released later. Jonze’s voice can be heard a little less than a minute in, which is welcome, since for anyone but skateboarders it may be hard to sit through the entire video. This excerpt video cuts off about 10 minutes before the end, but the rest of it is largely more of the same. Unfortunately, Jonze himself didn’t have much of a hand editing the video, which explains why it’s far more aimless than everything else he’s worked on.

Two years after completing “Rubbish Heap,” Jonze came out with a second skateboarding video, and this time the result was a resounding success. “Video Days,” made to promote Blind Skateboards in 1991, was originally noticed due to its innovative skateboarding techniques. Mark Gonzales in particular was popular, though perhaps of more interest to outsiders is the footage of Jason Lee—yes that Jason Lee—skateboarding and singing a poorly improvised song years before being discovered by Kevin Smith.

As “Video Days” opens up with War’s “Low Rider” and shots of a car rather than a skateboard, there’s an immediate feeling that this is something other than a typical skate video. Not only do the early shots work the same way as any other film intro, creating stars of its skaters, it’s also completely unnecessary for what else is going on. In a word, it’s cinematic. Although still shot using lenses and angles familiar to skate videos, its content, from actors’ faces to the beautiful shot of the sun at the end, is aspiring to something else. 

After this intro, “Video Days” moves into skateboarding, though the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” still emphasizes that things are different. At first glance, it’s difficult to pinpoint what’s going on, but on close analysis, it’s clear how precisely the skating is cut to the music.  Landings take place on the beat, adding additional percussion to the music, while long segments on the ground emphasize similar musical stretches. For one of the first times, the video seems cut less for the spectacle of skating than for a greater spectacle of sensuously combining music with movement. These talents would later serve Jonze beautifully on music videos, where his sense of rhythmic movement gave his videos a meshed quality without having to rely on synched up band performances. The sheer difficulty of editing to John Coltrane’s rhythms, as Jonze does during Gonzales’ section of the video, shows a natural talent for these things that few people possess. 

Cross-cutting with Willy Wonka emphasizes a sense of joy and wonderment that Jonze also brought to the field and that remains with him today, given that he’s spent most of his last five years attempting a children’s classic of his own. Documentary sections shot throughout also come into play with many of his videos, where he either uses or fakes documentary scenes for effect. Jonze’s works have always gone between the poles of completely planned and unplanned, but even at his most storyboarded, he is always collaborative and willing to switch up ideas. The sense of filming whatever happens has been a consistent element of his films, where the figure behind the camera is always a postmodern trickster willing to improvise and keep viewers on their toes. The goofy end of the film, where everyone dies in a car crash, is just the kind of thing that fans of Jonze would come to expect in the following decades.

Jonze’s next skateboard video was, like many of his works, a collaborative effort. By this time he had completed a number of his earlier videos, both collaboratively and alone, and was building up a steady, if somewhat limited, reputation. Still, under his mentor David Fincher, Jonze was branching out as a filmmaker, and this comes across well in the intro and conclusion to “Goldfish,” his 1993/1994 video for Girl Skateboards, a company he co-owned.  The sequences of a skater being followed by a car and racing to pick up a goldfish seem pulled straight out of Jonze’s 1994 video for the Beastie Boys' “Sabotage,” to the point where even the driver’s makeup looks similar. Here, Jonze seems to have less to do with the actual skateboarding sections, but the interstitials appear to still have his sensibility, as does the playful yellow-line section in the middle, once again set to jazz. By this time, editing to the music had become perfunctory, but the anarchic between-video footage still feels like pure Jonze.

In 1996, Jonze worked on “Las Nueve Vidas de Paco” (The Nine Lives of Paco) for Chocolate Skateboards (an imprint of Jonze’s Girl Skateboards). Here, Jonze’s work is quite clear in the interstitial portions chronicling the western adventures of “Los Banditos” and “The Law,” with each side played by the Chocolate and Girl skateboarding teams respectively. It’s as playful as the rest of Jonze’s work, though its sense of loving parody to the genre seems completely at odds with the actual skateboarding. In this video, Jonze had effectively cut himself off from the skateboarding portions entirely and was more interested in doing a strange, episodic western parody on his own than in the skateboarding. Morphing aspect ratios at the very end of the film shows Jonze’s hand as far as ambitions go, and it’s by far his strangest skateboarding video. None of which is to say that the skate footage itself is bad, but it’s obvious that the skating was just an excuse for Jonze to film a strangely Spanish spaghetti-style western while the sport takes a definite backseat. For anyone interested in Jonze’s films, though, this is probably the most interesting of these works, since it’s not difficult to skip past the skating to see the next portion with the banditos. 

Perhaps to make up for the lackluster focus on actual skateboarding in “Nueve Vidas,” 1997’s “Mouse” was about skateboarding first and foremost. The project may lack a bit of “Video Days"'s enthusiasm, but when it comes to polish, it’s probably the peak of Jonze’s skateboard work. Its opening with a mouse character came out around the same time as his video for Daft Punk's “Da Funk,” and provides a different take on an animal character within society, though here the footage is more playful than melancholy. The Chaplin parody is the greatest piece of non-skate footage in the short and is a typically brilliant take of the silent-film star, which makes perfect sense given that for the most part skateboarding videos are in fact silent films. The 1970s television parody “Brothers from Different Mothers” should be no surprise to anyone by now, but it is in some ways a trademark of Jonze’s and the execution here is perhaps startlingly good. It can be hard to tell at first whether it’s all old clips re-edited or in fact new footage until familiar faces pop up. (It turns out, as with the video for Weezer's “Buddy Holly,” it’s a mix of both.) 

An excerpt from “Mouse” could be found on the collection of Jonze’s work from The Director’s Series, which features skateboarding in the woods. This was one of Jonze’s more successful efforts in recontextualizing skateboarding and incorporating it with his other interests in film.  Even “Video Days” showed this interest by framing the skate video within the plot of the skaters’ deaths, but sketches like this in “Mouse” are the first time he really succeeded.  Whereas “Nueve Vidas” was in some ways ruined by the separation of skateboarding from its other content, “Mouse”'s sketches frequently incorporate skateboarding, whether through Chaplain’s old timey black-and-white tricks or through its bluescreen sequences at the end. 

Jonze’s next skateboard videos took this to the extreme and attempted to give the skateboarding an overarching plot. The first of these is 1999’s “Chocolate Tour,” which posits that the group’s touring is in order to help pay for Girl team’s retirement home.  Unfortunately, the plot doesn’t really work and the skateboarders don’t particularly know how to act, so the whole thing is for the most part a disappointment, though it does feature Jonze himself sporting a three-foot long wig and a fat suit. Far more successful is 2004’s counterpart, “Hot Chocolate,” which is Jonze’s only documentary on the subject. Instead of forcing the tour into a plot, here Jonze takes skateboard demos and videomaking as a plot in itself and comes out with a revealing documentary that’s just as funny as his earlier written ones, but far more revealing and interesting to outsiders. “Hot Chocolate” even manages to keep the spectacle Jonze’s videos were famous for, such as flaming and synchronized skateboarding, but never at the expense of removing insightful interviews and voice-overs.  Even though it’s one of his more unknown shorts, it’s also one of his best.  

Between these two videos, Jonze co-directed the relatively famous Yeah Right!.  Unlike his earlier works, Yeah Right! is by no means a short film, coming in at 72 minutes (though it would be difficult to argue it as any sort of feature). Length isn’t the only factor that makes it different from Jonze’s earlier videos, though, since its breakthrough was incorporating CGI effects into the traditionally low-budget form of skateboarding videos. Not only that, but its artistic ambitions go much higher than handheld films. Yeah Right!’s introduction is a startlingly beautiful montage that features cinematography as stunning as any Hollywood feature. It’s an almost-abstract study in cinematic movement, that for once moves the focus of skateboarding onto beauty rather than skill.

Yeah Right!’s magical-skateboard segment goes beyond any early Jonze sketches in combining the possibilities of film with skateboarding. The editing during “Apache” is the tightest on any of these videos, while Owen Wilson’s cameo gives the video actual star power, more or less a first in any skateboarding video. But its most famous part is the invisible board segment, where green-painted skateboards are digitally removed. John Frusciante's “Murderers” plays in the background as the skaters perform tricks singly and in tandem, floating in the air. The scene is eerily gorgeous and almost moving in some strange way. It’s not to be missed, even by people who hate skateboarding. 

Following Yeah Right!, Jonze helped out on his friend and co-director Ty Evans’ Fully Flared. The video took two years to complete, and aside from its virtuosic skating, which pulled together a dream team of skateboarding talent, is particularly well-known for its intro. The explosive skateboarding is one of the most beautiful things Jonze has worked on while still remaining true to skateboarding videos. It’s a very pure melding of Jonze’s interests and is unique within the genre, if not to say film itself. Jonze’s technique of using slow-motion to find beauty in moments of motion or destruction, something he’s been dabbling with since his 1992 video for Sonic Youth’s “100%” (itself in some ways a skateboarding video, again featuring Lee), which features the form of slow-motion skateboarding he’d revisit over a decade later. 

Well, it was unique, until recently when the footage was re-edited to fit with UNKLE’s “Heaven.” Although in my opinion the original introduction works better, the footage still looks good with almost anything, and it is edited together beautifully. It’s also great to see this footage in HD. It’s just an odd thing for Jonze and Evans to do, considering that “Heaven” is featured in Fully Flared, only in the credits rather than the introduction.

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