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Salute Your Shorts: Spike Jonze Skate Videos

March 26, 2009  |  2:15pm
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.

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