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Salute Your Shorts: Spike Jonze's Documentaries

October 15, 2009  |  7:00pm
Salute Your Shorts: Spike Jonze's Documentaries

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.

Because he wears so many different hats, a lot of things come to mind when thinking of Spike Jonze. Music-video auteur, skate-video mastermind, postmodern trickster of film—all of those are pretty much de rigueur for any article about his works, and do a good job illustrating just how varied those works are. That the same person can make a film as deeply moving as Being John Malkovich and also be the producer behind the fun but ultimately vacuous Jackass series has always been part of his charm. Still, one thing that rarely gets spoken about is Jonze the respectful and attentive documentary filmmaker, even though his works in that genre have been if anything more consistently brilliant than in anything else he’s worked at.

Maybe it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, though, that Jonze began dabbling in documentaries back in 1997. In a sense, his career was founded on them. Both the photography and early skateboard videos he took were documentary in nature, and while he at times grafted plots and stunts onto them, at their heart, skate vids are just sports documentaries with a different focus. The tools of the trade are still the same. Jonze’s skate vids use on-location shooting with video cameras and cheap microphones, allowing him to shoot anywhere at any time with minimal notice. The Jackass movies and shows he worked on are little more than taking the same skate vid techniques and filming stunts of a different type. This guerilla filmmaking, without permits or much planning, became a trademark of Jonze’s in music videos during the ensuing years.


While he later moved on to much more ambitious techniques, many of Jonze’s earliest music videos took his guerilla method of filming and used their rough footage in a direct confrontation to the sort of slick videos by Michael Bay and David Fincher’s that were currently in vogue. In “100%,” his skate footage was shot exactly how his videos had been and then was edited in to add an element of realism to things. The highlight of his early semi-documentaries was definitely “Sabotage” for the Beastie Boys. On the one hand, it had Jonze and the band dressed up as 1980s TV police officers, running amok on fictional criminals with their created personas. On the other hand, though, all the footage was taken out in the streets with no permit or warning to anyone passing by. The whole video was shot in quick succession with little planning other than the purchase of a couple impressively fake-looking wigs. The ensuing chaos is a pretty amazing semi-documentary, a landmark for copycat music videos to follow.


Jonze’s first true documentary was shot in 1997 while he was working on an ad campaign in Texas. When Jonze randomly encountered a pair of Houston surburbanites aspiring to become cowboys, or more accurately, bull riders, he found himself so fascinated that he kept filming the pair after hours, examining their unexpected choice of dreams. “Amarillo” finds Jonze following them to where they practice riding on a barrel hung in tree limbs, exploring their personal lives and most of all trying to make sense of how the outcasts came upon not just their passion, but their contentment in life.

Possibly still Jonze’s best documentary, “Amarillo” finds him respectful and inquisitive. There’s a sense of relationship between the filmmaker and the subjects that’s almost palpable, and it’s clear that Jonze sees himself, in a different lifetime, befriending the bullriders only a decade younger than him and following the same dream. Stylistically, the short is also stunning, despite its crudeness. Jonze doesn’t film in cinema verité style, as he in fact spends most of the film’s time interviewing its subjects from behind the camera. This is where a lot of its power derives, though, from its lack of objectivity and acknowledgment that a give and take relationship is going on between both sides of the lens. With Jonze becoming part of the film in such a forceful but unobtrusive manner, “Amarillo” ends up being just as much about the process of speaking and hanging out with the cowboys as it is about the cowboys themselves. Trying to tell their story in as true a manner as possible leads to the revelation of how the film itself must be affecting both their and Jonze’s life—it’s the observer that changes the relationship of the experiment.


Following that film, Jonze soon embarked on his most ambitious documentary to date. Or, at the very least, the one which had the greatest chance of embarrassing him completely (if that is even possible). The idea is simple: Jonze would dance in public to Fatboy Slim’s “The Rockafeller Skank” in as spastic a manner as humanly possible. Jonze went ahead and filmed this, but unfortunately, Fatboy Slim already had a video in the works for “Rockafeller.” Slim was still pretty impressed, though, and gave a greenlight to the same basic concept for his song “Praise You,” only this time with a whole troupe of spastic dancers backing Jonze up. Dubbed the Torrance Community Dance Group, Jonze and his set of carefully-chosen actors drove up to a movie theater and in one take filmed their performance. Is it really a documentary? Who can really say?

Even more difficult to categorize is its follow-up, “Torrance Rises.” After the surprising success of “Praise You,” MTV offered Jonze and his group the chance to perform live at its Video Music Awards show in 1999. The documentary tells the story of the dance troupe, still entirely in character, during the journey to NYC for the performance, and gives some partially fictional background on their history. Jonze himself is actually from Torrance, Calif., so his familiarity with the local landscape makes the whole thing seem very real. Likewise, the performance they put on, as well as their journey east, is, in fact, real. So, like many of the best mockumentaries, “Torrance Rises” sits in an odd place between fiction and non-fiction. It’s also some of the funniest material Jonze has ever shot.


Later in 1999, Jonze worked on a true documentary that, unfortunately, went largely unknown for seven years before resurfacing in a 2006 issue of Wholphin (a quarterly short film magazine we can’t praise enough). Untitled Al Gore Documentary was filmed at the behest of Gore’s campaign manager (originally for commercials) with the purpose of humanizing a candidate oftentimes seen as robotic, cold, or at the very least, breathtakingly dull. The thirteen-minute documentary begins in Carthage, Tenn. before heading to North Carolina during Gore’s last real vacation before the election.

Jonze’s filmmaking technique in the Gore documentary is largely the same as in “Amarillo,” only this time it’s being deployed on a presidential candidate rather than high-school students. The effect once again allows anyone watching the film to essentially feel like they’re in Jonze’s shoes and, with it, spend a warm and familial afternoon with the presidential hopeful, his wife and his daughters. It’s revelatory not for any sort of political information, but for the way it perfectly captures the joys of living in an American family. Only shown at the L.A. democratic convention before being shelved for years, Dave Eggers remarked that it had the possibility of turning the tide of the election. Obviously, that’s hyperbolic, but it’s difficult not to want someone who seems so much like everyone’s dad at his best to be the one to run the nation.

Not long afterwards, Jonze finished one more documentary before taking almost a decade-long break from the genre (aside from the assistance he gave the Jackass group in their endeavors). While filming a video for Fatlip’s “What’s Up, Fatlip?” in 2000, Jonze found himself wondering about what the rapper had been doing since leaving Pharcyde, who he’d directed a video for in 1996. Because of this, much of the film was shot between segments of the video (and in some cases segments that became the video), with Fatlip often in costume while explaining why he was kicked out of the group and his fears about struggling to remain in the music industry. Even for someone uninterested in Fatlip, the video is an oddly effecting portrait due to how straightforward the rapper is with Jonze. He talks about everything, from problems with cocaine to getting head from a transvestite, and while he’s embarrassed, there’s also a sense of truth that’s almost never captured in traditional media. Its sense of regret and disappointment ends up suffusing the film with an unexpected darkness even with its hope for revival.

It’s noteworthy that Jonze’s technique in documentaries isn’t so avant garde, not nearly so compared with his music videos or films. Despite their verité-esque wish to capture everything and explore with world with a camera, what he does is actually not so dissimilar to Errol Morris. Both men just allow their subjects to talk, but while Morris relies upon a level of interrogation to get people’s stories out (literally calling his filmmaking apparatus “The Interrotron”), Jonze more or less makes friends with his subjects. By not presuming to judge them about anything, their stories flow naturally. This makes it impossible to hide the way they’re speaking not to the camera but to the man, but it also gives them a greater emotional depth. It’s much easier to see Jonze’s subjects as real people because that’s how he’s actually treating them while making his films.

As Where the Wild Things approaches its opening, Jonze has finally returned to the genre and released a couple of documentaries about the book’s writer/illustrator Maurice Sendak. Maurice at the World’s Fair came out in issue nine of Wholphin earlier this month. It’s a change of pace for Jonze not so much in the interview style, but that he added recreations to demonstrate what Sendak is saying. Sendak explains why visiting the fair was such a formative experience to him. It’s pretty trifling compared with his other documentaries, but very sweet to see.


Its interview is ultimately just an excerpt of a much longer documentary Jonze co-directed with Lance Bangs. Featured last night on HBO, Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak edits together a series of interviews Jonze, Bangs and Keener had with Sendak during the past year. Jump cuts and addresses to the cameramen are as common in it as in Jonze’s previous documentaries, but Tell Me Anything is different from his earlier works in how planned out the entire affair is. Camera work is still as agile and improvised as ever, but the interview itself is an affair predetermined by Jonze and Sendak and, because of this, lacks quite the familial feel of Jonze’s earlier works. For once, Jonze feels more like an interviewer than a companion—he’s just lucky enough that his relationship with the subject keeps this from interfering with the work as a whole.

What the film does best is turn Sendak’s somewhat mythological figure into a real human, cursing and ranting and full of life despite his fixation with death. Tell Me Anything is essentially about the importance of truth in storytelling, both to yourself about your own life and in the works you create. It’s not a perfect work, and its melodramatic music ends up jarringly opposed to the naturalism the rest of the film tries to capture, but it’s passionately made and still effective. Best of all, it’s worthy of Sendak.

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