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.
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
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
(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
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.
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.