Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (Jan. 2004)
The Golden Notebooks
A “Camera Obscura” column by Paul Cullum
CAMERA OBSCURA is a regular column examining the world and its lesser trafficked tributaries, recesses and psychic fallout through the filters of film, video and DVD.
DVDs/videos discussed in this column:
The Work of Director Spike Jonze (Palm)
The Work of Director Chris Cunningham (Palm)
The Work of Director Michel Gondry (Palm)
Schizopolis, directed by Steven Soderbergh (Criterion)
K Street, directed by Steven Soderbergh (HBO, not available on DVD/video)
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“There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.” —Franz Kafka
“One day I found a big book buried deep in the ground. I opened it, but all the pages were blank. Then to my surprise, it started writing itself….” —Bjork, “Bachelorette”
K Street is getting really good.
The half-hour HBO series, which just completed its initial 10-episode run, features a real James Carville and Mary Matalin at a fake D.C. lobbying firm on the real K Street inside the Beltway, with fake characters, real cameos and real events driving the plot. Working from sketched outlines by screenwriter Henry Bean, whose The Believer is the most politically provocative film in recent memory, each episode is directed, shot and edited by Steven Soderbergh five days before airtime in furious run-and-gun fashion, literally buzzing on instinct and the exquisite threat of failure.
When Soderbergh directed Schizopolis, his $250,000, quasi-incomprehensible, bilingual absurdist farce, virtually everyone was mystified. He rigorously defended the film at the time, citing the need for raw experimentation to reenergize his filmmaking. And with the effervescent Out of Sight, the almost Cubist The Limey and Oscars for Traffic and Erin Brockovich following it up, it’s hard to argue with him. More recently, the dismally received Full Frontal was, in retrospect, merely a working template for the callous immediacy, oblique editing and telegraphed detail of K Street, now much improved from the watertight op-ed pieces of its earliest installments.
The freedom to experiment and fail has been bred out of American movies—or, rather, reversed: filmmakers are free to experiment only after they fail, on their own time and their own dime. Studio fare has become largely critic-proof precisely by courting diminishing expectations, just so it can rise incrementally above them.
Which is one of the incidental pleasures of viewing the collected short works of music-video mainstays Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry, being released simultaneously on DVD through the Directors Label, an imprint at Chris Blackwell’s Palm Pictures. (Blackwell, whose Island Records brought reggae to an unwitting world, remains the consummate billionaire-fan—financing short-film magazine RES and the touring RESfest, or releasing the 10-hour Cremaster cycle.) Working from a shared lexicon, with often the same bands (Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers, Bjork), Gondry in France and Jonze as part of the crew at Satellite, the vanguard subsidiary of Propaganda, are credited with reviving the moribund music video form in the early ’90s. And the British Cunningham, with a pedigree that includes heading up the FX crew for David Fincher’s Alien 3 at 19 and doing animatronic design for Kubrick’s abortive A.I., is arguably the most famous filmmaker under 30 who hasn’t yet directed his own feature.
Viewed together, these compilations of music videos, short films, commercials and documentaries—each with a 52-page booklet of interviews, photos and drawings—all demonstrate a surprisingly coherent style, whose permutations may well play out over dozens of features. It’s easy to spot the world view of Jonze’s Being John Malkovich or Adaptation in Daft Punk’s “Da Funk,” in which a guileless innocent with a giant dog’s head and full leg cast hobbles his way around a Taxi Driver Manhattan, or the seeds of Michel Gondry’s Human Nature in the fairy-tale forest imagery of “Human Behavior” and his five other Bjork videos. (All three features are written by Charlie Kaufman, as is Gondry’s upcoming The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) And it’s fun to speculate how Jonze’s formal goofs might have informed Harold and the Purple Crayon or his upcoming Where the Wild Things Are, or how Gondry’s ambulatory cartoons might have presaged his Green Hornet, from a script by Robocop’s Ed Neumeier. Cunningham’s long-gestating Neuromancer, in particular, written with author William Gibson, which the Matrix trilogy is only the latest to desecrate the memory of, might have been an extrapolation of any number of his dread-filled universes on display—from the Manhattan where a crack addict’s limbs shatter like porcelain in Leftfield’s “Afrika Shox,” to the creepy Osaka Home for Mentally Disturbed Children in Squarepusher’s “Come on My Selector,” to the 2001-inflected assembly line in Bjork’s icy, autoerotic “All Is Full of Love.” Cumulatively, each seems like an accidental narrative, strangely driven by autobiography.
The Spike Jonze DVD, like its creator, is affable, garrulous, slightly ADD perhaps, but enthusiastic and generous to a fault. The former Adam Spiegel took his professional name from Spike Jones, the 1940s satirical big-band leader whose most famous hit was “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” to accommodate an already pronounced trickster ethic that would one day dream up Jackass. In addition to documentaries on Houston bullriders and Fatlip, formerly of the Pharcyde (who deserves a standing part in any future Spike Jonze film), there are 16 videos included (of the 40-plus he has directed). These are invariably conceptual one-offs (the Pharcyde rap backwards in “Drop”; Christopher Walken dances and flies in Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”; kids play Biggie and Puffy in “Sky’s the Limit”) or outright jokes (M.C. 900-Foot Jesus mails himself home in a box in “If I Only Had a Brain”; the Beastie Boys mix cop-show cliches in “Sabotage”).
This is the side of him apparent in Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You,” where “B-boy choreographer” Richard Koufay (actually Jonze himself) and the fictional Torrance Community Dance Troupe descend on the Mann Bruin Theater in Westwood for a live performance of stupefying execution—a conceit taken all the way to a performance at the MTV Music Awards (dutifully chronicled in a third half-hour documentary, where emcee Chris Rock can be heard saying, “Fatboy Slim? Looks more like White Boy Retarded.”) Along the way, we discover that’s Axl Rose getting off the bus as the guy runs by on fire in Wax’s “California”; that the dancing mailbox in Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” (the inspiration for Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark) is the voice of Ernie on Sesame Street; and that Anson Williams (Potsie on Happy Days) refused to appear in Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” video (which places the band inside a composited episode) until David Geffen wrote him a personal letter.
Cunningham’s DVD is darker, colder and vastly more cerebral—the mimetic equivalent of Goya’s famous title “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (depicting a collapsed poet beset by bat-winged cormorants). Like J.G. Ballard, Cunningham returns repeatedly to images of council flats, industrial landscapes, eroticized technology and human anatomy, particularly its numerous pathologies. Originally trained as a painter and sculptor, he worked for several years as an illustrator for Britain’s 2000 A.D. comics before specializing in prosthetics and then robotics–in his words, “the evolution from flesh to machine.”
But it’s his two videos for Aphex Twin, aka Richard D. James, that are his masterworks. “Come to Daddy,” against an onslaught of harsh industrial drones and urban collapse, uses ghostly video images and gangs of angry children, all of them with James’ bearded face superimposed, to sustain a deep irrational fear—tapping into the same disturbing imagery as Don’t Look Now or Cronenberg’s The Brood, or the same sudden terror that David Lynch used to access so effortlessly. Following up with “Windowlicker,” his stated effort “to make a more commercial video for Aphex,” he opens on a strident parody of hip-hop stereotypes, rolling in a low-slung convertible on the freeways of downtown L.A., where two players are well into the launch trajectory of an incessant monologue that employs, by my count, 47 “niggas,” 21 “motherfuckers,” 11 “bitches” and 21 free-floating “fucks”—it starts out, “I hope we find some motherfuckin’ bitches, nigga, man, I’m horny as a motherfucker, nigga—you know what I’m sayin’, nigga?” and progresses accordingly. Four minutes and 22 seconds into the video, everything screeches to a halt as a ridiculously long stretch limo displaces them in frame and disgorges Aphex Twin, who performs a crotch-grabbing, pirouetting dance with parasol—ZZ Top meets Michael Jackson—leaving the gentlemen and their two prospective consorts to stare in wide-eyed wonder. (Also intriguing is a teaser for Rubber Johnny, a powerless figure with a giant head in a wheelchair, described by Variety as “a live-action underground comic about a guy who lives with a mean dog.”)
By contrast, everything in Gondry’s endlessly inventive body of work can be summed up in the title of the 80-minute documentary he prepared especially for the DVD: I Have Always Been 12. Combining the technical and conceptual, he fashions a row of dancers into a live-action video effect in the Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be,” somehow forces the industrial imagery from the window of a commuter train into the rhythms of their “Star Guitar,” creates a split-screen symmetrical Moebius strip of continuous action in Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water,” replicates the White Stripes in Legos in “I’m in Love with a Girl” and then makes them into stop-action human time-trails in “The Hardest Button to Button.” A born inventor (his grandfather, Constant Martin, invented one of the earliest synthesizers, the Clavioline, which can be heard on the Beatles’ “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”), he is constantly shown attaching wires to Bjork’s fingers to create a keyboard-triggered Spirograph or scratching into the groove of a record and yelling, then playing back his own voice. (Bjork is clearly the unsung hero here, having discovered Gondry, championed the others early on and introduced them all to each other. At their L.A. premiere at the Egyptian Theater, Bjork was the guest deejay.)
Gondry’s images seem mostly rooted in a pre-adolescent scatology and the fear of sex: The disc includes animations about farting and a short film where David Cross plays a life-size, papier-mache turd. (Even the name of his former band, Oui Oui, is a homophone for urination.) And according to his mother, four times a week between the ages of five and nine, Michel had the same nightmare, where the letter I enters the letter U. As George Carlin once said about the train going into the tunnel at the end of North by Northwest, “You don’t have to be Fellini to figure that one out.” In fact, much of Gondry’s raw material appears undigested from his dreams. Actively ridiculing Freud (even as his work resembles an open case study), he attributes a survival function to dreaming: Natural selection has carried it through half a billion years to release deep forgotten emotion at night, which re-bonds monogamous mates every morning, thus preserving the structure of the family across the millennia.
Dave Grohl, whose Foo Fighters video for “Everlong” features a couple’s dueling dreams, recounts how Gondry justified the giant prosthetic hands he was forced to wear by admitting he was once plagued by similar nightmares.
“It was insane and ridiculous and inane,” says Grohl in the documentary, “and it didn’t seem like it made any sense. But then after he explained it to me, I thought… Maybe every one of his videos is some crazy nightmare or phobia or something inside of him that he’s afraid to tell anybody else, and he just makes videos or puts it into film. It’s a head trip.”
In raptures it will writhe before you.
A second trilogy of discs from Mark Romanek (One-Hour Photo), Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) and Sanji (Propaganda) is reportedly in the works.
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DVDs/videos courtesy of Cinefile, the official video store of Arthur. Contact Cinefile at (310) 312-8836 or http://www.cinefilevideo.com.