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Force Majeure

Little fights turn into big fights when couples use their emotions as weapons —Marty Mapes (review...)

An avalanche is a Force Majeure

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The ever-hip Palm Pictures has a great idea: feature a series of amazing, visionary young directors, and make a DVD of their lesser-known short work. Show their music videos, their commercials, their pet projects, and their student films.

If volume one (Spike Jonze) is any indication, Palm Pictures is on to something big.

Keeping Up with Jonze

Late for my bus: Spike Jonze is on fire
Late for my bus: Spike Jonze is on fire

The name Spike Jonze may have first reached wide audiences in 1999, with the release of Three Kings, in which Jonze plays the squeaky-voiced G.I. who doesn’t really have a job back home. Jonze had been working in music videos and commercials, but he hadn’t yet made Being John Malkovich, his first feature film. His second feature was last year’s much-praised Adaptation.

But if you’ve only known Jonze since 1999, you know very little. Throughout the 90s, Jonze was breaking new ground in music videos. Some notable examples are The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, in which the band play cheesy cop-show cops, The Pharcyde’s video shot backwards, and Weezer’s video that uses footage from Happy Days.

Even if you’re familiar with Jonze’s videos, The Work of Director Spike Jonze is a great way to see them. Uninterrupted by veejays and acne cream commercials, Jonze’s style really comes out.

The DVD has commentary by many of the stars who worked with Jonze, from The Beastie Boys to Christopher Walken. It’s interesting that they almost all agree on why Jonze is so good. They all say that he is easy and fun to work with. He’s just a regular guy, and totally approachable.

Far from putting Jonze on a pedestal, The Work of Director Spike Jonze demystifies him. He’s not a freak or a mad genius, but a creative, determined, bold yet humble filmmaker.

Music Videoze

Just what is Spike Jonze’s style? First, you start with an interesting cinematic idea, like shooting in reverse, or shooting slow motion of double speed, or “amateur night.” Add in a good dose of humor, and make sure everyone is having fun. Put it all together and voila, instant music video masterpiece.

For the band Wax, Jonze made a full-length video from 12 seconds real-time, shot in super slow motion. It’s a single, continuous take, and it features a man on fire running for his bus on a street corner in L.A.

Jonze also shot a video for The Notorious B.I.G.. It’s a relatively straightforward rap video featuring gold chains, mansions, scantily clad females, and on-camera rapping. But Jonze shot the video posthumously. He did it by casting lookalike kids to play B.I.G., Puffy, and Li’l Kim, much like the movie Bugsy Malone.

Some of the music videos are bland, like The Beastie Boys’ Sure Shot. But watch the commentary and you’ll find something interesting about the production. In the case of Sure Shot, it was shot in a single day, practically on a whim, and on private property where they shouldn’t have been filming.

Jonze’s other trick, appreciated by artists like Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers, is that he is willing to make videos with little or no participation from the artist. Praise You featured Jonze and the Torrance Community Dance Troupe doing amateur hip-hop dance moves at a movie theater premiere. Weapon of Choice features Christopher Walken dancing through a hotel. He also directed the Chemical Brothers’ video for Electrobank. It features a gymnast — played by his girlfriend filmmaker Sofia Coppola — continuing her routine in spite of an ankle injury.

Shorts and Documentarieze

The DVD includes several short films by Jonze. Most look as though they were made for film school. They seem to be practice reels, and none are very memorable.

There are, however, two excellent documentaries that deserve notice. While in Texas to shoot a commercial, Jonze spent a day with some young teenaged bull-rider hopefuls. Amarillo by Morning features conversations with the kids as they drive out to their secret practice bull — a barrel suspended by very strong bungee cords and springs. They take turns riding while their friends work the springs with all their might.

The most interesting film is an interview with rapper Fatlip, formerly of the Pharcyde.

Jonze offered to make the video for What’s Up Fatlip after he heard the introspective lyrics. The video itself is intriguing because it is self-deprecating. Jonze opens with Fatlip in a clown suit, getting punched in the crotch by his nephew. The video features a dejected Fatlip in one embarrassing situation after another — selling used cars, getting jacked by 8-year-olds while riding his bike, and dancing on the sidewalk in front of a nightclub wearing only a trench coat, a diaper, and a gallon of cheap wine.

The story behind the video is the subject of What’s Up Fatlip, a 30-minute documentary Jonze made while working on the video. Jonze and Fatlip developed a rapport during these days. Jonze just turned on the camera and asked Fatlip about his life. His story is probably typical of rap stars, and he is refreshingly frank and humble for someone in the entertainment industry. Fatlip tells Jonze about the humiliation he felt when his girlfriend turned out to be a transvestite. Fatlip seems to have gone through some post-fame soul-searching and is now wistful and wise, traveled and mature. After the documentary, you want to know even more about Fatlip and you can’t help but wish him well.

Picture and sound

Some of the music videos originated on video, not film, and so the picture quality may vary from video to video. But the DVD presentation is excellent. It may help that the material is encoded on two sides, rather than compressed and crammed onto one.

DVD Extras

The entire disc is made of “extras,” so it’s hard to separate bonus features from the actual content. Nevertheless, Palm has included three previews of other titles in its library. Two of them are for the other discs in the Directors Series, featuring Chris Cuningham and Michel Gondry. These previews show just enough of their work to pique your interest. Both directors are clearly visionary. A quick glimpse at a ghoul screaming at an old woman, or a man hefting a car as he casually walks down the street makes me want to see more.

The DVD also comes with a substantial, 52-page booklet featuring a very long interview with Spike Jonze that spans his entire career.

Conclusion

The Work of Director Spike Jonze is an exhaustive account of Jonze’s early career. There are videos that didn’t make the disc, and I’m sure there are short films that may someday be lost to obscurity, but all of his career-shaping work is there.

The DVD isn’t just a catalogue, it’s also a portrait. The audio commentaries and on-screen interviews with the professionals who have worked with Jonze fill in the cracks. They offer insights about Jonze that he himself probably couldn’t offer.

Not every video on this collection as good as the next, but overall this DVD is outstanding.

I can’t wait to see The Work of Director Michel Gondry and The Work of Director Chris Cunningham. Thanks, Palm Pictures. Well done.