DVD REVIEW: DIRECTORS SERIES VOL. 1 (PALM PICTURES) -Gondry, Cunningham, Jonze

25 Apr

jonze-cunningham-gondry-set21

 

This box set from Palm Pictures brings together three of the world’s most interesting and innovative video directors. Featuring over ten hours of content plus three well-produced booklets, it offers great insight into the creative process for both the casual observer and  film obsessive. Though the individual DVDs have been around for five years it’s still inspiring viewing. It’s the work of video auteurs like Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham that makes Rage a  joy to watch and leaves most other clips look half-baked and lazy.  What comes across from these directors is their desire to express something truly interesting and new, which melds sound with vision in  a way that enhances both. They are all engaged in the realm of ideas and masters at distilling these abstractions into beautifully concise  stories – perfect for those with three-and-a-half-minute attention  spans. In the process of watching we learn four rules: take risks, learn to deal with failures, collaborate with people you respect, and  believe in your creative vision. 

Despite this shared approach, the directors contained in this box set are distinctly different and their union is unusual, but fitting. I imagine them like three high school friends, who are all social  outcasts, and manage to find a bond through their disunity. Spike Jonze is the friendly, energetic one, full of positivity, and quite nerdy. Chris Cunningham is the semi-genius with a dark, brooding, saturnine edge which alienates him from most people; a talented  eccentric with an uncompromising nature. Michel Gondry is the French exchange student with limited English but an active and infectious imagination which somehow manages to breakdown communication barriers.  Slightly aloof, he comes alive around like-minded people, those with a passion for creation expression. 

Each of the videos includes at least one commentary from the artists,  which offer some great anecdotes about the location shooting and the collaborative process as well as some great pointless information (For example we learn that Ernie from Sesame Street plays the dancing post  box in Bjork’s Its all so quiet video).  Interviewees include Daft-Punk members Thomas Bangalter & Guy-Manuel De Homen-Christo, Weezer, Chemical Brothers, J. Mascis from Dinosaur Jnr, Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim), Bjork, and the enchantingly eccentric freak that is Christopher Walken (I think this man must have taken a lot of acid in his time). What comes across in all these interviews is that Jonze is a really nice person and easy to work with.  The ever-ridiculous P.Diddy (or whatever he’s called now), reveals that Spike Jonze is like a teddy bear that you want to take home and  cuddle. The Beastie Boys interviews are disappointing and, as much as I love their early albums, this release highlights that they are neither witty nor very interesting. Compounding this is a forty-minute section where they comment on all Spike’s videos like three of your most muffled-brained, stoner friends. In contrast, the short feature detailing how the word bending antics of the Pharcyde clip were achieved is fantastic. 

 

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click for bigger image

 

 

The amalgamation of a director’s work on a DVD allows you to discern patterns in their approach. The source of Spike Jonze’s ideas seems to come from four, overlapping areas. The first is guerrilla film-making, such as Praise You for Fatboy Slim, which utilised hidden cameras and open locations to achieve documentary aesthetic in which the reactions of ordinary people, and the artists themselves, are an important and appealing element of the video.  The second is the use of elaborate dance sequences, which we see in Weapon of Choice (Fatboy Slim) featuring Christopher Walken calmly leaping around an empty hotel with dream-like abandon. The third, and one which shares a lot in common with Michel Gondry’s work, is the use of twisted logic. Amongst others, this approach gives us Pharcyde rapping an entire song backwards (which is then played in reverse producing a disjuncture with synced lyrics with impossible body movement). And the final element is the pillaging of pop-cultural tropes, which allows Weezer to play in a perfect reproduction of the diner from Happy Days for their song Buddy Holly, and the Beastie Boys to impersonate donut scoffing ’70’s cops for the always funnySabotage video. These elements can be combined, such as Bjorks It’s all so quiet, which has seemingly everyday people suddenly break out into a highly choreographed and unified dance sequence (twisted logic + elaborate dance sequence).

As well as the Video Clips, the DVD includes some short films and three fascinating and varied documentaries by Jonze. The best of which, Amarillo by Morning, sees Jonze spending a day with two suburban teenagers from Houston who dream of being cowboys. Also of note is the documentary on burnt out, ex-Pharcyde member, Fatlip, which offers a tragic insight into a foolish man who lost himself in fame, and ended up alienated from his friends, with no money or career prospects. Jonze deals with the subject with a sensitive and non-judgemental approach that enables Fatlip to feel comfortable and open up. It’s this unassuming and humble manner that serves as Spike’s greatest asset, and this comes across repeatedly from artists who have worked with him, and been set on fire by him.

cunningham2Chris Cunningham is far different, almost at a polar opposite to Jonze in both temperament and output. While the work of the latter is often playful and colourful, Cunningham’s videos centre on darker themes. The fluidity and tension between the freakishness of the body and humanness of technology are explored, often to dramatic effect. An example is Africa Shox (Leftfield) where a distressed African man stumbles around an alienating urban landscape losing body parts and watching helplessly as they shatter on the concrete, while unsuccessfully seeking help from disinterested citizens.

Also included on this DVD is the video that first exposed most people to Cunningham’s work, the urban nightmare of Come to Daddy (Aphex Twin). In this genuinely unsettling film clip, children with adult faces permanently locked in a malicious smile, terrorise the unfortunate occupants of a derelict housing estate and give birth to an 8-foot demon using television. The harshness, raw impact and portrayal of the satanic characters (who make the Droogs from Clockwork Orange look like cub scouts) saw this video banned from US MTV. His work jars with sterile cheeriness of ordinary representation. Particularly frightening to the establishment is how eagerly it delves into the abyss and haunts the corners of the human psyche. Cunningham is a director in love with, or at least fascinated by, his dark side and the dystopic possibilities for society and the individual and, unlike most others, is prepared to give it screen time.

Windowlicker (Aphex Twin) is Cunnigham’s most outstanding video. Not since Micheal Jackson’s Thrillerhas such an amazingly cinematic blend of horror, and faultless choreography been present in a music clip. Successful on many levels, it explores egotism, eroticism, and the sexual exploitation contained within a large number of MTV videos. It manages merge Richard D. James’s chaotic sound and vision to near perfection. The familiar sight of gyrating bikini models is disrupted by monstrous prosthetic faces, de-stabilising the unimaginative representation of beauty repetitively used in conventional video-clips. This, combined with the fact the video runs for over 10 minutes, (silent for the initial three minutes) while containing more expletives than a drunk uncle at Christmas, makes it totally incompatible for music television. It’s clear that Cunningham is comfortable not tailoring his work to a preconceived design.

Bjork is the one artist that all three of the featured directors have worked with and, as with Gondry and Jonze, Cunningham’s effort (All is full of Love) is a magnificent success. Is there something about Bjork’s music that makes for excellent music videos? The tone for this clip is more uplifting than the majority of Cunningham’s work. With affecting delicacy, he explores the theme of the transcendental possibilities of unbounded love that are contained within the lyrics of the song. However in typical Cunningham style, it is not human love that is the focus, but the uncomfortable possibility of an extreme form of artificial, robotic sexuality. The union in the 2001-inspired, white design, is disconcertingly poignant despite the controlling attention of the surrounding robots, and it fits the music perfectly.

chriscunningham1Cunningham’s offering is the lesser of the three, content-wise, fitting his selection of 10 videos, advert work and short films onto a single DVD. It is disappointing, but perhaps unavoidable, that the DVD contains Cunningham’s most well known videos, it would have been interesting to see some more obscure videos than this oft-played selection. Also sorely lacking is an audio commentary from the allusive director. The booklet partially fills this function with Q & A’s on each of the music videos featured on the DVD as well as photos and Cunningham’s Giger-esque illustrations of dysmorphic and sexually intertwined bodies. Unfortunately, Cunningham comes across as aloof. The interviews only manage to skim the surface in their exploration of how the videos came about. What is made apparent is how disorganised and compromised much of his work is. For example, the setting and narrative for the inspired Come on My Selector (Squarepusher), which features an elaborate escape from a Japanese childrens’ mental asylum, only came about at the 11th hour, replacing the original intention of a hyper violent slapstick Tom and Jerry style cartoon. However, Cunningham is refreshingly frank throughout in detailing mishaps and his admissions of the disappointment he and the artists felt with some of the videos.

Given the high standard of his output, it is strange that a director like Cunningham should be disappointed with his work, and he has since declared an intention to no longer direct videoclips (Sheena is a Parasite for the Horrors being his last contribution). Perhaps it is one of the pitfalls of having such a visionary approach; the reality doesn’t always fit with the idea or mental visualisation.

michel-gondryWhen interviewed about his videos Michel Gondry admits to experiencing a similar kind of frustration. Often using elaborate trick photography which he has devised himself, and shooting the entire clip in one take, it’s very easy for things to go awry or become tangled in knots. It is a testament to the skill, patience and bravery of Gondry that he has managed to succeeded in filming such conceptually hazardous work. These clips are a joy to watch and the DVD format is perfect for figuring out exactly how he did them. 27 clips are included on the double sided disc, featuring The White Stripes, Bjork, Beck, the Rolling Stones, Daft Punk, Massive attack and Gondry’s own band, Oui Oui.

Bringing the diverse collection of clips and short films together on this double-sided DVD is a fascinating documentary I’ve Been 12 Forever which centers around a revealingly personal interview between Michel Gondry and his mother. It explores his upbringing, insights, creative approach and short interviews with all the relevant musical artists and allows you to shortcut straight into whichever video is being discussed. Michel Gondry obviously relishes the opportunity to talk about his work and is generous and open in detailing his complicated and always innovative approach. The beautifully presented booklet opens up this further, featuring illustrations, photography, interviews and original ‘treatments’ (storyboards) of some of the video-clips.

Gondry expresses a playful and childlike view of the world in his work but underwrites it with meticulous planning, orchestration and ambition. We see this in the six videos completed for Bjork, often dealing with foundational themes of love and the self, and in Daft Punk’s Around the World, where colourful, costumed characters represented each element of the music through choreographed dance moves. For the ingenious Sugar Water (Cibo Matto) clip, Gondry draws his ideas from the palindrome, a word which can be read both ways, and splits the screen in two with one scene running forward and one backwards. At the middle point of the song they intersect perfectly revealing a hidden message and flipping the direction of each scene. The one playing forward now plays backwards and vice versa. My mind is melting just thinking about it, but making it would have been an even bigger headache.

The DVD also features couple of excellent short films and some of Gondry’s innovative commercials. La Lettre is a sweet tale of first love, shot in black and white which mixes naturalism with surreal touches.One Day, featuring Gondry in the lead role, is a humorously bizarre film that deals with his relationship with his poo (played by David Cross) and explores the question, what if your shit could talk? What sort of personality would it have? And how would you deal with its presence? The three adverts are also well chosen, of particular note is the commercial for Smirnoff, a colourful, perspective rollercoaster ride that pioneered the bullet-time effect used in the Matrix movies.

 

Michel Gondry

Michel Gondry

Though the term genius is often too liberally applied to those in the music industry, with Gondry it seems justified. He has been an artist in residence at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won an academy award for his film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, shown amazing skill and determination and has been prolific in his output, traversing and experimenting with diverse approaches such as stop-motion, sculpture, illustration and live action. The work he produces is always of a standard far beyond the majority of his peers, and pushes the boundaries of what can be done within the video-clip medium. He also comes across as humble, receptive and curious with a constant desire to develop further. It’s hard to not appreciate the ease with which ideas seem to spill from Gondry and it’s exciting to have people like him around to see what they will come up with next, in the meantime you can view his latest videos, including Beck and Kayne West, on Youtube. However, in comparison to your life, Gondry’s high level of inspiration may make you feel like you work in a can factory and live in a grey concrete home.

 

This boxed collection is a hard one to fault. Considering video-clips are really just extended adverts for a band, it’s a remarkable achievement that this collection should warrant essential purchase. However, these three directors show that it’s possible to take the commercial and marketing imperative motivating the creation of these clips and use it to create something beautiful, spectacular, thought-provoking and even touching. Utilising the blunt funds of the big, undiscriminating record companies, Cunningham, Jonze and Gondry have all created interesting, artistic, and wildly creative narratives which are likely to preserve their quality and uncompromising vision over time.

Ronan MacEwan

(First published 2006)

Chris Cunningham:

Michel Gondry: {website}

Spike Jonze:

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3 Responses to “DVD REVIEW: DIRECTORS SERIES VOL. 1 (PALM PICTURES) -Gondry, Cunningham, Jonze”

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